M. Tahir Kilavuz, roundtable organizer and PhD candidate in political science at the University of Notre Dame

The Arab Uprisings led not only to upheaval in domestic politics in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) but also to a change in the regional power balance. The so-called “counter-revolutionary states” of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt on the one hand and the camp that is more amenable to Islamists comprised mainly of Qatar, Turkey, and their Islamist allies on the other hand have been competing for regional upper-hand since 2011. Yet, on occasion, these two rival groups stand together against what is sometimes referred as “axis of resistance” of Iran, Syria, and Hizbullah. The rivalries between the two camps gained prominence during certain periods and events such as the 2013 coup in Egypt, devastating conflicts in Syria and Yemen, political crises in Libya and Tunisia, and finally in the 2017 blockade of Qatar by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Among many other factors, the shifts in the regional political order have a significant effect on the Islamist movements that experienced both successes and failures since 2011. How exactly do the changes in the regional order affect the Islamist movements? Do the international factors have a more salient impact than the local contexts? What should we expect from the future of political Islam in the MENA?

To answer these questions, we brought together leading scholars who study political Islam in different parts of the MENA and organized a roundtable in which they discussed the future of Islamist movements. The roundtable features contributions from Stacey Philbrick YadavPeter MandavilleCourtney FreerFrancesco Cavatorta, and Samer Shehata.

The contributions of the participants reflect a divide on the impact of international and domestic factors in shaping political Islam. For Mandaville and Freer, domestic factors matter more and varying conditions by cases may lead to diverging outcomes for the Islamist movements across the region. However, Shehata and Cavatorta emphasize that international factors stemming from the changing regional order should not be underestimated. They both point out that domestic instability may have a spillover effect on the international system and create opportunities for international actors to meddle in domestic politics, thereby affecting the Islamist movements in different contexts. Yet, Philbrick Yadav reminds us about recursivity and adapts a middle ground stance, proposing that the search for a clean distinction between the causal impact of domestic and international factors is more a function of the dominance of the methodological approach of political scientists, rather than reflecting empirical realities on the ground. In fact, empirical reality is messier and, as Mandaville puts, it is “particularly difficult to identify stable causal relationships among the many factors in play.”

Despite their differences on an analytical level, the contributors agree on the survival and adaptation of the Islamist movements going forward. As Shehata puts it, “the question is not ‘is Islamist politics dead’ but what will Islamist politics look like?” In an increasingly fragmented Islamist field, there emerge three lines of arguments to explain the factors that will continue to affect the future of Islamism:

1) The international factors will remain important; the regional rivals will try to strengthen or weaken several Islamist movements. Shehata recounts, for example, how international powers meddled with the revolutions and affected the fate of the Muslim Brotherhood after 2011. Philbrick Yadav argues that following the money or following the guns is relevant to understand the impact of regional powers; she also states that destructive and reconstructive polarization will have a lasting role in the region. By proposing that relatively positive experiences of Islamists in the North Africa may create a demonstration effect, Cavatorta proposes another potential international influence.

2) The domestic conditions of the regimes will shape the future of Islamists, which is why trajectories of the Brotherhood-affiliated movements vary from case to case. The regimes do try to survive and define the political space and the level of repression for Islamists based on their self-interests. These factors will define Islamists’ strategies going forward. Freer emphasizes that as domestic security environments become more restricted, it is more likely to see cross-ideological coalitions, however challenging it may be to forge these coalitions.

3) Finally, the Islamists’ choices will have an impact on their future. Cavatorta asserts that focusing on voters will be crucial for Islamists going forward; if they prioritize voters’ demands, they will be more likely to win. Furthermore, Mandaville draws our attention to the importance of what youth understands of Islamism. For him, the youth will determine whether the classical understanding of Islamism will prevail or Islamism will function “as little more than a nebulous aspiration.”

Following the first round of initial reflections on the current regional order and its analytical impact on Islamist movements, in the second round of responses the participants engage with one-another and further discuss the future of Political Islam in the MENA.