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.

Round One Responses

Stacey Philbrick Yadav, associate professor of political science, Hobart and William Smith Colleges:

Writing about Islamism in 2018 is fundamentally different than it was a decade ago. Then, our research focused on the electoral strategies of semi-tolerated Islamist opposition parties, the welfare work of broad-based social movements, and the ideational vs. instrumental foundations of Islamist alliances with non-Islamists. None of these areas of inquiry have gone away, but the form and function of Islamist organizations in the region has diversified and tracking the relationship(s) between Islamists and the state (or specific states) has become significantly more challenging. Foremost among the changes that account for this are intraregional polarization and the role of transnational patronage, which jointly offer both opportunities and constraints for Islamist organizations. The fragmentation and organizational dispersion of diverse Islamist groups has created a kind of “market” in which client-seeking regimes position for power, profit, and influence.

This fragmentation of the Islamist field may have originated in the aftermath of 2011, but it certainly accelerated after the 2013 coup against Mohammed Morsi. While Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood by no means exercised any kind of monopoly over Islamist politics in the region, the diminution of its symbolic (and material) power since 2013 and the subsequent campaign of suppression in Egypt and in the Gulf has left the field of Islamist politics in many states more militant, less organized, and more subject to a polarized regional environment in which Islamists find themselves needing to respond to domestic and transnational constraints alike.

One of the defining features of post-2013 regional polarization has been its equivocal relationship to state power–and, by extension, to different forms of Islamist organization. The major actors seeking out patronage relationships with various Islamist groups today are state-based (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, Qatar, and Turkey, in no particular order), but the material and symbolic patronage relationships that they forge range from those with other states and the regimes that order them, to ties to transnational organizations, to non-state, often ephemeral groups that one can barely call organizations. Among the Sunni-majority states, there does not appear to be any clear preference by dominant powers for one type of alliance over another, nor does the ideological basis of these relationships seem uniform–some states are more consistent in their ideological aims, but others far less so. In different countries in the region, for example, Saudi Arabia invests substantial resources in support of anti-Islamist regimes, Islamist republicans with ties to the Brotherhood, and salafi organizations that pose an ideological challenge to both of these. Iran certainly appears to focus its patronage on Shi’i organizations, but there is still considerable ideological distance between Islamist republicanism of the Iranian regime, the politico-religious claims of the Houthis, or the sectarian but secular étatism of the Assad regime in Syria.

From an empirical standpoint, scholars have at least two different ways in which to map this regional polarization: by following the money, or by following the guns. In neither case does a clear and coherent pattern of regional relationships emerges, aside perhaps from the case of Iran. When we follow the weapons, it is clear that patron states are offering military support for a variety Islamists and staunch anti-Islamists actors alike. This is what we might call the destructive work of regional polarization, fueling ongoing conflict across the region.

The flow of aid and investment, however, is more uniformly state-centric and anti-Islamist, and constitutes a kind of reconstructive polarization. In short, the reconfiguration of alliances and the physical destruction that these relationships often enable goes hand-in-hand with a polarized and politicized process of rebuilding that promises to create a new regional reality. To the extent that Islamist organizations are likely to play a role in this reconstructive work, it seems more likely that this system will reward those who participate in power-sharing governments, but many of the groups best positioned to do so have seen their domestic positions weakened by ongoing armed conflict and competition with militant Islamist organizations. Importantly, this deconstructive/reconstructive dynamic is unfolding not “outside” of international institutions, but under the cover provided by sustained multilateral paralysis, particularly at the UN level. Western hubris notwithstanding, this suggests that it is the Gulf more than any other actor or set of actors that is poised to remake the region in the coming years.

This makes understanding the politics of the ongoing Gulf crisis even more pressing. The Trump Administration’s reversals and internal contradictions in regard to the Gulf crisis last summer encouraged regional actors to dig in their heels and adopt medium-term policies that will entrench the rivalry between Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, especially. Different Gulf actors have pursued different strategies in the wake of the crisis, from Qatar’s expansive citizenship reforms and efforts to attract and retain Western investment, to Saudi Arabia’s Western-facing “charm offensive.” The United Arab Emirates’s quiet investments and changing policies in Yemen and along the Red Sea coast up and to the Mediterranean suggest that the dissolution (in fact, if not in letter) of the Gulf Cooperation Council will exacerbate intra-Gulf economic and military rivalries and give these states even more reason to seek influence over their regional neighbors.

It would be tempting to read this as an exclusively material story. However, the emergent UAE-Saudi rivalry is, of course, not without an ideological dimension, and here one can circle back to the role of Islamism and the changing position of the Brotherhood, specifically. While Saudi Arabia supports an anti-Brotherhood agenda in Egypt through its support for Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, it simultaneously works closely with members of the Brotherhood-aligned Islah party in Yemen. By contrast, the Emirates is quite ideologically consistent in its opposition to the Brotherhood across the region and at home, and Qatar supports the organization internationally because it has neutered it politically at home. The United Arab Emirates’s intolerance is at considerable tension with Saudi pragmatism, leading the former to support salafi militias as a counterweight to Islah-backed militias in Yemen. This has brought the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia closer to open conflict in an arena in which they are putative allies, and it delayed the possibilities for a negotiated peace in Yemen. In other words, even where ideology may play a smaller role than material factors in intraregional rivalries, it can still play some role in empowering (or disempowering) different Islamist organizations in ways that matter for local political outcomes.

A decade ago, writing about Islamists largely meant talking about well-organized institutions responding to rules set by entrenched authoritarian regimes. Today, the transnational politics of patronage by regional rivals plays at least as great a role. A fragmented Islamist field must now respond to the material (and moral) destruction of existing institutions and the demands of regional actors who appear poised to remake the region.

Peter Mandaville, professor of government and politics, Schar School of Policy and Government:

In the same way that some speak of “old Europe” and “new Europe,” I think it’s possible to think about today’s regional blocs in the Middle East as something like “old Middle East” and “new Middle East.” The former comprises a group of countries (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt—and I think we also need to include Israel, which makes it even more interesting) who would dearly love to recover a pre-2011 regional security order in which they felt very comfortable and for which they harbor considerable nostalgia today. This was basically a regional system enforced by the United States, and one in which Washington’s unwavering commitment to Riyadh, Cairo, and Tel Aviv was clear. The “new Middle East” group, on the other hand, includes several countries that have been pursuing greater independence in their foreign policy over the past decade. They have never de-coupled from their major alliances and patrons (e.g., Turkey remains in NATO while warming to Moscow; Qatar hosts US military facilities and works through the GCC even as it resists Saudi hegemony and explores a broader portfolio of regional partnerships), but have also demonstrated a willingness to improvise, hedge, and flexibly pivot in the face of what they recognize as highly fluid and rapidly evolving regional and global orders. This does not necessarily mean that the members of the respective blocs are diametrically opposed to each other on each and every issue–indeed, when it comes to Syria, for example, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Turkey are all broadly on the same page–but it does speak to the presence of rather different longer-term strategic worldviews.

Are ideological differences salient to this new regional division? I do not think so. After all, it would be hard to identify any shared ideology uniting Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Egypt. Rather, these two blocs have fundamentally different preferences with respect to the overall structure of regional security. However, we can certainly say that issues pertaining to specific ideological and religious groups are in play between the two blocs. One of them is clearly sympathetic to Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood variety while the other would prefer to see the Brotherhood eradicated as a social force in Arab societies.

Much of what we see today in the way of renewed and surging Sunni-Shi’a sectarian tensions are better understood as what Kamran Bokhari calls “geosectarianism”—that is, the Saudi-Iranian rivalry. But this competition has created a regional overlay with implications that reverberate across and within borders throughout the Middle East. We see it quite directly in the domestic politics of many countries: Saudi-Iranian jostling in both Iraq and Lebanon; Fatah-Hamas reconciliation and dynamics in the Israel-Palestine conflict more broadly; and of course, to horrific effect and an unspeakable humanitarian toll, in Yemen.

So how should we think about the future of Islamist movements in light of this new regional geopolitics, particularly since political orientation towards the Muslim Brotherhood is one of its defining issues? First of all, I think it is important to recognize that even as they experience unprecedented levels of political oppression in some countries, mainstream Islamist movements will continue to be an important force in societies across the Middle East for the foreseeable future. Regimes will continue to modulate their policies towards these groups based on how they perceive their own security and legitimacy. What this means is that while it may sound outlandish given where we are today, I do not think you can rule out a scenario in the future in which an embattled Sisi in Egypt strikes a deal with some faction of the Brotherhood to shore up his popular support. However, this would amount to little more than the continuation of the cat and mouse games between regimes and Islamists that we’ve been watching for decades.

As I see it, the more important question bearing on the future of Islamism in the region relates to the more fundamental issue of how young people understand and think about Islamism as a distinct form of ideology and activism. There are signs today that the underlying sociology of attraction to and affiliation with Islamist groups may be undergoing a profound change. Is it still even possible, as proponents of the post-Islamism thesis have been wondering for some time, to equate Islamism with a clear and tangible political agenda? Or are we reaching a point where, as Avi Spiegel suggests in Young Islam, Islamism functions as little more than a nebulous aspiration for something other than the prevailing political order? To my mind, it’s the answer to this question that will determine the future of Islamist movements in the Middle East–and certainly more so than today’s highly fluid geopolitics.
Courtney Freer, research officer at LSE Middle East Centre:

In the post-Arab Spring Middle East, regional blocs have increasingly coalesced around ideological poles, rather than purely strategic interests, perhaps as a consequence of perceived American retreat as the regional hegemon. The rise of Islamist groups over the course of 2011-2012 has also had a considerable impact on foreign policy objectives, especially since Islamist agendas like that of the Muslim Brotherhood have transnational roots. Although the present era is by no means the first instance in which foreign policy has been used to promote ideology, this practice seems to have accelerated with the isolation of Iran, fears of a Shi‘i controlled Iraq, and the onset of the Gulf crisis. Further, the American retreat from the region, whether perceived or genuine, has left more space for regional powers to come to the fore, with Saudi Arabia intensely focused on spreading its sphere of influence.

This recent focus on ideology, however, does not completely eliminate political pragmatism in the foreign policy realm. Indeed, we have seen shifting alliances depending on issue. For instance, enhanced relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel reflect shifting ideological concerns, with the Iranian threat considered more serious than the Israeli. Further, in light of the GCC crisis, states like Qatar and Turkey, traditionally understood to be driven by Islamist ideology, have become friendlier with Iran due to similar understandings of the regional balance of power. Personality-driven foreign policy of the type found in the Gulf states is particularly flexible, as demonstrated by the variety of stances taken on by countries at different times or even by a single country over time depending on political priorities.

While some analysts insist that regional events have affected domestic policies, I would posit that the inverse is true, with regional rivalries having played a relatively limited role compared to domestic political environments, especially when it comes to the treatment of Islamists. Indeed, it is no coincidence that those states most vehemently opposed to political Islam are the same ones in which Islamist movements were allied with political reform movements–Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Bahrain, the fourth member of the quartet isolating Qatar for its ties with Islamist groups, is an anomaly, since most opposition in that country comes from Shiite segments of the population for whom Brotherhood ideology is irrelevant, and since Bahrain is geopolitically too dependent on Saudi Arabia to risk diverging when it comes to Islamists.

Events like the coup in Egypt in 2013, the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, and talks of a unity government in Palestine can be considered part of a broader move towards the renunciation of political Islam on a regional level, yet it remains unclear how much support they have at a grassroots level. The Palestinian unity talks have more of an international angle, since a unity government would aid reconciliation efforts backed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States.

In my view, neither Islamist nor secularist forces are likely to meaningfully alter their priorities drastically in the face of new regional blocs. The trend of increased cooperation across ideological lines in the foreign policy sphere is likely to continue to emerge at the domestic level, wherein the tempering of Islamist agendas has helped unite cross-ideological opposition movements agitating for domestic political reform. As domestic security environments become increasingly restrictive, this cross-ideological cooperation becomes more likely, as we have seen most recently in Jordan.

Accordingly, I believe that Muslim Brotherhood affiliates throughout the Middle East, still the most relevant Islamist groups in the region, will continue to focus on their individual national environments, as these are the areas in which they are mostly likely able to effect change. Public renunciation of formal ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, as affiliated groups in Morocco and Tunisia have done, does not mean that such organizations do not continue to represent the ideas or political goals supported by the Muslim Brotherhood–particularly the Islamization of society. Even as the president of Bahrain’s Muslim Brotherhood tried to distance his organization from the central Brotherhood, he admitted that “it is the ideology we follow.” Islamist ideology of the type promoted by the Brotherhood thus remains influential, with members of the group in parliament in eight states of the Middle East, though the transnational structure affiliated with it has been on the decline for decades.

At the same time, Saudi Arabia under Mohammed bin Salman is very self-consciously focused on promoting so-called “moderate Islam” to stem the tide of international terrorism, with the United Arab Emirates similarly oriented. These policies, as I noted above, concern domestic policy more than regional dynamics, as they seek to separate religion and politics, and will continue to allow for the crackdown on potential sources of dissent. On the regional level, such a policy also allows for the continued isolation of Iran as a theocracy yet excuses greater cooperation with Israel.

And yet, the future of Islamist movements does not depend on regional events, as we have seen with the ebb and flow of Islamist movements in the past. In the face of regional, and even domestic threat, they move, go underground, and, ultimately, adjust, depending on domestic circumstance. While the brand itself may suffer, at least in the short to medium term, its ideology is not likely to become less important in the long term.

Those states in the region that have banned the Muslim Brotherhood, yet are not facing internal crisis (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates) will continue to link the movement, by virtue of its initially transnational aims, to terrorist organizations, which will also give them a wider remit to shut down other types of domestically powerful Islamist movements. In those states undergoing severe internal conflict (Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen), Muslim Brotherhood affiliates will continue to play a role in reconstruction yet they are more likely to be pulled into the violence, as are many non-Islamist actors in these states.

States in which openly Brotherhood-linked groups continue to participate in parliamentary elections (Algeria, Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, and Kuwait) will likely continue to afford these organizations freedom to do so, provided they do not contest a plurality of seats in parliament or become too closely linked to other elements of broader political opposition. The more crackdown results, the more likely cross-ideological coalitions will form and strengthen.

Ultimately, the localization of Islamist movements is likely to continue, making it more difficult for regional powers to speak about the transnational power of Islamism. As Islamist groups come to resemble political parties more than Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the moderate Islam approach may require greater tolerance of these groups in domestic and foreign policy contexts.

Francesco Cavatorta, professor of political science, Université Laval

I believe it is impossible to explain the Arab uprisings and their aftermath without examining the linkages that exist between domestic and international variables. Processes of regime change and regime building–whether successful or not–have often been examined through exclusively domestic variables because this is what the literature on democratization postulated for a number of years. However, it seems to me that regime change, as well as regime continuation, do not occur in a vacuum. Countries–through their domestic political, economic and social actors–have numerous linkages with the outside world, suggesting that there is a wide range of interests and preferences that can influence how domestic politics is conducted and develops. While the work of ToviasPridhamWhitehead, and Levitsky and Way among others dealt directly with the influence of international variables on processes of democratization, there is also a substantial body of work outlining the way in which international actors have contributed to the resilience of authoritarian rule and therefore to the survival of regimes with very little domestic legitimacy. In addition, there is a vast literature on the way in which globalization constrains the autonomy of domestic decision-making when it comes to institutional choices and economic-policy making.

All this to say that it would be indeed very surprising if there were no linkages between the domestic and the international arenas when it comes to the politics of the MENA. In fact, it would be interesting to see more work being published examining precisely such inter-connections and the way in which they produced the specific outcomes we witnessed and continue to witness. This is true not only in reasonably clear-cut cases such as Syria and Libya, but also in cases such as Tunisia or Morocco. International forces operate differently based on domestic conditions and in turn such domestic conditions influence international actors differently, but there is a link that needs to be further highlighted. It should also be mentioned that such link does not necessarily involve only state actors, but also a plethora of non-state ones, ranging from religious foundations to the media and from individual intellectuals to armed movements.

When it comes to the specific policies of regional and international actors currently active in the MENA, there indeed seem to be a degree of fluidity in the alliances that are struck, but it does not really involve that many actors. There is also a significant degree of continuity in the alliances and the policies undertaken. For instance, the Syria/Iran partnership is now in its fourth decade and the US/Saudi Arabia/Israel axis is also not a novelty. While Turkey seems to have adopted a more flexible attitude towards its long-established alliances, this is not necessarily the product of the Arab uprisings, as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s attempt to be more influential across the Arab world and distancing his country from Israel predate 2011. It is also true that Saudi Arabia is occasionally at odds with the other Gulf monarchies, but overall, they still enjoy the protection and friendliness of the United States, falling squarely in the latter’s camp.

One important aspect that needs to be underlined is the non-ideological nature of the alliances and regional blocs. While in the past one might have detected a degree of ideological affinity among partners, today this ideological aspect, it seems to me, has vanished. Regional actors are no longer credible when attempting to project an ideological dimension in their foreign policies and decisions. This non-ideological dimension of foreign policy making is not necessarily negative in theory–one would expect more rational/realist decision making. However, in the current context, regional regimes do not really defend any ideological position and are simply interested in their own survival, which generally equate with the survival of ruling elites. While ideological rhetorical devices are employed constantly, they have very little to no credibility and it seems to me that that they are just employed as a facade to disguise the real objective, which is the perpetuation of the elites in power. This leads them to make foreign policy-choices that are incredibly narrow, shortsighted and dangerous with the aim of simply undermining other actors in order to avoid their own internal collapse.

The use of sectarianism as a foreign policy tool, as Toby Matthiesen and other scholars have highlighted, is but one example of this. Who genuinely believes in the anti-imperialist rhetoric of Bashar al-Assad? Who really believes in the role of the Saudi King as the defender of the religious dogma? The construction of ad-hoc regional blocs, the fluidity of some alliances and the continuity of others all share one crucial element: the necessity to preserve power and privileges. The identification of potential allies abroad–whether state or non-state actors–is purely instrumental in undermining rivals abroad or advancing narrow interests and it does not reflect any real ideological commitment to a cause. While this is not new in general and in the region in particular, it is now the exclusive rationale for action.

I am not entirely sure on how this influences Islamism and Islamist politics more generally. To a certain extent the divisions we see among regional actors are also reflected in Islamist movements across the region, and there is a sort of feedback loop between the two sets of actors. Islamism broadly understood as a political force that conveys social and economic grievances and aspirations is unlikely to disappear and it is going to be transformed further in light of both domestic and international developments and their interactions.

There is, however, a worrying development and that is the sectarian discourse that the region is now witnessing. This, again, is not necessarily a novelty, but the level of vitriol is and subsequent actions undertaken in the name of sectarian differences have reached considerable levels of violence. At a conference in Florence in 2007 Ghassan Salamé argued that sectarianism in the Middle East was not the normal state of things, it was more like a fever that has to peak before it subsides. It has now been peaking for over a decade and the hope is that the fever is about to break. Looking at how some regional actors behave, we should not be so confident that it will indeed happen soon.
Samer Shehata, Colin Mackey and Patricia Molina de Mackey associate professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Oklahoma

2011 seems like a lifetime ago as so much has happened in the region over the last seven years. I would point to a number of major changes in regional politics and alignments since then.

First, before 2011, the primary fault line in the region was between so-called “moderate Arab states” and “radical” states and affiliated groups, sometimes referred to as the “axis of resistance.” The “moderate” camp included Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia (and the other Arab Gulf states), etc. while the “radical” camp consisted of Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hizbullah. In reality, there was very little that was “moderate” about the human rights practices, adherence to the rule of law, quality of elections, or level of democracy among the “moderate” states. Washington considered them “moderate” because of their alliance with the United States and their position toward Israel. In other words, the “radical states” opposed US policy in the region and Israeli hegemony. The primary division in the region, therefore, was orientation toward the United States and Israel.

The extent of political upheaval and civil war in the region since 2011 has been staggering and as a result the fault lines in the region today are more complicated and do not run along a single dimension. Periods of political instability provide greater opportunities–as well as greater incentives–to influence, meddle, and interfere in the “domestic” politics of neighboring states–and the region has witnessed much more of this in the post-2011 period. This is a second major change in regional politics.

When I look at the period since 2011, I see, first and foremost, a struggle between those states led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (along with their allies in various societies), mounting a “counter-revolution” against political change and democratic openings in the region, working tirelessly toward retrenching a new regional authoritarian status quo. These states stood against the 2011 Tunisian revolution and opposed the uprisings in Egypt and Bahrain. They actively worked to undermine Egypt’s brief moment of imperfect democracy between 2012-2013 and have spent billions after 2013 trying to consolidate a new Egyptian authoritarianism. They reject the prospect of political change elsewhere in the region, except in those states where they were either opposed to the existing regime (Libya, and now Qatar) or see opportunities to weaken Iran’s regional position (Syria).

Both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates viewed Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s and particularly Hosni Mubarak’s ouster as a direct threat to their own survival and both, particularly the United Arab Emirates, have an almost hysterical fear of the Muslim Brotherhood, which in the case of Riyadh also represents a challenge to the regime’s legitimacy, representing a different vision of Islam and politics, based on participation, elections, and the ideal of social justice–not monarchy.

Of course, layered on top of this is another regional divide between Riyadh and Tehran; one not based primarily on religion or sectarian identity (as is often depicted in the media) but on regime interests, playing itself out–often with disastrous consequences–in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and elsewhere. 

Implicit in the above is another noteworthy difference between the pre- and post-2011 periods. Although the regional center of gravity in the Middle East had been shifting from the traditional powers of Cairo, Baghdad, and Damascus to the Gulf capitals for several decades, this trend accelerated following the 2011 Arab uprisings. What has made this shift even more apparent over the last seven years is the (relatively) lower profile of the United States in the region since the George W. Bush presidency.

Although one can clearly discern “blocs” in the Middle East today, as I have outlined above, it would be mistaken to believe these “blocs” are united on all issues. One only need look to Saudi Arabia and Egypt and their differing positions on Syria, for example. Although Saudi Arabia has been one of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s primary backers, both politically and economically, and although both Saudi Arabia and Egypt also share a deep hostility toward Qatar, Cairo and Riyadh have very different positions on Syria–nor do they see eye-to-eye on Yemen. The Saudis oppose Bashar al-Assad and have funneled millions of dollars to violent Islamist groups in Syria fighting his regime. Sisi has a different perspective. Whereas the Saudis view Syria primarily as an opportunity to weaken Iran, Sisi sees it as a case of radical Islamists fighting a national army through terrorism. The Egyptian president views Syria through the lens of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist challengers while the Saudis see it through the prism of their rivalry with Iran.

As I mentioned earlier, periods of political instability and civil war are characterized by even greater involvement and interference in the domestic politics of one’s neighbors. We have seen this since 2011 and it is understandable (although not excusable) because political change and instability across borders threatens regime security. The stakes are higher. Again, there are greater opportunities–and incentives–for regional meddling.

We witnessed this in Egypt from the moment the uprising began until today. Even before Mubarak’s ouster, during the eighteen days of the uprising, the Gulf States, and particularly Saudi Arabia, attempted to shore up their ally, the embattled dictator, and secure his grip on power. The Saudis (and the Israelis) lobbied Washington to reduce its pressure on Mubarak. And when U.S. aid was discussed publicly as potential leverage against Mubarak and the Egyptian military, the Saudis offered to replace any US aid if it were cut.

After Mubarak’s ouster, Saudi Arabia’s and other Gulf states’ interference in Egyptian politics increased further. There was widespread speculation (and some reports) that huge sums of money were flowing into Egypt from the Gulf–billions of dollars–in support of the newly established Salafi parties. Many believe this also occurred in Tunisia. Gulf money into Egypt continued after Morsi was elected president in 2012. However, rather than going exclusively to Salafi parties, significant sums went to the Egyptian military and intelligence agencies to help finance the protest movement against the Muslim Brotherhood president.

When the protests-cum-coup against Morsi succeeded, the Gulf States immediately offered huge amounts of aid to the new regime. When one considers the overall amounts of money the Saudis and Emiratis have pumped into Egypt since the coup, the sums are staggering. I estimate US aid to Egypt from 1977 (Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem) to 2017 to be approximately seventy-five billion dollars, the majority of which was military aid. By comparison, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait have committed thirty-six billion dollars in aid and loans, 10.1 billion dollars in private sector investment, and concluded a twenty-three-billion-dollar oil deal with fifteen-year financing at two percent interest just since Morsi’s ouster in 2013. These amounts might not include additional money for military financing. US aid seems paltry in comparison.

Of course, Gulf aid to Egypt is not primarily intended to improve the quality of Egyptians’ lives but to keep Sisi in power and thus provide stability for the Saudi and Emirati regimes. It has even been reported that the Emirates has picked up the tab–to the tune of 2.7 million dollars–for the Egyptian regime’s lobbying efforts in Washington DC. The counter-revolution continues.

Round Two Responses

Stacey Philbrick Yadav, associate professor of political science, Hobart and William Smith Colleges

Revisiting the other contributions, I am struck by two powerful binaries that seem to underwrite our approaches, despite differences among them. One is the distinction between the domestic and the international, and the other between the material and the ideational. My concern is that speaking of  these as distinct variables that can be neatly isolated in causal explanation is arguably a methodological move among political scientists more than it is an empirical feature of the dynamics we are describing.

As Brotherhood ideas have spread transnationally, been localized and reworked, been institutionalized in different forms, been debated in local idioms, etc., should we understand these ideas as shaped by domestic or international political influences? Do the “same” ideas expressed in different contexts mean the same thing?  When I read a biography of Hassan al-Banna in the pages of al-Sahwa in Sana’a in the early 2000s, did that convey the same message as a similar biography published in Cairo on the eve of Morsi’s election? Did it do the same work? When members of Islah met with Egyptian Brothers in Doha during Yemen’s transitional process, did this mark (simply/only) the spread of Egyptian Islamism across territorial borders? These are just a few prosaic (but real) examples of the conceptual messiness of the domestic/international distinction at the level of ideas.

It might seem like the domestic/international distinction is less messy when we talk about material factors, since flows of aid and investment do move across space in identifiable ways. Here, I would tend to agree with Samer Shehata that domestic struggles fueled the tumult that invited or even incentivized international influences. But Francesco Cavatorta reminds us of the role of a more amorphous process of “globalization” occurring outside of or alongside the interests of specific allies or blocs in the region or beyond. This brings to mind the wide literature on the role of satellite media and later social media as forms of resource mobilization in specific local struggles. So even here, the relationship between domestic struggle and international influence is, at best, recursive.

Lastly, there is the question of pragmatism vs. ideology. I am not convinced that reading regime elites as fundamentally self-preserving pragmatists means that ideology is irrelevant. If we accept Peter Mandaville’s contention (as I do) that local Islamist movements are organized as a demand for “something other than the prevailing order,” then regimes advancing that prevailing order are at least as “ideological” as those who oppose it. Theirs is a conservative ideology in the most literal sense of the term.

What interests me most, though, are those Islamists living and working in environments in which there is no single prevailing order against which to frame their concerns. The organizational and ideological fracturing of the Islamist field (including, but not limited to, dynamics of sectarianization) appears to be a consequence of the broader dissolution of the status quo within and across countries in the region, even if Islamists have played a role in that dissolution. This recursivity, as frustrating as it may be to our disciplinary conventions, is at the heart of Islamist politics–or simply politics–in uncertain times.
Peter Mandaville, professor of government and politics, Schar School of Policy and Government:

I’m struck by how many of us found ourselves referring to concepts like “fluidity,” “fragmentation,” and “uncertainty” in feeling our way through this topic. This is undoubtedly a period of considerable upheaval and indeterminacy in the Middle East. We all clearly see significance in the regional split between, broadly-speaking, pro- and anti-Islamist bloc, even if we parse the question of ideology in different ways.

When I posited the idea that we might be seeing a shift in the underlying sociology that governs Islamist recruitment and mobilization, what I mainly had in mind is the question of how young people subject to forces of resurgent authoritarianism, localized manifestations of regional power rivalries, and a general disillusionment with politics will come to understand the meaning and significance of political Islam. I have a great affinity for Francesco Cavatorta’s “I am not entirely sure” position on this issue since the flux that characterizes so much of the region at present makes it particularly difficult to identify stable causal relationships among the many factors in play.

My reference to the debate on post-Islamism is driven by what Stacey Philbrick Yadav very aptly characterizes as the “fragmented Islamist field.” I do not anticipate the emergence at a scale of anything like Asef Bayat’s more normative take on post-Islamism as progressive politics; rather, at least for now, I think the dominant trend is non-affiliation. When I speak to young activists in the region, I hear from them more often than not a sense that conventional categories of politics and political ideology–secularist, Islamist, leftist, liberal–have little relevance today. The prevailing question is always whether you are with or against the regime. Under such conditions, I think Islamism functions as little more than a vague signifier or aspiration for a different-but-as-yet-undefined politics; something other than the status quo.

Finally, I do think Tunisia will be important to watch. If Ennahda manages to emerge victorious in the elections expected in 2019 and begins to work successfully with groups of different political stripes to actually address Tunisia’s deep-seated structural and socioeconomic problems, then we may see the emergence of a model that could have important demonstration effects elsewhere in the region.

Courtney Freer, research officer at LSE Middle East Centre:

One aspect of all of the responses that I find interesting is the degree to which they are focused on the effect of regional change on domestic political environments. Philbrick Yadav rightly highlights a key change in the Islamist landscape from a decade ago when Islamist groups were far more organized and constrained primarily by domestic policies, while today they are a major part of transregional rivalries.

As a result of the importance of these transregional rivalries, Mandaville and Cavatorta downplay the importance of ideology, largely since regional blocs today contain countries that disagree on a variety of issues. I would contend that ideology has actually been pushed even by members of what Shehata dubs the counter-revolution, with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates backing an agenda of so-called “moderate Islam” for expressly political reasons and privileging stemming the tide of Islamist mobilization ahead of other issues on which they may agree with new partners. Nonetheless, in my original contribution, I downplayed too much the role of regional affairs in determining the fate of Islamists, and so am fortunate that other members of the roundtable covered this aspect. Shehata’s response balances the focus on the regional and domestic, as he highlights that conditions of domestic political instability provide opportunities for meddling in domestic political affairs and cites a “counter-revolution” being led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as a continuation of policies begun in 2011.

As far as the potential for cross-ideological cooperation in the domestic sphere, which I cite in my first-round response, it is difficult to know how sustainable this could be. Often these coalitions tend to be short-lived for two reasons: first, they are provoked by conditions created by regimes which can be swiftly changed; and second, these two ideological sides are very publicly coming in conflict on the international stage. The events of the so-called Arab Spring demonstrated the fragility of cross-ideological alliances and the fundamental lack of trust between partners in these instances. Members of such coalitions will require compromise and foresight to last, yet also remain dependent on regime politics and to a certain extent on regional policies as well.

Francesco Cavatorta, professor of political science, Université Laval:

I think that what Philbrick Yadav had to say about “following the money or following the guns” is particularly relevant to how Islamist movements across the region can be directly influenced by external actors. This is even more the case for more marginal Islamist movements attempting to possibly carve out a larger domestic role. At the same time, domestic/national developments could also have international spillovers.

I am thinking in particular of the changes that occurred in the Tunisian Ennahda, which is something that Freer also mentioned. They have broken in a way with the Egyptian Brotherhood and its ideology, preferring instead to re-orient their ideological references to the Tunisian intellectual context and making references to Tunisian and Maghrebi scholars with a less dogmatic view of the role of Islam in politics and society. It could be envisaged then that parties like Ennahda in Tunisia and the Parti de la Justice et du Développement (PJD) in Morocco might be able to influence Islamist parties in the broader Middle East, as they have been somewhat successful in integrating their domestic political systems. One might argue that they have done so by renouncing all the main tenets and objectives of Islamism, but one could also argue that their role has been instrumental in avoiding the violence and chaos that engulfed many other countries in the region and they have therefore fulfilled in part the role of “saviors” of the Islamic community from widespread violence and instability.

I believe that there are a number of lessons that other Islamist movements can learn from what has occurred to Islamist politics in Tunisia and Morocco despite the trajectories of the two political systems diverging after the uprisings, but two points stand out for me. First is that the national environment matters and that it is pointless to attempt to operate as if ideological purity were the only criterion to be successful. There are compromises to be made and bargains to be entered into. Daily politicking is crucial if a party wants to achieve at least some of its objectives in a plural society and the domestic environment is what first and foremost shapes such compromises. The rigidity of some Islamist parties, as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, can be conducive to greater conflict. Second, voters matter and voters seem to care quite a bit about practical issues rather than ideology. I think that Ennahda and the PJD’s electoral fortunes (and misfortunes) highlight the point that other Islamist movements should focus on this and attempt to introduce and discuss policies that speak to voters. This is quite banal, of course, but it seems to me that creating coalitions and seeking allies should be the way to proceed to enter or re-enter (as in Egypt) the political-institutional game. Morocco and Tunisia represent least-awful scenarios. These countries might not be doing that great, but there is a degree of freedom, institutions are more responsive and there is no widespread violence or chaos. Islamists in the two have greatly contributed to this and others might want to take a page out of their playbook.

Samer Shehata, Colin Mackey, and Patricia Molina de Mackey associate professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Oklahoma:

There is neither time nor space here to sufficiently address all of the issues raised during this roundtable. Suffice it say that I do not view the current regional alignments in the Middle East as based primarily on ideology. Nor are they perfectly aligned on all issues (e.g., Syria, Yemen, etc.). As I wrote initially, regime self-interest and self-preservation–in a context of regional flux, perceived threat, and opportunity–are the primary reasons states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are pursuing such aggressive regional policies. Of course, as my colleagues have also pointed out, the diminished role of the United States in the region, real or imagined, is the condition of possibility for such behavior (e.g., Syria, Yemen, Libya, etc.).

With regard to my colleagues’ responses, there are both points of agreement and disagreement in the rich discussion of the questions posed in the forum. Obviously, all agree that these are difficult times for Islamist movements, particularly the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. As a result of the 2013 coup and unprecedented levels of repression, the Brotherhood has experienced fragmentation, internal division, and disarray. This has resulted in the withdrawal from politics for many, while for others, particularly some younger members, it meant radicalization and the justification of violence. This is understandable, as it has become increasingly difficult to maintain a view that peaceful resistance is the way forward in an exceedingly repressive environment with thousands in jail or facing the death penalty, and while the international community remains largely silent if not supportive of the Sisi regime. If scholars remain uncertain about the relationship between “inclusion and moderation,” there should be little uncertainty about the relationship between repression and radicalization.

At the same time, several colleagues rightly point out that it would be exceedingly premature to write the obituary for the Brotherhood or other Islamist movements. The question is not “is Islamist politics dead” but what will Islamist politics look like in the aftermath of 2011 and 2013? Islamism–in multiple forms and various guises–will remain part of the region’s political and social landscape for years to come (in altered form, of course), especially if regimes remain repressive and unaccountable and continue to fail to provide economic prosperity and human dignity for the majority of their “citizens.”  So long as this is the case, Islamism will remain a powerful ideology of resistance, hope, and aspirational renaissance for many.

[This roundtable is produced in partnership between Jadaliyya and Maydan.]

Authors: Francesco Cavatorta, Courtney Freer, M. Tahir Kilavuz, Peter Mandaville, and Samer Shehata, Stacey Philbrick Yadav