- The UPS and Downs of Islamism
In May 2010, the scholar Shadi Hamid interviewed future Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, then a member of the Guidance Bureau (governing body) of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). It was not a propitious time for the 82-year-old movement, which was then reeling from a renewed campaign of repression and harassment under Hosni Mubarak. Senior MB leaders had been jailed on what they claimed were trumped-up charges, and the movement’s cadres were halfheartedly preparing for parliamentary elections (scheduled for October of that year) that everyone knew were going to be rigged in favor of Mubarak’s party.
According to Hamid, who relates his meeting with Morsi in the opening pages of this book, the man who would go on to become Egypt’s first democratically elected president sounded neither defiant nor defeated: “At this moment,” said Morsi, “we are not seeking power because [that] requires preparation, and society is not prepared” (p. 2). Squaring this remarkable bit of modesty with the MB’s remarkably immodest behavior once Mubarak was overthrown is the task that Hamid has set for himself. In the course of tackling it, he also helps us to begin understanding why the democratic experiments of the so-called Arab Spring have not panned out.
This is an important book, based on “hundreds of hours” of interviews and “over 20 months” of fieldwork, primarily in Egypt, but also in [End Page 170] Jordan and Tunisia. Hamid sheds much light on why it is that Islamists throughout the region made all the right noises about democracy and freedom while up against the ropes of authoritarianism, but then seemed to forget all that lofty rhetoric once they were free to swing away in the competition for power. His answer is straightforward: Under dictatorship, the name of the game for opposition movements such as the MB was to avoid arousing too much ire—either on the part of the state (which might crack down) or their fellow opposition movements (whom they needed to help push for greater political freedoms). Thus Islamists under authoritarianism tried to make themselves appear small and unthreatening. They took part in elections only gingerly (never aiming to win a majority of seats), made great shows of reaching out to ideological adversaries, and tied themselves into rhetorical knots in order to obscure the more hair-raising bits of their social agendas.
Yet once dictatorship dropped away, so too did the Islamists’ mask of self-effacement and moderation. In the mad dash for votes and seats in postrevolutionary elections, the MB and its ilk went for broke, casting opponents as infidels and playing up the religiously inflected social conservativism that—according to Hamid—is shared (nay, yearned for) by the vast majority of Arab citizens. The result, as predictable as it is depressing, is that the Islamists’ erstwhile allies in the “liberal” opposition felt themselves forced to turn to the streets—and, in the case of Egypt, to the “guys with guns”—to undo what they could not undo at the ballot box.
Hamid is a gifted and sensitive student of Islamists and the Middle East; there is much here for both the lay reader and the scholar. The latter will take this tome mainly as the latest salvo in an old debate over the so-called inclusion-moderation thesis. This argument—advanced by several academics and, according to Hamid, adopted wholesale by many Western policy makers—holds that having to compete (and govern) in open, democratic conditions will cause Islamists to become less extreme. For example, some say that Islamists will become too busy with the quotidian toil of governing to enact their seventh-century social agenda. Others claim that the need to garner votes will pull Islamists toward the middle of the ideological spectrum, where, presumably, all peoples around the world lie.
According to Hamid, this is a misreading of the Islamists and the societies from which they come. It has been wrong all along to think that democracy will render Islamists kinder and gentler, he appears...