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Islamists in Government

Panel I-8, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Thursday, November 2 at 3:00 pm

Panel Description
Following the Arab uprisings, several Arab countries joined Turkey and Palestine in experiencing Islamists in power. Whether alone or in coalition with other parties, Islamist parties were finally able to control the levers of government. Although such experience ended rather quickly due to military coups (Egypt), defeats at the polls (Morocco) or institutional changes (Tunisia), it remains a significant achievement for parties that had seemed to have no prospect of ever governing due to the perceived strength of the regime in place or their own ideological rigidity. As Schwedler aptly put it though, the uprisings provided the perfect opportunity to study Islamists outside the conceptual frameworks of the past (radicality/moderation, democracy/authoritarianism). Despite the political significance of Islamists in government, there are a few systematic studies examining in detail what kind of specific policies Islamists implemented or failed to implement. There are several studies outlining how Islamist parties performed, why they failed and what impact they had on the processes of democratization in the region, but there is very little in terms of what they actually did in power and if and how their governance had distinctive traits. In addition, there are very few works comparing Islamist governance across time and space. Turkey has been governed by Islamists for over two decades and Hamas has been ‘in power’ in parts of Palestine for over fifteen years. How do these two experiences compare with more recent ones of post-uprisings Islamist governance? What are the differences and similarities one can detect? The panel will present five cases of Islamist governance: Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia, Palestine and Morocco.
Political Science
  • The Tunisian Islamist party Ennahda came to power after the fall of the Ben Ali regime in October 2011 after the first and free elections for the Constituent Assembly. Since then, the party has been in power until the July 25 2021 coup by President Kais Saied. Ennahda's model of government is particularly difficult to grasp due to the nature of the political system and the electoral system, which required it to govern in coalition even when it had won the majority of seats (2011 and 2019). The difficulty to pin down how Ennahda in government performed has to do with the constant suspicion towards the party from its coalition s partners and the opposition, as Ennahda was often accused of governing through ideology (Burgat 2020). Three periods mark the party’s experience during which the leaders of Ennahda were in government and held several ministerial positions (employment, industry and trade, information technologies, transport, health, equipment and housing): 1/ 2011-2014: a phase during which the hostility of Islamists toward the state determined the strategy of the movement for the capture of state resources; 2/ 2014-2019 where the depreciation of the resources on which the movement had built its 2011-2013 strategy under the effect of cross-sectoral coups (Dobry 2009) led it to get rid of the "Islamist" label and to highlight the technical and political skills of the members whose dispositions were more in line with the context requirements and institutional positions. The religious dimension, far from being evacuated or limited to conservative values guiding political action, was simply held back (Ben Salem 2019). 3/ 2019-2021: phase characterized by an accentuation of the inter and intra partisan conflicts. Based on an analysis of sectoral policies and data from a field survey with Islamist actors, this article examines the policies implemented by the Islamists in power, focusing on the political trajectories of the figures who occupied institutional positions. More specifically it looks at how socialization into the management of state affairs has contributed to the development of qualifications (savoir-faire and savoir-être) compatible with occupied positions.
  • The AKP (Justice and Development Party) came to power in 2002 in Turkey and secured its dominance in successive electoral wins (Carkoglu 2011, Muftuler-Bac and Keyman 2012). Thanks to this electoral and political dominance, the party had the opportunity to shape Turkey’s past, present, and future (Pempel 1990, Gumuscu 2013). The AKP specifically redesigned the political system, restructured the judiciary, established a new economic framework, reformed the education system, and adopted an Islamist approach to socio-cultural practices and urban spaces (Ozbudun 2015, Esen and Gumuscu 2018, Kutlay 2020, Lukuslu 2016). Despite this extensive power, Turkish economy is in crisis with depreciated currency and high levels of inflation, justice system is malfunctioning, educational success is at an all-time low, violence against women at record levels, and disaster relief in wildfires, earthquakes, and floods is feeble. This paper studies the causes behind these failures and argues that the AKP has successfully captured the Turkish state and Islamicized the state cadres. The Islamization of the state cadres, however, undermined meritocratic recruitment traditions and undermined state capacity, causing significant problems in the design and implementation of economic, educational, and social policies. The paper relies on participant observation, official statistics, and archival research to substantiate its central claims.
  • The September 2021 elections in Morocco saw the seismic rout of the Islamist Party of Justice and Development (PJD) which had been in nominal control of the government since 2012. The PJD could also have initially mobilized behind the February 20 Movement in 2011 but chose to pursue participation in the elections to enhance its political standing in Morocco’s limited electoral system. The PJD adopted a ‘third way’ by joining the political system and the promise of deeper reforms without risking the instability of uncontrolled popular protests. Once in government, the PJD espoused a discursive approach to leadership focusing on “morality, honesty and transparency,” offering little in the way of socio-economic reforms. instead, the PJD Islamists try to mitigate the authoritarian effects of the state on society and act mainly as a watchdog government pressing for accountability based on Islamic moral teachings for justice and social solidarity. The meteoric electoral ascent of the PJD under Benkirane may have irked the regime enough to thwart the second experiment of the PJD post-Morocco Spring in 2016. The political ‘blocage’ that was orchestrated by a regime determined to regain control over the political party scene in the post- Arab uprisings dominated by more docile royal parties, and more pliable PJD leadership. The PJD may also be a victim of its own initial success in articulating a nuanced discourse on social and economic changes and subsequent reforms that have advanced Benkirane and his party in some corners as a possible peer to the regime in Morocco. The abrupt end to the Benkirane era was a harbinger of things to come as it began the process of drawing the curtain on the palace’s experiment allowing for an Islamist, PJD-led government after the 2011 Arab uprisings. Given the “blocage”, the PJD’s return to the opposition would have been its best path forward to salvage its standing in the political party system and with its own rank and file. The PJD’s strategic miscalculation of casting aside its talismanic leader Benkirane and taking part in the regime curated government would prove costly in the September 2021 legislative elections where the PJD sustained a resounding defeat in the polls. In the opposition, the PJD now is in deep introspection of what its future may look like in a tightly controlled political environment in Morocco.