Participation, Political Movements, and Parties

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A profound tension has plagued attempts at political modernization and reform in the Middle East. On the one hand, leaders face enormous pressures to democratize. During the 1970s and 1980s, economic crises eroded regime legitimacy, creating grassroots demands for political rights and civil liberties. These local pressures coincided with growing international norms of democracy and human rights, supported by the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations. Accustomed to political control, however, leaders in the region feared that democracy would unleash hostile political movements and sweep the ruling elite from power. Pressures for democratization were thus pitted against a desire to remain in power.

In the first few decades after World War II, most regimes in the region were concerned with building new governments, asserting independence from Western countries, and securing hegemony over fractious societies. In an effort to establish control, a number of leaders asserted populist ideologies tied to socialist principles and Arab nationalism, which emphasizes the unity of Arabs irrespective of their country of residence. Perhaps the most central figure in the Arab nationalist camp was Jamal ˓Abd al-Nasser (d. 1970) of Egypt, who created the Arab Socialist Union in 1962 as a vehicle to mobilize the masses. Nasser's charisma and powerful leadership inspired movements that threatened regime power in other countries. The fusion of Arab nationalism and socialism manifested itself in Syria and Iraq as well. Both countries spawned movements rooted in Ba˓th ideology, which combines socialism and its emphasis on income redistribution and nationalization with visions about the glory of historical Arab unity. Ba˓th parties in Syria and Iraq had to contend with strong communist movements but managed to consolidate power and gain control of government.

The influence of Arab nationalism waned during the 1970s and was replaced by the rapid ascendance of Islamic movements, which became a central force of opposition in the Middle East. The most spectacular Islamic challenge emerged in Iran in the late 1970s. Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlevi's repression and failed modernization program prompted opposition from a wide consortium of social groups, which mobilized demonstrations under the leadership of the Islamic clergy in the late 1970s. The protest movement overthrew the shah, and an Islamic state was established in 1979.

The Iranian Revolution sent shock waves throughout the Middle East, and regimes became increasingly concerned about the rising power of Islamic movements. Because the growth of Islamic activism coincided with external and internal pressures for democratization, incumbent elites faced a conundrum—how to release some of the building societal pressure for political reform while preventing Islamic movements from taking power.

Two responses to this dilemma predominated. First, a number of regimes implemented an inclusionary model of controlled political liberalization. In this strategy, opposition movements, including Islamic groups, were allowed to participate in national elections, but the regime retained ultimate power and executive authority. In 1989, for example, King Hussein (d. 1999) of Jordan held elections to the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house of parliament) for the first time since 1966. Although several political movements participated, the Islamic movement dominated the campaign and won thirty-four of the eighty seats, creating the single largest bloc in parliament. The movement later joined the government cabinet during the Persian Gulf War in 1991, formed a political party (the Islamic Action Front) in 1993, and supported democratic principles (even while boycotting elections in 1997). The monarch, however, remained the ultimate authority. A similar response occurred in Kuwait after the Gulf War in 1991. Because of considerable pressure from the international community and former Kuwaiti exiles, Shaykh Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah held parliamentary elections in October 1992, the first since parliament was dissolved in 1986. Opposition movements openly contested the elections, and various Islamic factions won nineteen of the fifty seats in 1992, seventeen seats in 1996, and twenty in 1999. Despite this participation, the emir retained executive power.

But not all regimes gambled their political survival on the incorporation of Islamic groups through parties, elections, and political participation. Instead, they opted for an alternative exclusionary model. In this response, regimes enacted limited political liberalization measures and elections, but Islamic groups and other powerful political movements were excluded and repressed. This was the strategy in Egypt. Although the mainstream Muslim Brotherhood movement had long been prevented from forming a political party, it forged alliances with other parties and successfully won seats in parliament (eight seats in the 360-member parliament in 1984 and thirty-six in 1987). Under Hosni Mubarak in the mid-1990s, however, the regime initiated a crackdown against the movement and imprisoned fifty-four of its leading members, including many candidates who ran in the 1995 elections. Activists from more radical Islamic groups, such as the Gama a Islamiyya (Islamic Group) and Islamic Jihad, attempted to form political parties in the late 1990s, but were denied permits.

Other regimes fluctuated between inclusionary and exclusionary responses to democratizing pressures and political movements. For example, following austerity riots in 1988, the Algerian regime initiated political reforms, including a number of policies that seemed to support the Islamic movement. A variety of Islamic factions reacted by forming the Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut, or FIS), which was legally recognized in 1989. In 1990, the FIS won stunning victories in municipal and regional races; and although the regime subsequently repressed the movement, the FIS still dominated the 1991 parliamentary elections and was poised to control parliament with a comfortable majority. The regime quickly shifted to draconian exclusionary policies and canceled election results in early 1992, banned the FIS, and imprisoned Islamic leaders. The repression incited an Islamic rebellion that led to more than 150,000 deaths during the 1990s. A similar shift from inclusionary to exclusionary strategies can be seen in Turkey, where the Islamic-oriented Welfare Party installed its leader, Necmeddin Erbakan, as the prime minister in a coalition government in 1996. While this initially indicated an inclusionary strategy, the military eventually intervened and the coalition collapsed. The Welfare Party was subsequently closed and Erbakan was banned from politics for life. The Welfare Party and its successor, the Virtue Party, were banned. Yet a third reconstructed Islamic party, Justice and Development, won the largest number of seats in the Turkish parliament and formed a government in 2002. Such examples point to variation in strategies as leaders calculate the risks of political movement participation.

See alsoCommunism ; Erbakan, Necmeddin ; Ikhwan al-Muslimin ; Modernization, Political: Authoritarianism and Democratization ; Nationalism: Arab ; Nationalism: Iranian ; Nationalism: Turkish ; Pan-Islam ; Political Islam ; Socialism .


Batatu, Hanna. The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978.

Langhor, Vickie. "Of Islamists and Ballot Boxes: Rethinking the Relationship between Islamisms and Electoral Politics." International Journal of Middle East Studies 33, no. 4 (2001): 591–610.

Norton, Augustus Richard. "The Challenge of Inclusion in the Middle East." Current History 94 (1995): 1–6.

Quintan Wiktorowicz