A dramatic split in the Muslim Brotherhood of Jordan could be one of the most important developments in the recent evolution of Islamist movements. And a crucial experiment in developing a new modus vivendi between Arab states and moderate Islamist groups may well be unfolding in the process.
In the early and optimistic days of the Arab Spring, mainstream Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood garnered all the attention. Many assumed, wrongly as it turned out, that Brotherhood parties would be swept into power in country after country once Arabs were able to vote freely.
With their well-established brands, strong grass-roots organizations and lack of taint of association with former dictatorships, Brotherhood parties did indeed quickly come to power in Egypt and Tunisia. But it soon became apparent that the public did not care for their approach to governing. The July 2013 ouster of Egypt’s Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, by a military-led coalition responding to huge public protests signaled the beginning of the end for the Brotherhood’s hopes for regional hegemony.
Across the Middle East, Brotherhood parties found themselves facing both popular rejection and official repression. Throughout the Arab world, they collapsed into crisis or became politically marginalized. Perhaps the biggest blow was when the key Arab states — first, Egypt in 2013, and soon after, in 2014, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — designated the Brotherhood a “terrorist organization.” Indeed, Egypt’s campaign against its domestic party, the oldest and largest of them all (often referred to as the “mother party”), has had repercussions so profound that the Brotherhood movement everywhere now seems almost moribund.
Attention shifted instead to extremist groups like the Islamic State that are thriving in the context of civil wars and failing states. One of the most widespread criticisms of the crackdown against the Brotherhood led by Egypt and the two Persian Gulf states is that it pushed Islamists to the extreme. There’s no real basis for believing that the progress of the Islamic State would have been significantly altered if there had been no campaign against the Brotherhood — yet this criticism from both Western and Arab commentators persists regarding Jordan’s recent moves.
For more than a year, factional tensions have been intensifying in Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood. The wing of the party rooted in that country’s Palestinian population tends to be more reactionary, and aligned with Hamas and other regional Brotherhood parties, while the traditionally Jordanian wing is politically less strident and emphasizes loyalty to the kingdom.
On Feb. 14, the party’s ruling Shura Council voted to expel a set of reform-minded Jordanians, most of whom had been part of what was called the “Zamzam Initiative,” which sought a break with the regional Brotherhood movement. The move backfired. The reformists founded their own group, which the Jordanian government formally recognized as the Brotherhood on March 3.
The status of the original Brotherhood group is unclear, and there may be a protracted legal and administrative battle over the organization’s considerable property and financial resources. Enraged old-guard members accused the government of staging a “coup.” But given the many months over which the fracture developed within the party, the government’s response looks more opportunistic than scheming.
The rise of the Islamic State may help to account for the Jordanian initiative. Faced with the threat of jihadist extremism, Jordan may be pioneering a policy of rehabilitating Brotherhood parties. This Jordanian model would show that Islamist parties could be reintegrated into national systems as long as they were neither seeking regime change at home nor part of a broader regional revolutionary Islamist movement.
Another component of such an accommodation might come from the détente between Egypt and Qatar. Until now, Doha was the main sponsor of Brotherhood parties in the region, and Cairo its chief antagonist. There are also signs of a Saudi-Qatari rapprochement. These countries have a clear interest in creating a path for the reintegration of moderate Islamists in national politics, especially given the regionwide defeat the Brotherhood movement has suffered. Qatar has already reduced its support for Brotherhood groups, including Hamas, leaving Turkey as the main sponsor of the movement.
I’ve long argued that nationalism is the Achilles’ heel of even the most mainstream Arab Islamist groups. The widespread perception is that, by embracing an agenda that is both regional and religious, parties like the Brotherhood are, at best, insufficiently patriotic and, at worst, outright treasonous. No surprise, then, that the Islamist parties that have fared least badly since the ouster of Mr. Morsi are Ennahda in Tunisia and Justice and Development in Morocco.
Both insist that they are not part of any regional coalition or affiliated with the broader Brotherhood movement. This also means that they have effectively signed up to operate within the constitutional norms of their national political systems. The approach has served them well.
The interest of Jordan and its allies in promoting the development of nonconfrontational and patriotic Muslim Brotherhood groupings is obvious. But the idea may go further than that. Ennahda, in particular, has demonstrated a pragmatism and a willingness to compromise that have enabled it to remain a viable player in Tunisian democracy despite recently losing both the presidential and parliamentary elections.
Arab societies have Islamist constituencies, and therefore will have Islamist parties and organizations. Ultimately, even those states most opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood must think about how to accommodate those supporters.
Much now depends on the outcome of the Jordanian Brotherhood’s split. It seems almost certain that one faction will come out on top and the party will reunify. If the moderates prevail, this could provide a new model — alongside Ennahda — for other Arab societies seeking to integrate Islamist constituencies into stable political systems.
Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, is a writer and a broadcaster.