Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD HANDBOOKS ONLINE ( © Oxford University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a title in Oxford Handbooks Online for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 21 June 2021

The Role of Religion in the “Arab Spring”: Comparing the Actions and Strategies of the Islamist Parties

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the role of religion in the Arab uprisings as well as the influence of religion after the uprisings and in the first postrevolutionary elections. It begins by analyzing the role of the various Islamist parties, arguing that in many cases the Islamist parties played only a limited role in the revolutions. While the protesters themselves represented various social, political, and economic groups and were demonstrating against authoritarian governments, often for nonreligious reasons, the Islamist parties also understood that being the image of the uprisings would be risky for their respective organizations because their heavy involvement would upset non-Islamist protesters and also that a strong Islamist presence in the protests could spark government action against them. The chapter then briefly examines the level of influence and electoral success of Islamist parties in the politics of Tunisia, Egypt, and Morocco while also discussing the role of religion after the uprisings.

Keywords: Arab Spring, Islamist parties, Middle Eastern uprisings


The Arab Uprisings: Tunisia

The initial events of the “Arab Spring” occurred in Tunisia, where on December 14, 2010, a street vendor named Mohammad Bouazizi carried out an act of self-immolation, after a Tunisian police officer was alleged to have taken his fruit stand from him, restricting him from selling fruit at his location. Following his action and death, thousands of Tunisians took to the streets to protest the government, then led by Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali. Despite attempts by Ben Ali to maintain power, he eventually resigned his office on January 14, 2011, because of continuous citizen pressure, (BBC, 2011b). While Bouazizi’s act is often framed as the “spark” of the revolution, frustration was also present within Tunisian society for many years prior to the events of 2010–2011. Ben Ali, who came to full power through a nonviolent coup in 1987, initially began a set of reforms aimed to at least suggest a break from the policies of his predecessor, Habib Bourguiba. However, this effort was short-lived, as he quickly moved to concentrate his own power. Human rights organizations reported that Ben Ali took strong measures to ensure that Tunisians’ rights were repressed. Just some of the rights abuses that occurred under the Ben Ali government included the close monitoring of associations, the banning of political associations altogether, stringent registration requirements for groups, surveillance of Tunisian citizens, punishment for political involvement, strong control of media outlets, political (and electoral) intimidation, arrests, and torture (Kausch, 2009). Furthermore, citizens were also furious at the high levels of corruption in the Ben Ali regime, which had significant influence in the private sector (Paciello, 2011, p. 7).

Even the economic situation (namely, Tunisian growth) for which Ben Ali has sometimes been given credit has been deceiving. While Tunisia’s economy did improve during Ben Ali’s tenure, the decline of socioeconomic rights in recent years led to increased citizen unhappiness with the government (Paciello, 2011). Furthermore, throughout Tunisia, there has still been a high level of youth unemployment (Paciello, 2011). Moreover, the positive economic growth that did exist was not equal throughout Tunisia; certain regions performed much better than others. As Paciello (2011) explains: “The north, north-west and centre-east, which benefited from particularly strong growth rates through tourism and offshore activities as well as from high public investment, are the regions that witnessed the most impressive drops in poverty levels. By contrast, in the south and centre-west of the country, poverty reduction was much slower” (p. 6). Other economic factors that led to the fall of Ben Ali included the decline or “erosion of the Tunisian middle class” (Paciello, 2011, p. 6) as well as criticisms of economic policies that hurt certain sectors of society (Paciello, 2011, p. 6).

In terms of the role of religion in the initial protests, it must be said that many of the initial protests—and later organized rallies—were sparked and carried out by many secular organizations. Student groups, labor unions, and secular parties played a much greater role in organizing protest activities than did the Islamist parties. The major political Islamist organization in Tunisia, Ennahda, was rather limited in its activities during this time (Alexander, 2012). There are several reasons for this minimal role of the organization—as well as religious movements in general—during the uprisings. As Michael Koplow (2011) states:

The absence of a strong Islamist presence is the result of an aggressive attempt by successive Tunisian regimes, dating back over a half-century, to eliminate Islamists from public life. Ben Ali enthusiastically took up this policy in the early 1990s, putting hundreds of members of the al-Nahda party, Tunisia’s main Islamist movement, on trial amid widespread allegations of torture and sentencing party leaders to life imprisonment or exile. Most influential Tunisian Islamists now live abroad, while those who remain in Tunisia have been forced to form a coalition with unlikely secular and communist bedfellows.

As already mentioned, Tunisian Islamist groups have faced heavy restrictions in terms of their political activities in recent decades. In fact, during Habib Bourguiba’s rule, many of the leaders of the Islamist party were jailed, or left Tunisia (Koplow, 2011). This can be traced back to the early 1980s, when the Islamic Tendency Movement (MTI) (which later became Ennahda) under Rachid Ghounnouchi voiced its criticisms against Bourguiba and his Neo-Duster Party. Many of the MTI leaders were then arrested for what was seen as “defaming the “President for Life”“ (Perkins, 2004, p. 168). These arrests minimized the role of Islamists in Tunisian politics and reduced the Islamist presence (Perkins, 2004). The government then went after MTI followers again in 1984, having felt that the organization was behind the antigovernment protests (Perkins, 2004). In fact, “the government persisted in its refusal to permit the MTI to organize as a political party (Perkins, 2004, p. 171). But despite this, the MTI continued to speak out against the government, in particular during the mid-1980s, against the state’s economic policies, and specifically those policies that seemed to affect the lower economic class (Perkins, 2004). Shortly after this, Bourguiba again “arrested [Rachid Ghounnouchi], and other prominent MTI figures, charging them with fomenting a plot to overthrow the government and create an Islamic state” (Perkins, 2004, p. 174). Ghounnouchi, one of the founders of the party, ended up living in Britain until the fall of Ben Ali, at which point he returned to Tunisia.

When Ben Ali came to power, he initially seemed to want to distance himself from some of the authoritarian policies of the prior regime. This included attempts at reversing some of the negative policies toward the political Islamists. Ebony King (2012) explains that Ben Ali

abolish[ed] The State Security Court, used by Bourguiba to trial Islamists and other opposition forces, most political prisoners were released including over 600 MTI [Islamic Tendency Movement] members, in May 1988 he pardoned its most prominent leader, Rachid Ghannouchi and in September, he allowed the group’s secretary-general, Abd al-Fattah Mourou to return home from exile. Islamists were also allowed to take part in the Islamic High Council and to establish the Islamic Student Union. Ben Ali also instituted other symbolic measures such [as] launching an Islamic ethics campaign, which increased surveillance of cafes, malls, and other public places to prevent “un-Islamic” behavior, and Islam was given a more visible presence in everyday life through the broadcasting of the call to prayer and religious programs and increasing the use of Islamic references in official rhetoric. Furthermore, symbolic changes such as the presidential prize for Qur’anic learning, and Ben Ali’s highly publicized pilgrimage to Mecca as his first trip as President were part of the concerted drive for symbolic re-Islamisation of the RCD and of Tunisian society, whilst simultaneously undercutting Islamist appeal. (p. 6)

But despite these initial changes, Ben Ali and his regime shifted to increased authoritarianism, which included attempts to reduce the role of Islamists after seeing the rising influence of such parties—as evidenced in the 1989 election—where Ennahda received the most votes of nongovernment parties (King, 2012, p. 6). From this point onward, Ben Ali not only banned “religious” parties but also went after Islamist members who the government saw as a threat to government control and stability (King, 2012).

Related to this, in 2003, an antiterrorism law was passed in Tunisia, giving the government increased powers against those seen as challenging the stability and “national security” of the state (Kausch, 2009, p. 18). Ben Ali also used this antiterrorism legislation to suppress groups who were viewed as possibly posing a threat to his regime. Although this law gave the government access to additional measures against all who were seen as threats, Kausch (2009) explains that “the regime has used the law almost exclusively against Islamists. The main reason for this is that jailing secular human rights activists on unproven terrorism charges is not popular with Tunisia’s international partners, whereas the latter do not object to the jailing of Islamists on the same grounds” (p. 18). But while Ben Ali targeted violent Islamist groups, he also went after nonviolent Islamist groups who attempted to work through the ballot box.

Thus, even supporting ideas of Islamism could have led to trouble for citizens in Tunisia (Kausch, 2009). And because of this, Islamist parties were careful not to call too much attention to their activities prior to and during the 2010–2011 protests for fear that their actions would carry significant penalties. Some have suggested that if Ennahda and other Islamist organizations had increased their presence and role in the uprisings, the regime’s response against them would have intensified (Koplow, 2011). Thus a coalition of Tunisians came together to protest against the overall corrupt and highly restrictive government of Ben Ali. The protests themselves had little to do with religion. And because of the history of government abuses against Islamist parties, groups such as Ennahda—who historically were marginalized and their leaders jailed and exiled—played a limited role in the initial uprisings. However, following the overthrow of Ben Ali in 2011, the strength of their position in Tunisia’s political landscape quickly became apparent.

Islamism and Religion in Postrevolution Tunisia

In the aftermath of the revolution, dozens of political parties, having had little voice under Ben Ali, began to appear. Civil society was now open for a competition of ideas. However, while many political organizations were just beginning to form officially, Ennahda, having had decades of political organization in Tunisia, “enjoyed name recognition, national grassroots structure, money, and credibility that no other party could equal” (Alexander, 2012, p. 43). The organization used its political experience to begin campaigning for the 2011 parliamentary elections in Tunisia, running on an Islamist message, all the while advocating electoral democracy. Winning 41 percent of seats in the government following the elections, the question discussed in relation to Ennahda’s electoral success has been: What sort of policies will the Ennahda party press forward? The leaders of Ennahda, aware of the national and international spotlight on their party, have attempted to reassure individuals of their position toward democracy and openness in terms of religion. For example, the coalition government has not banned alcohol and does not required women to wear veils (BBC, 2012).

Despite the comfort that Ennahda’s positions have given to some, Ennahda is not the only Islamist party active in policies following the Tunisian uprisings; Salafi groups have also become involved in postrevolutionary politics. While it is said that “the number of Salafist supporters [is] at 2000–3000 (Alexander, 2012), with some suggesting Salafi affiliation is “thought to number tens of thousands” (Economist, 2012) in Tunisia, they nonetheless have support in the society. Two of the relatively more popular Salafi groups in Tunisia include Hizb ut-al Tahrir and Ansar al-Shariah. Gauging their popularity by merely examining electoral outcomes is misleading, since some Salafist groups have spoken out against democratic elections (Alexander, 2012). In terms of the recent elections, Hizb ut-Tahrir was not allowed to run because of a government concern that they don’t support the democratic process. Because of this, the government has thus been unwilling to legally recognize the organization (Bollier, 2011). However, in an interview with Al Jazeera, the head of the party, Ridha Belhadj, responded by saying that “We don’t need authorization from the government, we have authorization from the people” (Bollier, 2011). And despite the concern that many Salafi parties are actively challenging elections, Belhadj said that the organization would have accepted the elections if approved as a party, stating that “We didn’t refuse to participate in the election for ideological reasons, there are elections in Islam” (Ryan, 2011). Yet despite such comments, some Salafi groups have remained outspoken against elections. And along with their criticism of what are seen as “un-Islamic” forms of governance, other prominent issues supported by Salafis in Tunisia include gender segregation and an increased presence of Islam in colleges and universities (Alexander, 2012). In the case of Belhadj and Hizb ut-Tahrir, the objective seems to be an Islamic state based on Salafi principles (Ryan, 2011).

The concern in Tunisia’s current political landscape has to do with intense violent conflicts between Salafis (who were said to be responsible for violent actions that took place right before the 2011 elections) (Ryan, 2011) and those who oppose their positions. The discourse regarding the role of religion in Tunisia is still taking place between proponents of a more direct influence of Islam in politics and those who are advocating a more secular government. Such tension has been visible with a serious of events in Tunisia, that include an attack on the US embassy in Tunis (Amara, 2012), an “attack on national guard posts in the Tunis suburb of Manouba” (BBC, 2012), as well as protests against a Tunisian television station for the broadcasting of the film Persepolis (Ryan, 2011).1

Such incidents not only highlight the growing tension between seculars and Ennahda or seculars and Salafi Islamist groups but some argue these episodes also underscore an expectation for Ennahda to take a clearer position on the Salafi Islamist groups, although others suggest that this is complicated, particularly since Ennahda’s “most conservative wing overlaps with the most moderate fringe of the Salafists. Some [Ennahda] people argue that many Salafists are decent Tunisians who have merely adopted a more rigorous interpretation of Islam. So [Ennahda] keeps communication open to leading Salafi preachers” (Economist, 2012). However, some members of the party are calling for increased pressure on those Salafis who espouse violence for their political objectives (Economist, 2012). For example, in mid-December of 2012, it was reported that “ultra-conservative Salafist Muslims attacked a hotel in the Tunisian city of Subaytilah,” where it was alleged that “An estimated 15 Salafists destroyed the hotel’s furniture and bar and burned a vehicle parked in front of the building.” Witnesses on the scene also reported that some of the individuals “threatened hotel guests with meat cleavers and called them ‘infidels’” (AFP, in Ahram, 2012).

The situation between Ennahda and Salafi groups intensified in the following months. For example, In May 2013, the conflict escalated further owing to confrontations between Ansar al-Shariah and police after the group’s congress met (defying government orders) (Jacinto, 2013). It was at this time that the spokesperson of Ansar al-Shariah, Seifeddine Rais, was arrested (Jacinto, 2013). The events that transpired between the government and Ansar al-Shariah came after statements by Tunisian Prime Minister Ali Larayedh tying the organization with to terrorism, stating that “Ansar al-Shariah is an illegal organization which defies and provokes state authority.… It has ties to and is involved in terrorism” (Jacinto, 2013).2 Thus the role of religion in Tunisia is still being discussed in the public sphere, with actors from the various positions attempting to play a role in the politics of the state.


Shortly following the uprising in Tunisia, Egyptians also took to the streets to speak out against Hosni Mubarak, who came to power in 1981 following the assassination of Anwar Sadat. Mubarak, a member of the Egyptian military, initially offered evidence that his policies would differ from those of Sadat by verbally calling for increased rights, along with elections. Mubarak did in fact initially provide some freedoms in the form of increased opposition in government and permitting the allowance of free political speech, all the while refraining from curbing protests with violence (Brownlee, 2002, p. 7). However, Mubarak quickly moved to tighten his control on challengers and critics. Specifically, “he refused to reform the constitution, extended the state of emergency, promulgated laws to exclude opposition parties from local council and tightened the grip of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) over parliament” (Lesch, 2011, pp. 35–36). He increased his power by selecting political positions, he was able to dissolve government, and had veto power (Lesch, 2011, p. 36). Furthermore, the government went after political challengers such as the Muslim Brotherhood as well as other outspoken critics of the government (Lesch, 2011).

In recent years, Mubarak furthered his influence in the political system by increasing control against those who were seen as a political threat to him. For example, in 2010, government forces carried out a “crackdown” against journalists and others: Specifically, “The government closed down 19 TV and satellite channels, hacked or blocked several websites, pressured private businessmen to cancel outspoken critics’ positions as editors, opinion writers and talk-show hosts” (Lesch, 2011, p. 40). These restrictions, along with claims of corruption within the government, led to increased frustrations among the Egyptian public (Lesch, 2011), which eventually led to the 2011 protests. However, these were not the first protests against Mubarak. For example, in 2004, a group called Kefaya (Enough) called to attention corruption and government rights abuses through a serious of actions and protests. In addition to Kefaya, labor protests that formed in the mid- to late 2000s also posed a challenge to Mubarak’s regime. Last, in 2010, the death of Khaled Said—who was killed by police—led to a movement (both in the streets and through social media) of Egyptians calling for increased government accountability (Lesch, 2011).

2011 Protests and the Role of the Muslim Brotherhood

Although many members of civil society publicly challenged Hosni Mubarak’s policies in the prior decade, it wasn’t until shortly after the protests in Tunisia that Egyptians began organizing its own large-scale public protests against the Mubarak regime. On January 25, or the “Day of Rage,” citizens took to the streets demanding the ouster of Mubarak. These protests continued in Egypt throughout the week. On February 1, Mubarak appeared on television, saying that his current term in office would be his last (Al Jazeera, 2011). While Mubarak continued his defiance by staying in office, protesters did not relent, instead intensifying their demonstrations. These continued until February 11, 2011, when Mubarak stepped down (Al Jazeera, 2011).

One of the major questions asked by many throughout the world in relation to these events in Egypt regarded the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in the protests. Namely, what was the role of religion, and the Muslim Brotherhood specifically in the Egyptian protests that led to the ouster of Mubarak? As mentioned before, the Muslim Brotherhood is seen as the main political and religious organization in Egypt. Founded by Hasan Al-Bannah in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood formed as a political, social, cultural, and religious organization whose objectives included challenging political corruption and colonialism along with framing a political system based on Islamic influences. But historically the Muslim Brotherhood has had a tumultuous relationship with the various Egyptian leaders. For example, early in the formation of the organization, the Muslim Brotherhood was highly critical of the king and his ties to the British government. Following the 1952 coup by Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Free Officers, the relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and Nasser was not hostile until an assassination attempt occurred in 1954, which led to the disbanding of the Muslim Brotherhood. Still operating outside of the direct purview of the government, the organization continued to provide social services. When Sadat came to power in 1970, he gave the Muslim Brotherhood a bit more latitude as long as their activities were social and not political in nature. Mubarak, however, attempted to reduce their role, particularly as they continued to gain political support and relative electoral success (Shehata, 2012).

The Muslim Brotherhood had an interesting role in the 2011 Egyptian protests. As in the case of Islamists in Tunisia, the Muslim Brotherhood was not at the forefront of the political activity and did not get involved in the first protest; they publicly supported the protesters only a few days later (Hamid & Brooke, 2011). Instead, they seemed to take a strategic political position to provide support to the protesters, all the while not serving as leaders of the antigovernment movement. In fact, they allowed non-Islamists to be the leaders of the protests (Hamid & Brooke, 2011). The organization seemed to be eager to avoid upsetting either the protesters or the government. One example of this was on February 6, when “The Muslim Brotherhood says in a statement that it ‘has decided to participate in a dialogue round in order to understand how serious the officials are in dealing with the demands of the people’” (Al Jazeera, 2011). Moreover, according to reports, some senior members of the party took an official position that “backed off its demand that Mr. Mubarak step down immediately and make other concessions, apparently little concrete in return.” (Murphy, 2011). This move, which seemed to be an attempt to avoid a direct challenge to Mubarak, produced a strong backlash within Egyptian society (as many non-Islamists in Egypt were upset that the biggest challenger to the government would take such as position) as well as increasing tensions within the Muslim Brotherhood organization itself (Murphy, 2011).

It was not that the Muslim Brotherhood supported the government—as they historically have been major challengers to the Mubarak regime—but rather that the Muslim Brotherhood seemed to be aware of the political costs that would be associated with serving as the leading (and openly direct) opposition to the Mubarak regime during this time. In fact, “The Brothers, ever cautious and aware that they bear the brunt of regime repression when they join protests, were slow to participate in the demonstrations that broke out on Jan. 25 and have struggled to craft a united front ever since” (Murphy, 2011). And during the funeral of Mustafa Sawi, the first person killed in the 2011 Egyptian protests, the Muslim Brotherhood had little involvement. What is interesting to note is that the organization itself “insists it is little more than a bit player in the outpouring of resistance to the regime of President Hosni Mubarak” (Englund, 2011). Even Muslim Brotherhood members have admitted as much. For example, Mohammed Mahdi Akef, the previous leader of the organization, said that “This is on purpose.” He went on to say that “We want to be part of the fabric of society” (Englund, 2011). And it was a host of Egyptians, from various political, religious, and ideological positions that came together as Egyptians to counter the government; notions of religious or ideological politics were therefore reduced during the uprisings.

Again, it seems that this approach may stem from prior government actions against the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists. In a variety of cases during the Arab uprisings, leaders would often blame “extremists” for the civil unrest. These criticisms more often have targeted Islamist groups who have served as the major opposition forces to these authoritarian regimes. This was no different with the Muslim Brotherhood, who had historically been at least somewhat politically isolated by the Mubarak regime despite having some seats in government. To illustrate this point about Mubarak’s attitude toward the Muslim Brotherhood, “Leaked US diplomatic cables suggest Omar Suleiman, the vice-president, long sought to demonise the opposition Muslim Brotherhood in his contacts with skeptical US officials” (Al Jazeera, 2011). Moreover, as the protests intensified, the government arrested a number of the older guard of the Muslim Brotherhood (Englund, 2011).

Thus even after the Muslim Brotherhood did officially become involved in the protests as an organization, its activities did not consist of directly leading the protests. Instead,

it [the Muslim Brotherhood] played an important role in maintaining the momentum of the protests by supplying logistical support, organization, and participants. Members provided water and food for protesters, the first microphone and speaker tower, and a number of times, during the protest, established security checkpoints to prevent pro-government forces from entering Tahrir Square. They also posted information about the protests to their websites.

(Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2012)

Specifically, the Muslim Brotherhood would often serve as the security for all who entered the protest square. Furthermore, they would often serve tea to the activists as well as setting up care centers for any injured protesters (PBS Frontline, 2011). In fact, in an interview with PBS Frontline, “Mohammad Abbas, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood’s youth wing” explained in an interview to Charles Sennott of GlobalPost that the organization “built a barrier by the Omar Makram Mosque, which is one of the entrances to Tahrir Square, and another one at the Kasr Al-Nile Bridge.” The organization also provided medical care to those injured during the uprisings. Amr Hamzawy of the Carnegie Middle East Center explains that “it’s not only garbage collection, tea, cups, so on and so forth, it’s even one microphone, or the two microphones which we have to address the crowd. They are owned by the Muslim Brotherhood, which is an attest to the strong organization skills of the movement” (PBS Frontline, 2011). He goes on to say “not only that. Those who defended the demonstrators … were Ikhwan [Muslim Brotherhood] members in Tahrir against thugs of the Egyptian regime” (PBS Frontline, 2011).

For the Muslim Brotherhood, the reasons for their actions did not seem to be just about a unified front. Strategically, the Muslim Brotherhood realized that any provocation would arouse a backlash by the regime. Akef himself commented that “If we [the Muslim Brotherhood] led, they would have massacred us” (Englund, 2011). Summarizing this position, in which the organization seemed to believe, in a National Public Radio interview, when asked about why the Muslim Brotherhood has not been the leading organization against Mubarak during the Egyptian protests, Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institute stated that

the Muslim Brotherhood in this current round of unrest has played it very cleverly, letting others be out front even as it helps to organize these demonstrations. I think what we saw at the end of last week, particularly on Friday, is that when the Muslim Brotherhood does give instructions to get people out, you see much, much larger crowds than you had up until that moment.

(NPR, 2011)

The Muslim Brotherhood: After the Uprisings

Following the fall of Hosni Mubarak, as Egypt prepared for the parliamentary elections, what became clear was that despite the fact that religious protesters were not at the forefront of the protests in Tahrir Square and elsewhere in the country, the Muslim Brotherhood was quickly projected as the frontrunner in the elections. And the results of the November elections supported earlier expectations: the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (the electoral wing of the organization) won 225 seats, which amounted to 45 percent of the votes. Surprising to some, the group that came in second was the Salafi Nour Party, which won 111 seats, or 22 percent of the vote, thus ensuring an Islamist-dominant government and constitutional writing group (Al Jazeera, 2012).3 Furthermore, in the following Shura Council elections in February 2012, the Freedom and Justice Party won 105 out of the 180 seats, amounting to over 58 percent of the total. The Nour (Salafi) Party held the second highest amount of seats with 45, or 25 percent of the total (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2012).

So while the 2011 protests were not religiously motivated, the Islamist parties performed strongly in the elections. Many have wondered how this was possible, given the nature of the uprisings. It is important to remember, however, that while the protests themselves were not centered on religious themes, this is not to say that individuals were not in support of religious parties. Moreover, the Muslim Brotherhood has had decades of experience in organizing as well as increasing its street credibility by providing a wide range of social services. And like the Ennahda in Tunisia, the Muslim Brotherhood organization itself has been trying to figure out the party platform as well as the political path it wishes to take. Conflicting statements made by Muslim Brotherhood members on the relationship of Islam in the government, the relationship between Egypt and the United States, Egypt and Islamist organizations such as Hamas, as well as the government’s position on the 1979 peace treaty with Israel have left many wondering what the party’s intentions and objectives are. In terms of the official position of the group, they seem to be fully in support of a democratic Egypt that protects the rights of citizens. As Shehata (2012) explains,

the platform of the party states that it is committed to equality for all Egyptians; pluralism; social justice; human rights; and the freedoms of expression, belief, and worship. It advocates a “civil state” with an Islamic reference, language the Brotherhood has developed to signal that it does not advocate theocratic government. It is committed to popular sovereignty and to the Sharia as the main source of legislation.

But what this actually means in practice is difficult to say, since it seems that the organization is not completely in agreement on all issues, nor have they been united in how the party has gone about conducting its internal affairs. For example, tensions have existed between the younger and older guards in the organization. Shehata (2012) explains that

Younger members, many of whom participated in the uprising, left the movement to establish the new Egyptian Current Party. They had objected to the undemocratic manner in which Freedom and Justice Party leaders were chosen. They differed with the leadership on the role of religion in politics, its rigidity on other issues, and the specific relationship between the movement and its new party. They also resented the marginalization of younger members within the Brotherhood.

However, individuals within the party were not the only ones upset with the postelectoral actions of the party. Citizens previously hopeful about a post-Mubarak Egypt have questioned many of the government’s policies and inefficiencies in dealing with issues of unemployment and other socioeconomic matters. Furthermore, the actions of President Mohammed Mursi left some wondering whether his practices were more reflective of his own political positions and ambitions compared with those of the party as a whole. In fact, concerns about Mursi and the government’s policies have led to antigovernment protests. And in June 2013, many antigovernment protests successfully called for government reform after what seems to be disappointment regarding what they viewed as a problematic direction in which the Muslim Brotherhood‒dominated government was taking the country. In fact, the military stepped in and replaced the Muslim Brotherhood government, arresting many of its leaders, all the while temporarily4 taking control of the government.5


On February 20, 2013, Moroccans took to the street to protest the policies of the country’s king, Mohammed VI, who had held power since 1999. However, unlike the cases of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, Mohammed VI, through select constitutional and electoral reforms, survived calls for his ouster. After protesters demanded political changes, a constitutional referendum was supported by 98.49 percent of the Moroccans who voted (CNN, 2011). The referendum calls for the prime minister position to be filled by the winning electoral party in parliamentary elections,6 allows the position to have the authority to “dissolve the House of Representatives,” and calls for the king to “consult” with the prime minister before the king dissolves the government (CNN, 2011). Furthermore, “A reference to the king as “sacred” in the constitution will be removed, though he will remain “inviolable” (BBC, 2011a). The constitutional reform also has within it legislation for an independent judiciary, including Berber as a recognized language (BBC, 2011a); it also calls for gender equality between women and men (BBC, 2011a).7

As a result of the protests and elections, the Justice and Development Party (PJD), one of the two main Islamist challengers to the king’s power, increased its role in Moroccan politics. The party first became registered and recognized as the PJD in 1998, although it evolved from the both prior and other organizations of the Reform and Renewal and Movement of Unity and Reform (MUR) two years earlier (Maghraoui, 2012, p. 93).8 The PJD has been active in elections since their formation, gaining 14 seats in 1997, 42 in 2002, and 46 in 2007 (Maghraoui, 2012). However, following the protests and constitutional referendum, in the 2011 Parliamentary elections, the PJD won 107 seats, which amounts to “27 percent of the vote” (Maghraoui, 2012, p. 91), the highest of any political party in the elections. And as a result, the king selected Abdelilah Benkirane of the PJD to hold the prime minister position. Moreover, PJD currently holds 11 cabinet positions (Maghraoui, 2012). But despite their recent electoral success, the king has continued his hold on power. He has not only used constitutional changes to shore up his support but has also played off of religious cues. For example, the Moroccan monarchy has continued to consider itself the “Commander of the Faithful,” according the Shiah tradition, a term first applied to Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, and to Abu Bakr (in the Sunni tradition).9 This term holds religious and political significance. Moreover, the king is also seen by some to hold Baraka, or divine blessings. Because of this, many have wondered just how much religious influence the PJD has, commenting that:

Many political analysts of the Moroccan political system agree with the fact that MUR/PJD remains a conservative organization, focusing much on the socio-cultural issues (combating corruption, prostitution, alcohol, homosexuality etc.), but when it comes to the political prerogative and religious legitimacy of the regime, PJD remains fundamentally complacent. (Ait Dada & van Schaik, 2012)

As in the cases of Tunisia and Egypt, in attempting to understand the role of religion in the Arab uprisings in Morocco, many have wondered about the activities of the PJD during this time. Namely, given the PJD’s popularity and electoral success post-2011 protests in Morocco, what was their role in the uprisings? As in the cases of Ennahda and the Muslim Brotherhood, the PJD played little role in the February 20, 2011 protests, particularly compared with the other major Islamist group in Morocco, the Justice and Charity organization. Regarding the Justice and Development Party,

Though some official members of the party had attended some demonstrations of the movement before the last parliamentary elections, PJD did not officially announce its support to the movement. PJD, which was the only opposition party in the country and the close one to the palace, and the party which was always showing its enthusiasm and struggle for democracy and for better Morocco, had been put in a dilemma whether to support the 20 F.M. movement or stay on the palace’s side. PJD did not clearly show its stance towards the movement, the thing that raised many questions in that respect. (Ait Dada & van Sckaik, 2012, p. 29)

In fact, it seems that the PJD internally was not immediately in agreement about the best course of action regarding whether to become involved in the protests or to remain quiet. Some in the party raised concerns about who the protesters actually were, while others seemed to think about the effect that challenging the king would have on Morocco; since some of the leaders in the Middle East took to violence after protests began against their regimes, it seems that some were genuinely concerned about the response domestically (Ait Dada & van Sckaik, 2012). However, this is not to say that none of the PJD members supported the protests. In fact, a number of them were active during the period (Ait Dada & van Sckaik, 2012, p. 29).

In order to understand exactly why many of them were rather inactive during the protests, one has to keep in mind the history between the Islamist party and King Hassan II and Muhammad VI. Much of their reluctance to publicly challenge the king seems to have stemmed from their careful approach to politics in Morocco. Historically, Islamists have been seen with suspicion, as worries about challenging the king’s power as well as notions of the introduction of an Islamic state have led to concerns about Islamist organizations. Because of this, summarizing the PJD’s actions during this time, Ait Dada and van Sckaik (2012) explain the situation in this way:

So, in one occasion PJD in announcing that it is not concerned with the 20 F.M., [February 20th Movement] and in other we find some important members participating in the demonstrations of the movement, and in other the movement’s members agreed with the movements in certain points. This ambiguous and indecisive opinion of PJD about the 20 F.M. [was] justified by two main things; first, its fear to lose the good relationship that the party has with the palace if it would officially [support] the social movement; and [second] its fear to lose votes in the next elections. (Ait Dada & van Sckaik, 2011, p. 32).

In comparison, these actions differed greatly from the Justice and Charity Party (JC) ((al Adl wal Ihssan), which is seen as “The PJD’s main Islamist competitor” in Morocco (Maghraoui, 2012, p. 96). The Justice and Charity organization was founded by Sufi religious cleric Abdesslam Yassine in 1987.10 Yassine and Justice and Charity have historically been highly critical of the king in Morocco, which has gotten Yassine and the organization into political trouble. In 1974, Yassine wrote a public letter challenging the legitimacy of the King Hassan II. This letter, which led to his arrest, called upon the king to move away from undemocratic policies and actions that also ignored Islam (Maghraoui, 2012).11 Regarding the organization’s position, the JC differs from the PJD in that they do not operate in the electoral system as it currently stands. They continue to see the king as undemocratic and thus do not recognize the government and do not run in elections. Part of this has to do with the king’s failure to officially recognize the JC party, although he seems to unofficially allow the organization to exist. The JC’s positions toward the king and Morocco’s politics are in stark contrast to those of the PJD, which recognizes the king as a legitimate power and operates in the political system, which includes running in elections. Thus, while both are Islamist parties, their approaches toward the King vary drastically.

These differences help to explain the role of religion in the protests, and more specifically, both organizations’ strategies during the protests. Unlike the PJD, the JC, which maintains its stance on the “corrupt” nature of the government as well as its outspoken position that the king is not the “Commander of the Faithful,” saw the protests as an excellent opportunity to deliver their message without as much of a backlash. Since the Moroccan government has historically challenged the Justice and Charity’s political protests, the protests gave the party a chance to pronounce its positions with reduced risk (Ait Dada & van Schaik, 2012). Again, following the “Arab Spring” beginning in 2010 and continuing into 2011, a number of protesters took to the streets in Morocco, beginning on February 20, 2011, demanding more rights from Mohammed VI. Again, in response, Mohammed VI said that he would organize a commission to look into changing the constitution to give more independence to the judges, provide more power to other branches of government, and increase the role of the Morocco’s prime minister (Hussein, 2011). Along with the February 20 protest, another protest on March 20—where over 4,000 persons were said to have demonstrated against the monarchy—were actually organized by “the youth organization of the Justice and Charity Association” along with a number of human rights organizations (Hussein, 2011). As we know, the JC has been highly critical of the monarchy and said that the protests in North Africa “left no place today for distortions … and empty, false promises” (Reuters, on MSNBC, 2011). Furthermore, The JC has been one of the major organizations organizing the protests against Mohammed VI in Morocco. The Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) (2011) explains that the JC specifically “called for ‘autocracy’ to be ‘swept away’ and that the government should undertake ‘deep democratic reform.’”

Moreover, the Justice and Charity organization’s attitudes toward the king were similar to the issues that many others in the February 20th Movement had with the king—among others, corruption and civil and political rights were the primary issues in the protests (Ait Dada & van Schaik, 2012). But despite the activity of the JC, it seems that they did not push an Islamist message during the protests. Some have argued that the Justice and Charity organization “made many concessions to participate in a movement which established mainly by leftists and atheists; the enemies of JC. Some of these concessions are: sticking to the movement’s [program] and demands …, and working together with leftist with whom they have a bloody history” (Ait Dada & van Sckaik, 2012, p. 30).

Thus while religious parties did have a role in the protests in Morocco, the religious parties (both the Justice and Development as well as Justice and Charity organizations) were each strategic in their actions, with the PJD playing a rather reduced role owing to its relationship with the king, while the JC spearheaded parts of the protests. But even in this case, religion was not the main factor in citizen action against the king.


The uprisings of North Africa and the Middle East have showed the power of the individual in challenging authoritarian regimes. In these uprisings, religion was not the primary motivating factor in the challenges to the state. Instead, issues of corruption, unemployment, socioeconomic, and civil, and political rights were the main frustrations voiced by citizens. But while this was the case, Islamist parties also took interest in the actions. However, they did so strategically. In cases where such groups feared government reprisal, they were much more careful in acting publicly, concerned about a heavy-handed response. Moreover, those who projected electoral success were not willing to risk this by taking the lead in a public outcry. However, those who have either shunned the political system or rejected the authoritarian leadership’s power from the beginning—as is the case with the Justice and Charity organization—the protests gave them a great opportunity to further publicize their antigovernment activity as well as a more direct platform to advocate their positions. Again, not all groups were willing to do this. The Muslim Brotherhood, as well as Ennahda, having been repressed for many years, seemed to worry that taking such bold actions would cause a backlash. Similarly with the Justice and Development Party, having performed rather well in prior elections and thus accepting the liberal-authoritarian system (and in turn the power of the king) were careful not to bring negative attention to themselves by leading the protests, particularly in the case of Morocco, where the numbers of protesters were far fewer than those in Tunisia and Egypt. Thus, overall, we must look at the religious parties as strategic actors who each attempted to fulfill their own specific political objectives based on domestic political conditions.


Ahram (2012). Tunisian Salafists Attack Bar, Call Drinkers “Infidels.” Ahram Online. December 14, 2012. Available at:,-call-drinkers-infid.aspx

Ait Dada, A., & van Schaik, R. (2012). Political Islam and the Moroccan Arab Spring. Final Research Report. Nederlands Instituut Marokko. 23-01-2012. Available at:

Al Jazeera (2011). Timeline: Egypt’s Revolution. February 14, 2011. Available at:

Al Jazeera (2012). Interactive: Full Egypt Electoral Results. February 1, 2012. Available at:

Al Jazeera (2013). Profile: Shokri Belaid. February 7, 2013. Available Online:

Al Jazeera (2013b). Tunisia’s Moncef Marzouki’s CPR Party “stays in government.” February 11, 2013. Available at:

Alexander, Christopher (2012). Tunisia’s Best Bet, in The Islamists Are Coming: Who They Really Are (Robin Wright, ed.), United States Institute of Peace, pp. 39–48.Find this resource:

Amara, T. (2012). Two Dead as Protesters Attack US Embassy in Tunisia. Reuters. September 14, 2012. Available at:

BBC (2011a). Q&A: Morocco’s Referendum on Reform. June 29, 2011. Available at:

BBC (2011b). Tunisia Q&A; January 15, 2011. Available at:

BBC (2012). One Dead in Tunisia Clash Between Salafists and Police. BBC. October 30, 2012. Available at:

Bollier, S. (2011). Who Are Tunisia’s Political Parties? Aljazeera. October 27, 2011. Available at:

Brownlee, J. (2002). The Decline of Pluralism in Mubarak’s Egypt. Journal of Democracy, Vol. 13, No. 4, pp. 6–14.Find this resource:

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (2012). Results of Shura Council Elections. Guide to Egypt’s Transition. Available at:

CNN (2011). Morocco Approves Constitutional Reforms. July 1, 2011. Available at:

Economist (2012). Tunisia’s Salafists: Don’t Push Them Underground. The Economist. September 22, 2012. Available at:

Englund, D. (2011). Muslim Brotherhood Says It Is Only A Minor Player in Egyptian Protests. Washington Post, January 31, 2011. Available at:

Hamid, S., & Brooke, S. (2011). The Muslim Brotherhood’s Role in the Egyptian Revolution. CTS Sentinel. February 1, 2011. Available at:’s-role-in-the-egyptian-revolution

Hussein, A. F. (2011). Thousands of Moroccans Demonstrate for Social Justice. All Voices. March 20, 2011. Available at:

Jacinto, L. (2013). Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda Party Turns on Salafis. France 24. May 22, 2013. Available at:

Kaucsh, K. (2009). Tunisia: The Life of Others: Project on Freedom of Association in the Middle East and North Africa. FRIDE, pp. 1–24.Find this resource:

King, E. (2012). The Future of Tunisian Islamism: The Case of Ennahda. Crossroads: An Interdisciplinary Journal for the Study of History, Philosophy, Religion, and Classics. Vol. VI, Issue 1, pp. 4–12.Find this resource:

Koplow, M. (2011). Why Tunisia’s Revolution is Islamist-Free. Foreign Policy, January 14, 2011. Available at:

Lesch, A. M. (2011). Egypt’s Spring: Causes of the Revolution. Middle East Policy, Vol. XXVIII, No. 3, Fall 2011, pp. 35–48.Find this resource:

Maghraoui, Abdeslam. (2012). Morocco: The King’s Islamists, in The Islamists Are Coming: Who They Really Are (Robin Wright, ed.), United States Institute of Peace, pp. 91–98.Find this resource:

May, M. (2012). Mohammed Abbadi, New Leader of Justice and Charity Elected. Morocco Mirror. Tuesday December 25, 2012. Available at:

Murphy, D. (2011). Egypt’s Protests: Muslim Brotherhood’s Concessions Prompt Anger. The Christian Science Monitor. February 7, 2011. Available at:

New York Times. (2012). Abdessalam Yassine, Leader of Moroccan Opposition Movement, Dies at 84. New York Times (published by Associated Press). December 15, 2012. Available at:

NPR. (2011). Muslim Brotherhood Plays Key Role in Egypt Unrest. January 31, 2011. Available at:

Ottaway, Marina, & Riley, Meredith. (2006). Morocco: From Top-Down Reform to Democratic Transition? Carnegie Papers, No. 71, pp. 1–20.Find this resource:

Paciello, M. C. (2011). Tunisia: Changes and Challenges of Political Transition. MEDPRO Technical Report No. 3, May 2011. pp. 1–29.Find this resource:

PBS Frontline. (2011). The Brothers. February 22, 2011. Video available at:

Perkins, Kenneth. (2004). Regime Entrenchment and the intensification of opposition, 1969–1987, in A History of Modern Tunisia, Cambridge University Press, pp. 157–184.Find this resource:

Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) (2011). Morocco: Banned Islamist Group Calls for Reform, Protests Planned on Facebook. February 7, 2011. Available at:

Reuters (2011). Banned Islamists Plan Feb. 20 Protest in Morocco: Sufi Inspired Group Threatens End to Autocracy. Reported in MSNBC. February 7, 2011. Available at:

Ryan, Y. (2011). Tunisia’s Vocal Salafist Minority. Aljazeera. October 11, 2011. Available at:

Shehata, S. (2012). Egypt: The Founders. The Islamists Are Coming. Woodrow Wilson Center. Available at:


(1) The film tells the story of an Iranian growing up in pre- and post-revolutionary Iran. In the film, she is often portrayed speaking out against the Islamic policies of the Iranian theocratic government following the overthrow of Muhammad Reza Shah. The film also “depicts God in human form” (Ryan, 2011), which offended some in Tunisia.

(2) The tension between various groups based on religion in government is not solely between Islamists. For example, on February 6, 2013, human rights activist and politician Chokri Belaid was assassinated coming out of his home just outside of Tunis. Belaid, the primary leader of the Popular Front Coalition (of which his Democratic Patriot’s Party was a member) was an outspoken critic against Ennahda (Al Jazeera, 2013), often arguing for the secularization of Tunisian politics. While Ennahda leaders Hamadi Jebali and Rachid Ghounnouchi both made statements condemning the attacks, some members of Tunisia society blamed Ennahda for the killing, believing they were the ones responsible. Others immediately after the death of Belaid pointed fingers at the Salafi presence in Tunisia.

As a response to the increased tension, Prime Minister Jebali called for dismissal of the cabinet, suggesting instead that the government be run by nonpoliticians until new elections could be established. However, many members of his own Ennahda party refused, emphasizing that their party was elected. In addition, Moncef Marzouki, the president of Tunisia—and the leader of the Congress for the Republic (CPR) Party—on February 10, 2013, threatened to resign if two Ennahda ministers (the foreign minister and the justice minister) were not replaced. He did change his tune, however, and offered to stay in government an additional week in hopes of resolving this crisis (Al Jazeera, 2013b).

(3) As a result of the percent of seats allocated based on parliamentary electoral success.

(4) There are concerns as to what the military’s long-term objectives will be.

(5) As this article is being written, there are clashes between Egypt’s military and Muslim Brotherhood supporters who are calling for the reinstallation of Muhammad Mursi as the president of Egypt.

(6) While Mohammed VI used to select the prime minister from the winning party, “in 2002 he reverted to the practice of naming a prime minister without consideration of election results…. Instead, after the 2002 elections, the king picked as prime minister Driss Jettou, a loyal technocrat not aligned with any political party” Ottaway & Riley, 2006, p. 9).

(7) But despite this, the king, through existing law, still has control over significant aspects of Moroccan politics, that include “security and foreign policy, as well as matters of religion” (BBC, 2011a). Furthermore, he has continued maintaining his political network of loyalists (Ottaway & Riley, 2006).

(8) Maghraoui (2012) explains that while the PJD operates in elections as a party, “[t]he PJD remains dependent on the socially conservative MUR for leadership, recruitment, and popular support. The majority of the PJD’s General Secretariat holds leadership positions in MUR, a factor that is pivotal to election mobilization” (93).

(9) The early Muslims were divided on who should be the successor and leader of the Muslim community following the death of the Prophet Muhammad.

(10) Abdesslam Yassine passed away on December 13, 2012 (New York Times, 2012). The current leader of the Justice and Charity organization is Mohammed Abbadi (May 2012).

(11) As a whole, “Yassine spent nine years under house arrest” (New York Times, 2012).