The true popular strength of various Islamist groups is one of the most intriguing issues in the past generation of Arab, Iranian and Turkish politics across the region, and is likely to be with us for some time. The last two years of Arab revolutions and uprisings, followed by some free elections, have clarified the picture, though. The basic questions remain: Are Islamist groups gaining or losing popularity in different Arab countries? Are Islamists of all varieties better at governing with a legitimate electoral mandate, or better at being opposition groups that only serve their narrow constituencies with a variety of social services and organized piety? Do Islamists necessarily do well when engaged in armed resistance to a foreign occupier or a domestic autocrat, and less so when they stop fighting and take on the responsibility of governing?
We see contradictory trends in some cases. On the one hand, Muslim Brothers and Salafist groups are doing well in elections in several countries that have started to democratize, and in places like Syria, where armed conflict persists, hard-line and fundamentalist Salafist groups are becoming more powerful, in some places taking control of local governance structures. On the other hand, Islamists who assumed power democratically in countries such as Egypt (the Freedom and Justice Party) and Tunisia (Ennahda Party) are losing support, and in some cases are being pressured to leave office.
A new public opinion poll by the leading pollsters Baseera in Egypt shows that President Mohammad Mursi’s popularity has dropped sharply in recent months – from a high approval rating of 78 percent in September to 49 percent in recent weeks. Those who disapproved of the president’s performance rose to 43 percent, compared to 39 percent and 15 percent in the last two polls during the past seven months. Equally striking is how many Egyptians would vote again for Mursi as president. After his first 100 days in office, 58 percent of respondents said they would vote again for him, but today that figure is down to 35 percent .
The situation of the Islamists who head the coalition government in Tunisia is not much better. Ennahda head Mohammad Rached Ghannouchi has been pelted with tomatoes and eggs at recent events he attended in some rural areas to mark the second anniversary of the overthrow of the former regime – presumably because many citizens are dissatisfied with the government’s performance.
A survey conducted last month by the International Republican Institute showed that the percentage of citizens who were dissatisfied with the direction of the country continued to rise. A total of 77 percent thought Tunisia was moving in the wrong direction, the highest level recorded in the past two years.
The dissatisfaction is not with democracy as such, but with the performance of the Islamist-led government. A majority of those polled (52 percent) said they still supported democracy as the best path for Tunisia.
While these two cases show democratically elected Islamist parties losing popularity, we also witness other Islamists gaining power or support in Syria, where groups like the Nusra Front and others are gaining increasing prominence and, in some cases, political control over areas liberated from government control. Hamas and Hezbollah are two other prominent Islamist parties that have won significant support in Palestine and Lebanon, but both of them are also being subjected to significant challenges and push-back by many in their countries who reject their brand of religious-based ideology and militancy. Other Islamists parties in tribally based Yemen and Libya have won some popular support, but far short of the pluralities the Islamists won in elections in Tunisia and Egypt.
Two other non-Arab examples offer more fascinating evidence of the varying fates of Islamists in power. In Turkey, the ruling Justice and Development Party that emerged from Islamist predecessors has fared very well and has been re-elected twice, in part because it has downplayed religious issues and focused on responding to citizens’ needs.
In Iran, the Islamic Republic’s theocratic leadership has faced significant calls for reform in recent years. That is probably because many, perhaps a small majority, of the Iranian public are not content with its combination of autocratic political controls and strict Islamic dictates, combined with poor economic performance.
The evidence to date suggests that religion may not be the right criterion by which to judge political movements that claim to speak in the name of Islam or that use Islamic discourse to tell Muslims how to behave personally and politically. It should now be abundantly clear that performance, not piety, is the main factor in whether a political movement gains or loses public support after it assumes public office.
Foreign governments and analysts should worry less about the religious dimensions of political movements in the Middle East and North Africa, and focus more on their efficacy in governing and responding to citizens’ needs – for that is what citizens across the Arab world seem to be doing.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. He can be followed on Twitter @RamiKhouri.