How do religious identities explain the success of Islamist parties in Tunisia and Egypt after the Arab Spring?

When the events of the Arab Spring started, observers were keen to point out the lack of involvement from Islamist groups. Yes, they were the main opposition group in countries like Tunisia and Egypt for decades, but it seemed like there were as much taken by surprise as the respective regimes.

Not that they were not part of the protests that took place in much of the Arab World. But they were not the key organizers, and the result of the protests was not the Islamist states they had fought for, but rather democratic systems. Yet, after Ben Ali and Mubarak were ousted, Islamist parties (Ennahda in Tunisia and Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt) emerged as the strongest political actors in the new system.

This essay will use Kinnvall’s (2004) approach to religious identity to explain how uncertainty in the wake of an economic and political crisis has bolstered religious identity, giving Islamist party a degree of legitimacy not explained by their support base prior to the rebellions.

In the first part of this essay, I will illustrate the theoretical background. External and internal threats, like massive demographic change (Robinson/El-Zanati 2006), economic policies (Dahi 2011; 2012) as well as the global economic crisis (Joffé 2011), a rapidly changing world due to globalization (Kinnvall 2004) and the political power vacuum due to the protests have caused uncertainties, with religion offering a stable identity to fill this void (Kinnvall 2004). Religion and nationalism are both competing “ideologies of order” (Juergensmeyer 2010) with strong narratives – when nationalism, linked to the state, fails due to a political crisis, and elites join the protest (Brinton 1965), religion is the remaining, unifying ideology of order. This, I will argue, enables Islamist groups and parties to mobilize well beyond their regular support base.

The differences in the co-optation of religion by the state explain the differing outcomes in Tunisia: In Egypt, where Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak all combined fighting Islamists and exerting control over Islamic groups (Gaffney 2004, Juergensmeyer 2010, Kinnvall 2004), religion already played a larger role in political identification. In Tunisia, meanwhile, Bourguiba and Ben Ali were keen to maintain their vision of a secular country, even though they co-opted some of their rhetorics (Alexander 2000, Borowiec 1998), resulting in a dichotomy of a secular, Western state and Arabic, religious Islamists (Hamdi 1998). This allowed for Islamists in Egypt to reach more people beyond their traditional support base, but this support also faded quicker than support for Ennahda, who had a clearer narrative who “we” and “they” are.

I will then look at the economic and political crisis in Tunisia and Egypt around 2011. I will discuss erosion of support for the regimes prior to the rebellions as well as the varying levels on which the crisis could be experienced by Tunisians and Egyptians: Economically, due to high food prices and less welfare (Dahi 2011; 2012) and politically due to the instability and uncertainty following the rebellions.

I will then discuss how the Islamist parties have benefited from these crisis. I will show how their electoral successes and mobilization potential during the autocratic period does not match their strength after democratization (according to Borowiec 1998: 46, elections results in Tunisia indicated strength of Islamists, but no hope for domination through election), although repression will also play a role there. I will further look at the drop in support after Ennahda was in power and after Mubarak was ousted.

Key concept
The core concept of this essay is religious identity. In order to define it, we have to bear in mind two different contexts in which the term is used. First of all, when talking about religious identity, I am referring to social identity theory (Tajfel/Turner 1979). Tajfel and Turner introduce a simple model: Self-identity is based upon comparison of (positive) in-groups and (negative) out-groups (ibidum). Within this framework, then, religious identity is an in-group identity distinguished against other groups.

Another context in which religious identity is be used contrasts it with a secular, nationalist identity. In this approach, nationalism and religion are comparable competitors (Kinnvall 2004, Juergensmeyer 2010) – Juergensmeyer describes religion and nationalism as a “genus” of the same concept (2010).

While social identity theory includes social organization (and even: reproduction) of identities, the identity label itself is more important to authors thinking about nationalism. For the purpose of this essay, I am applying a mix of these concepts.

Religious identity, then, is a group-identity based on religious labels, rituals and ideas. To borrow from Benedict Anderson, religious identity creates an “imagined community” (Anderson 1983) based on a powerful narrative that is not primordial in the way ethnolinguistic “imagined communities” are (i.e. based on blood relations and kinship), but rather divine. What Anderson’s term illustrates very effectively, is the discoursive nature of this community; it is based on the imagination that everyone belongs to the same community, even though there might not be a direct relationship, through kinship or acquaintance.

Thus, this identity is also not necessarily based on a common understanding of religion; Anderson illustrates how there can be dissent on what an imagined community is and who belongs to it (Anderson 1983: 85ff). While he describes it for ethnolinguistic groups, we can easily adapt this to religious groups as well: Having the same group identity does not mean agreement on what this identity entails.

Another crucial question for this essay is what exactly constitutes a crisis that affects identities.

In his work on revolutions, Brinton argues that a crisis of the status quo causes revolutions. He describes this crisis as social and economic problems occurring, while elites convert to rebels, causing an additional political crisis (Brinton 1965). Although focused specifically on revolutions, his work provides valuable insight into how to assess crisis that cause social upheaval in a more general understanding.

The combination of economic and political factors in order to explain social upheaval has been used to explain the Arab Spring in the Middle East (Dahi 2011; 2012, Joffé 2011, Kinnvall 2004). More generally, rapid social change can be considered the cause of a crisis within a society (Voicu 2012).

Crisis, as I will use it in this essay, then refers to a mixture of social change, economic crisis and political instability, the three of which overlap and have unclear causal relations (economic crisis can cause political problems, but political instability can also stall economic growth).

Globalization, Crisis and Religious identities

In her study on Christians in Europe, Voicu points out that nationalism has a stronger link to religion in states with a dominant religion, making religion a useful unifying tool for states, especially in times of rapid social change (Voicu 2012). Since I will be looking at Tunisia and Egypt, the religion I will look at is Islam.

Social change implies internal causes; however, Globalization, with its compression of time and space that makes national borders less relevant in a fast paced, modern world, has a similar effect (Kinnvall 2004). Globalization is a very external force; dealing with it on a national level is close to impossible. As Kinnvall puts it:

“Some of the less desirable consequences are manifest in increasing rootlessness and loss of stability as people experience the effects of capitalist development, media overflow, structural adjustment policies, privatization, urbanization, unemployment, forced migration, and other similar transformative force (Kinnvall 2004)”.

According to her, this uncertainty about daily life then leads to an ontological, existential crisis – the individual seeks to compensate for the loss of “home” (as represented by the local community, now embedded and dissolved in an international world). Securitizing this notion of self, regaining ontological security is possible through time- and space bound identities, as time and space were threatened (ibidum).

Finding a “good” narrative of self is possible through the employment of group identities (Tajfel/Turner 1979, Ysseldyk et al 2010, Kinnvall 2004). While people have multiple, overlapping identities, religion and nationalism offer especially strong narratives reinforced through structures such as the state or mosques. They both claim a monolithic, abstract and stable identity, that is based on a long history full of collective traumata and glories (Kinnvall 2004). While nationalism may claim this for the label, religion can claim a long history for its ideas as well.

“Historical and cultural continuity grounds these core beliefs founded in rites, symbols, and physical spaces created over millenni (Ysseldyk et al 2010)”.

These characteristics stress the importance of time and space for religious identities: spaces, such as mosques, and rituals, such as (collective) praying offer an anchor in a changing world. Additionally, the In-group/Out-group dynamic that affects religious groups is intensified by their eternal group membership beyond the mortal realm (ibidum).

Religion and nationalism, while similar, will sometimes co-opt each other, while clashing at other times as competing “ideologies of order” (Juergensmeyer 2010). They can be linked to other ethnic identities (ibidum, Ysseldyk et al 2010), but in times of crisis, they would be more dominant (Kinnvall 2004).

This dominance of religious and nationalist identities would then allow for mobilization based on affiliation to either group. This models allows to explain how Islamists parties could benefit from uncertainty in a new democratic setting, as encountered in the wake of the Arab Spring.

Nationalism and Religion

If, as Juergensmeyer claims, nationalists and believers are either competing for dominance or co-opting each other (2010), differences in this process can account for different outcomes in Tunisia and Egypt – while other factors are very similar, Egypt and Tunisia had very different strategies towards religious opposition.

In Egypt, Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak all combined fighting Islamists and exerting control over Islamic groups (Gaffney 2004, Juergensmeyer 2010, Kinnvall 2004). When faced by Islamist opposition, Nasser’s “approach was to paint a picture of an Egypt that was culturally Muslim and politically secular” (Juergensmeyer 2010). When he, as Sadat, failed to accommodate both secular politics and Islamic identity, Mubarak chose a more moderate approach (ibidum). His predecessors modernization projects had led to revolts, so Mubarak resorted to an Egyptian identity based on both religion and patriotism (Kinnvall 2004).

A vague Muslim identity was not Mubarak’s invention; Muslim and Tribal identities, for example, are interwoven and overlap. As Nielsen puts it, “Tribes, Arabism and Islam are the elements of local and regional identities” (Nielsen 2004: 230). While the Tribal aspects may be closer linked to the region, Muslim and Arab identities exist throughout the country, with Arabism on the decline since Pan-Arabism failed. Islam could be used as a strong identity to include most sectors of the population, and with Islam being a dominant religion, nationalist and religious identity can be assumed to strengthen one another (Voicu 2012).

The Egyptian state, however, would not stick with identity politics alone.

“The larger story of the changes affecting Islamic Practice […] does not center on militants and dissidents, but on the longer and quieter process of incorporation of this region’s mosques and preachers into a national system that now largely serves to define the type of practice found not only in cities, but increasingly in villages as well (Gaffney 2004: 121).”

This incorporation of mosques and preachers into the bureaucracy started with Nasser’s expansion of the state. As a result, there were two different types of mosques: The “public” mosques, influenced by the state, and “private” mosques around charities that were more independent (Gaffney 2004). Effectively, while the Egyptian state maintained some degree of control over “official Islam”, it also promoted Islam by incorporating it into its own system, and, to some extent, ideology (Kinnvall 2004).

This contrasts with Tunisia’s explicitly secular stance. Bourguiba and Ben Ali were keen to maintain their vision of a secular country, even though they co-opted some Islamist rhetorics (Alexander 2000, Borowiec 1998). After the rise of the Islamists in the 80s, the state did try to incorporate “moderate” Islam while taking a hard stance on “extreme” Islam (Borowiec 1998: 44), softening up the states secularism. Yet, attempts to create “Islamic” organizations were motivated by power politics:

“Bourguiba had no intention of tempering his secular vision of Tunisian society. But a culturally oriented Islamist organization could provide a useful counter to his critics on the left (Alexander 2000).”

This strong secular vision would make Islamist groups less compatible to the hegemonic discourse employed by the state, while in Egypt, Islam had become part of discourse. It also created a clear distinction between the state and the Islamist opposition: a Secular, Western state vs Arabic, religious Islamists (Hamdi 1998).

Similarly, Tunisian identity, as promoted by the elite, was mainly defined against Arabism and Islamism: Tunisian-ness was not based on Arab-ness or the Umma, but rather something unique (Hibou 2011: 230).

The Islamists would claim to be the only true Muslims (Hamdi 1998), increasing group cohesion, but also alienating those parts of society that were not associated with them.

Since Egypt’s elite actively promoted an Islamic identity, while Tunisia’s elite actively opposed it, Islamic identity was much more prevalent in post-revolutionary Tunisia than in Egypt. This allowed for Islamists in Egypt to reach more people beyond their traditional support base through their common Islamic identity, mobilizing this imagined communities; but this support also faded quicker than support for Ennahda, who had a clearer narrative who “we” and “they” are.

Crisis in Tunisia and Egypt

The most discussed sign of a crisis in Egypt in Tunisia were food prices; after all, it was poverty that supposedly drove Mohamed Bouazizi to commit suicide by burning himself. The high global food prices certainly contributed to the events leading to the Arab Spring (Dahi 2011).

However, a quick look at economic data will not indicate a crisis; GDP growth in both Tunisia and Egypt were stable. Due to increased privatization, Foreign Direct Investments (FDI) increased as well, booming in the mid-2000s (Dahi 2011; 2012). This economic growth, however, did not benefit the population.

Privatization policies caused a widespread sentiment of the state selling assets for to little, reduction of the welfare-state apparatus, and led to protests. From 2004 to 2008, 1900 strikes took place in Egypt, with the number increasing significantly after the global economic crisis (Dahi 2011).

As discussed above, policies of privatization, of rapid social change also cause uncertainty and anxieties among the population. Disenfranchised people and a quickly growing population in previous decades (Robinson/El-Zanaty 2006) intensified this sentiment. Social mobility, i.e. migration to the cities and abroad (ibidum) would threaten the above discussed “home” as a category of security (Kinnvall 2004).

Meanwhile, the ongoing global financial crisis made it harder and harder for the states to solve social problems (Joffé 2011). The privatizations, a reaction to social problems, would only pay off in the future, not allowing the states to address urgent, current issues.

Thus, the states, both in Tunisia and in Egypt, lost a lot of their popular support that had been based on Bourguiba’s and Nasser’s promise of modernization and social welfare. This modernization was closer to the kind that cause radical change, without giving immediate promises.

The protests that ensued, with millions protesting, further weakened the states. As Brinton describes crisis, political elites converted to the opposition (Brinton 1965: 251) – in Tunisia, lawyers went on strike, the Union UGTT joined the protests, in Egypt, the military decided to let Mubarak fall – to the extent that Ben Ali was not able to suppress the revolts and had to leave the country, while Mubarak retired.

As a result of the political crisis, those promoting nationalist identities, i.e. the state and the ruling class, retreated from public life and lost dominance. The political crisis was also a crisis of the state, resulting in a crisis of nationalism. The gap caused by economic problems and a power vacuum could not sufficiently be filled by calls to national unity. Religious identity had lost its greatest competitor.

Did Islamists benefit from their powerful narratives?

Prior to the Arab Spring, it is hard to determine the strength of Islamists, as they were oppressed and not part of political life. If Islamists were not even considered political actors in Tunisia (Hibou 2011: 290), excluded from civil society (ibidum: 98), then their electoral success says little about their strength, and membership had to be kept secret.

However, some numbers exist to approximate strength. In Tunisia’s 1989 elections, Islamists ran as independents. They managed to gain almost 15% of the votes, an impressive number, but low compared to major Islamist groups in other countries, like Turkey (Borowiec 1998: 46). Even if adjusted for oppression, a landslide victory on this kind of popular support alone seems unlikely; the state did take precautions to keep Islamists weak. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood was banned for most of its existence, its leading figures jailed. In both Tunisia and Egypt, at times, Islamists were at war with the state; not the kind of circumstances to build strong, enduring structures.

In Egypt, the state competed with Islamist groups in organizing religion, by incorporating mosques and preachers into the bureaucracy (Gaffney 2004). Their charities competed with the state’s welfare programs.

Yet, in the first democratic elections, both Ennahda in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt became the strongest party in their respective countries. The Democratic Alliance for Egypt, including the Freedom and Justice Party, gained a majority of 235 of 498 elected seats, with the Islamist Bloc coming second with 121 seats. Together, the Islamist Blocs gained two thirds of the seats (even though they did not join a coalition). This dominance of Islamist parties is similarly obvious in the presidential elections, where Morsi and Fotouh, both Islamist politicians, scored 25 and 17 percent respectively. The 2nd round was closer, with the secular forces cooperating; but the initial dominance of Islamist politician seems disproportionate for a party that was forbidden and actively persecuted weeks prior to the election.

In Tunisia, Ennahda initially gained 37 percent, by far the largest voter share of all running parties. The Center Left party, Congress for the Republic, came in second with only 9% of votes. Ennahda joined a broad coalition, but had benefited from the initial support and achieved a comfortable majority.

This changed drastically in 2014, with Ennahda coming only second after Nida Tounes. The voter share was 28 as opposed to Tounes’ 38 percent. Yet, the losses seem minor compared to the fate of the Muslim Brotherhood: Ousted from power and banned, they called for supporters to boycott the elections. The turnout, however, was roughly the same as in the previous presidential elections, with 47,5 percent in 2014 to 46,5 percent. In other word: Support for Islamists went from two thirds of voters to no visible effect on turnout.

These irregularities in strength can be explained by the aforementioned situation: Crisis occurring in stronger identities, and religious labels filling this void for a short time (Kinnvall 2004). Yet, when the military steps in in Egypt, or when government has been in power for 3 years, this momentum is lost, and Islamists cannot mobilize beyond their traditional power base – further weakened by oppression in Egypt.

Additionally, Ennahda, due to its opposition to hegemonic discourse in Ben Ali’s Tunisia, had gained more group cohesion. As mentioned above, the clear distinction between Western, secular elite and Arab, Islamist opposition made clear who is “good In-group” and who is “bad Out-group”, strengthening Ennahda’s group identity.

Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was faced with a hegemonic discourse not too different from their own, allowing them to seem less radical. However, this also meant that group cohesion would suffer, as the lines between In-group and Our-group became blurry; group identity beyond Brotherhood membership was easier (since discourses resembled each other), but also less cohesive (since the distinction was unclear).

All this combined explains the relative weakness of Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood compared to Tunisian Ennahda as well as their initial strength.


I have show that Religious identity offers a strong narrative, only rivaled by religious nationalism (Juergensmeyer 2010, Ysselfyk et al 2012, Kinnvall 2004). This narrative can offer ontological security, making religious identity a dominant identity and a strong imagined community in times of crisis.

Egypt incorporated Islamic identities to a larger degree than Tunisia (Gaffney 2004, Borowiec 1998), promoting an Islamic identity, while Tunisian identity, as promoted by the state, was based on secularism.

When a crisis emerged, in the form of economic hardships (Joffé 2011), it caused the regimes to privatize, thus losing popular support (Dahi 2011; 2012). The resulting protests eroded political stability, adding political crisis to the economic crisis. Faced with uncertainty and drastic change, powerful narratives such as religion became important anchors.

This enabled Islamist parties to use Islam as a label to mobilize well beyond their support base. The effect was stronger in Egypt, where Islam had already entered the political discourse of the elite. That explains why Islamists in Egypt initially were more successful than Islamists in Tunisia, but lost support much quicker than Ennahda when ousted by the military. With the military back in power, the nationalist identity offered a similarly powerful narrative, filling the gap created by instability.

Both Ennahda and Freedom and Justice benefited from this dynamic, allowing them to expand quickly and play a major role in the first years after regime change. With a stronger state again offering a competing ideology of order (Juergensmeyer 2010), however, this feature is contested – in future elections, their Islamic label can be expected to be less successful. Yet, at least in the case of Ennahda, this dynamic gave them a lasting head start, allowing them to build structures and more durable structures. Meanwhile, Persecution in Egypt means that the Muslim Brotherhood is back to square one: Underground opposition against a strong nationalist state.

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