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GIGA Focus Nahost

Sunni Political Islam: Grasping the Emerging Divide

Number: 7 | 11/2017 | ISSN: 1862-3611

After the rapid rise and fall of Sunni Islamist political actors following the Arab uprisings that began earlier this decade, a strong fragmentation has emerged within this political spectrum. The division exists within Islamist political groups in their national contexts as well as between them across different countries. The Tunisian Ennahdha, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood stand as respective models for Islamists in power, under repression, and in civil wars.

  • The Tunisian Ennahdha falls into the category of “Islamists in power.” It acts within the political system, understands itself as a national political party, and has separated politics from religion. However, the party is in danger of losing its appeal. The Tunisian Islamist constituency is increasingly turning to jihadist Salafist actors.

  • The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood falls into the category of “Islamists under suppression.” It suffers from serious repression by the Sisi government, which has led to a massive structural and ideological fragmentation of the organisation. Although the old guard still adheres to the principle of non-violence, younger activists are increasingly open to using violent means and clear shifts towards radicalisation have occurred. This may have spillover effects on the Islamist political spectrum beyond Egyptian borders.

  • The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood falls into the category of “Islamists in civil wars.” It has been operating from exile since 1982 and has not managed to turn itself into a major political player once again, even since the uprising against the Assad regime started in 2011. The organisation is facing a generational battle and is in danger of losing adherents to radical actors such as jihadist Salafists.

Policy Implications

European policymakers should strengthen moderate Islamist branches by suggesting to partner countries in the MENA region and the United States that increasing pressure on these actors will most probably lead to their radicalisation. Moreover, they should not push moderate Islamists too far towards moderation and a departure from Islamic values, because this might increase the divide between the Islamists and their constituencies.


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The German Institute for Global and Area Studies (GIGA) – Leibniz-Institut für Globale und Regionale Studien in Hamburg publishes the Focus series on Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and global issues. The GIGA Focus is edited and published by the GIGA. The views and opinions expressed are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the institute. Authors alone are responsible for the content of their articles. GIGA and the authors cannot be held liable for any errors and omissions, or for any consequences arising from the use of the information provided.

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