Camille Pecastaing. Policy Review. Issue 173. June/July 2012.
Much has been made of the recent success of Islamist parties in national elections that followed the Arab Spring. While some praise Islamism as the first genuine expression of popular sovereignty in a long time, others warn of an Islamic winter. They read Islamist candidates as a fifth column for a fundamentalist theocracy, or at best for an illiberal democracy where individual liberties suffer under the overbearing presence of religion in the public sphere. Both readings are wrong because history is not yet written, and the Islamists know no better than anyone where their recent success might take them. And while their ascent appears almost universal -they are now in government in many Arab countries—their accession to the highest levels of power has been contextual. Starting from common origins, they followed different routes to get there. More than anything, what they showed over the decades in the wilderness was pragmatism and adaptability to challenging environments, characteristics that they will have to draw upon to move from the conquest to the exercise of power in the post-Arab Spring era.
The constraints imposed on Islamists were not just the authoritarian regimes that suppressed them, and the downfall of the autocrats will not hand over a quiescent society to the supporters of sharia. The temptation of doctrinal social engineering may exist, but the actual impact Islamists will have will be limited by the kind of society they inhabit, the resources they have to work from, and the choices forced upon them. The challenges are numerous. They have to maintain decent diplomatic relations with a West deeply suspicious of fundamentalist agendas. They have to prevent a smoldering culture war between minorities and liberals on one hand, and the socially ultraconservative Salafis on the other, from tearing apart the social fabric. And they have to address daunting socioeconomic issues inherited from decades of inadequate developmental models, compounded by a youth bulge that cannot find productive employment.
Many observers have missed the leftist, populist core of the Arab Spring. Worriers dread Khomeini and bin Laden when they should be looking for Nasser or Hugo Chavez. Protesters demanded democracy: elections not intended as an end but as a vehicle for transparency and accountability, for the eradication of corruption and nepotism. There are demands for jobs and higher wages and income redistribution, and feminist demands—starting with wage equality for women. There are also calls for a new economic order, for a rupture with a capitalism seen as Western and exploitative, as an economic system uniquely designed to benefit the elites. In the confusion of the new era, the Islamic green blurs with the socialist red, as the religion carries the calls for justice and equity that were once a staple of the left. This affords Islamists a wide scope of populist claims that rake in the votes. But conceptual contradictions will be hard to reconcile over the long term after Islamists get to rule. Mainstream Islamists convey the economically liberal instincts of a socially conservative mercantile class. They are anchored in the global economy, which really means they want to preserve foreign economic aid and especially trade relations with the European Union.
Equally daunting is the looming culture wars between the Salafis and the leftists, feminists, and religious minorities. The Salafis are reactionary social vigilantes whose ranks spawned a militant minority known to the world as jihadis. The Salafis have often winked at the violence of the jihadis, as both share revolutionary aspirations, but unlike their brethren engaged in armed struggle, Salafis generally eschew the political for the ethical. They preach and outbid each other in virtuous signaling, intruding in the public space but not trying to take it over. With the Arab Spring, the public space became more fluid, especially with regard to the highly symbolic place of women in it. In Saudi Arabia, some have demanded to be able to drive; in Egypt, others have claimed the right to expose the female body, all of which is anathema to profoundly conservative segments of society. And so the Salafis came to the barricades.
This is not good news for the group of Islamist activists who rose to power on the wave of the Arab Spring. Those men have been deeply scarred by oppression, which has meant for some torture and decades in prison—a history of suffering that garnered much sympathy and votes in the recent elections. As they now stand on the wreckage of autocracy, they seem genuinely wary of states’ unfettered authority. But whatever their personal tolerance for individual liberties, the need for internal order will force them to referee between their right and their left. They might even have to impose on both, racking up adversaries in the process.
Political Islam is not the new thing. Its demise has often been proclaimed, but Islamism lives on because it is adaptable and adaptive. A century of activism shows no pattern in the relation to power If some have taken violent shortcuts to seize it, most have been patient social organizers, learning through experimentation and hardship the merits of strategic compromise. They had advantages. Political Islam was a natural way for people to transition from the disappearing structures of an agrarian society—under the last Sultans-Caliphs, who relied on clerics for local administration—to the crowded anonymity of a modern urban environment. Islamism gratified followers with familiar narratives of hope and salvation, anchoring a society swept away by an exploding demography and epochal change in a tradition that imagines itself virtuous. It was the same with the puritanical breakout of the West’s 19th century; a world torn asunder by the industrial revolution and all the drinking and gambling that wages afforded the laborious classes. The Christian bourgeoisie then sought refuge in a snobbish morality of the Victorian era and in racist nationalism.
An insecure present leads the mind to romanticize the past, and to overshoot its normative paradigms. This is the dark side of the Islamic revival, when the missionaries turned into vigilantes, when the Salafis formed militias. Like the Mormons in the time of Brigham Young, the Salafis have sought to create a society purified from the corruption of the world. Minorities—and often the wealthy—were crisply outlined as the corrupt “other” against which the community imbued its distinctive identity with collective pride. And there was security in numbers. The mass movement grew from its own gravitational expansion. Islamists excelled at creating a collective dynamic, and in a stressed society that was not well-protected by the rule of law, the collective had a tendency to impose on the individual.
The Islamist surge was a child of its time: Born at the turn of the 20th century, it really got going in the 1930s, the heyday of communism and fascism. Islamism imbibed the reactionary zeal of Western nationalism along with its antithesis: the revolutionary passion of Western socialism. It saw itself as a transnational conservative revolution aimed at recreating a global Ummah (Muslim community) ruled by sharia. From its Western peers, Islamism also learned that it could not rely on ideological appeal only. The quest for power demanded structures and institutions that are material rather than spiritual affairs. There are costs, and people to be fed, demands to be accommodated. Long-term development requires efficient and accountable management, responsiveness to the needs of members, and ultimately solvency. Early on, Islamists left the field of ideology and moved into institutionalization.
Tithing, Racketeering, and Rents
In theory, ideological movements live off contributions from their followers—dues in the secular sphere, tithes in the religious one. The very motor of proselytizing is a redistributive Ponzi scheme: The resources of existing members are pooled to lure in new members. This has been the work of Dawa, of religious social work: Muslims have connected to the new Islam through faith-based institutions providing free health care, counseling, and schooling. Like any such scheme, ideologies spread until numbers grow and enthusiasm wanes. Success will attract newcomers less and less interested in contributing and more and more interested in the entitlements that come with membership—a job, or a stipend, or a free ride to redemption. The tide turns when receipts equal expenditures, and an ideological movement in that situation has reached its limits if it is to rely on tithing only. Islamist movements have all faced those constraints, and the only way to overcome them is to acquire power.
Power allows shifting from voluntary to coerced tithing, which would be more aptly called racketeering. One contemporary example is the al-Shabab movement in Somalia. Originally the youth movement of local Islamic courts, al-Shabab’s militiamen rose to prominence fighting the Ethiopian troops who invaded Somalia in late 2006. Militarily successful, they have since imposed through violence a fundamentalist utopia, racketeering a vulnerable population. But the vulnerability of the Somalis was also that of the al-Shabab, and when famine hit the region in the summer of 2011, and people started dying or migrated in droves across the border to refugee camps and the foreign aid they could find there, the al-Shabab fragmented. Their dwindling resource base could not sustain their existing level of organization, and all the Islamist fervor on the ground, never that high to begin with, could not make up for it.
The most durable form of racketeering is that executed by a sovereign eager to see its resource base thrive, if only to have more to tax from. In a few cases Islamist movements have either taken over a state, or lived in such close association with one that their resources became those of the state. State-building in Arabia has been from the start, in the mid-18th century, a material affair carried out on the shoulders of Wahhabism, a fundamentalist narrative that gave meaning and justification to the worldly project of Saudi rulers. It is at times difficult to distinguish where Wahhabism ends and Saudi realpolitik begins. This longstanding association, often betrayed or remodeled, still stands in the 21st century. The muta ween, the religious police, are paid to enforce appropriate public behavior. The sentences of antiquated laws—an embarrassment for Saudi diplomacy—have to be executed as a matter of national sovereignty. Mosques, madrassas, and religious universities are built by the state, clerics and educators are employed by the state, while their counterparts across the Muslim world are at the receiving end of Saudi generosity.
The ideological fortunes of Wahhabism went hand in hand with the material fortunes of the al-Sauds. The Arabian business model has always paid close attention to revenues: from withholding tribute owed to undeserving overlords to looting, from foreign aid to oil sales. By the 1950s, royalties from oil companies filled the treasury of what would become a fundamentalist rentier state, giving permanence to the Saudi enterprise, even sparing it from further taxation. It could be argued that oil is the single most important factor to explain the rise of Islamism since the 1970s. Muslim migrants who flowed to the oil-rich countries of the Gulf were exposed to the local forms of the faith (as were some Christian converts), and returned home a more fundamentalist lot. Petrodollars financed conservative congregations throughout the Muslim world and in the diaspora. Whether through governmental or nongovernmental channels, petrodollars paid for the Afghan Jihad against the Soviet Union, which formed the future cadres of al-Qaeda.
The Iran Connection
If Saudi Arabia has been an essential if partly unwitting financial backer of radical Islam, Iranian sponsorship has been more purposeful. The radical fringe of the Iranian clergy that imposed itself in the wake of the 1979 revolution has been a poor administrator of the national economy, and 30-some years later popular rancor abounds because of poor standards of living and the self-inflicted wounds of an international pariah status. Nonetheless, there are enough revenues from energy exports for the Iranian theocracy to get by, buying off a segment of the electorate and putting thousands of Basiji—street thugs protecting the regime—on state payroll. From the early days of the revolution, the brutality of the Islamic Republic has had less to do with religious doctrine than with a tenuous grip on power, what with the liberal opposition, the war with Iraq, and the persistent economic failings. The state of emergency imposed in the 1980s after Saddam Hussein’s aggression became addictive for the regime, and when that war ended Tehran artificially maintained the pressure with a game of cat and mouse with the United States. Iran’s nuclear program and the occasional seizure of weapon shipments from Iran to neighboring militias opposed to American designs are reminders that, for all its fiduciary shortcomings, this is a middle income country with enough of a surplus to meddle in regional affairs.
Then again, Tehran’s real contribution to the treasury of movements like the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas is anybody’s guess, and it is the treasury that matters. Hezbollah took control of the Lebanese government in the summer of 201 1, and Hamas has alone run Gaza since 2007. It is well known that they did not get there on the basis of ideological seduction only, but by spending big money on their constituents, which got them elected. Both provide an array of social services—schools, clinics, counseling, employment in “security forces”—to populations grossly neglected by official authorities and exposed to the devastation of wars those two movements are paradoxically accused of having provoked. If it is easy to understand the material appeal of Hamas and Hezbollah, it is more arduous to follow the money trail that made their success possible. There is a degree of tithing, of semi-extortion from the local business class, and foreign remittances. In a September 2010 interview with Thanassis Cambanis, Mahmoud Komati, the deputy chief of Hezbollah’s politburo, admitted that while his movement hoped to develop independent revenue streams, it had not reached 50 percent self-sufficiency yet. Iranian aid is openly acknowledged by Hezbollah. It is a cash operation.
Given the tight blockade of the Gaza Strip, Tehran’s support of Hamas is more complicated. Syria, an Iranian ally, harbors Hamas-in-exile, but Damascus is far from Gaza. Official foreign aid to Gaza has been restricted since Hamas took over, specifically to prevent the blacklisted Islamist movement from diverting those funds. Nevertheless, the IMF has reported a double-digit growth rate for Hamas-run Gaza, twice that of the West Bank—a high growth figure which has to do with postwar reconstruction. Hamas’s financial resilience is puzzling given the stunted and introverted nature of the economy of Palestine, where a first-rate business consists of bottling sodas for the local market. The main exports of Palestine are not goods but emotions, and foreign aid and remittances are almost the exclusive sources of financial inflows. The money the vastly unemployed population of Gaza receives from abroad has fed traffic in the tunnels under the border with Egypt, allowing Hamas to skim off and redistribute revenues through its social works. Sara Roy, who closely studied Islamic charities in Gaza, is discrete about sources of funding: She points to donations from the community. Lately, Hamas’s Islamic Foundation has even started investing in for-profit business ventures ranging from amusement parks to bakeries. Hamas’s inevitable divorce from a Syrian regime busy crushing Islamist insurgents—Sunni insurgents who share a pedigree with Hamas—is likely to strain whatever relationship exists between Tehran and Gaza, and will demonstrate the degree of Hamas financial autonomy.
The idea that “big” spenders like Hamas and Hezbollah could ever be financially self-sufficient defies the imagination, but the pattern has been observed with other nonstate actors in conflict zones, like Kurdistan and Somalia. A strong demography amidst political chaos creates masses of refugees, who send remittances back home. Those remittances, and other foreign aid, pay for smuggled goods. That makes for a runt local economy, but large enough to be “taxed” by an armed group. At the very least, money buys the weapons that protect and, at the same time, intimidate the people. In the most advanced nations, the ratio of public expenditures to GDP is in the range of 40 to 50 percent. There are no reliable figures for areas where militias have carved out a territory, but the most forward-looking and solvent militias seem to have enough going around to pay for basic services that earn the loyalty of the population, creating over time a symbiotic relationship similar to that between nation and state. That even gets them the votes to legitimize their authority if they bother with the finesse of electioneering.
The Electoral Route
Islamist movements OF Pakistan have tried the electoral route, but their rise came about through an evolving symbiosis with a weakening military state. Islamist nongovernmental organizations that issued from the Deobandi and Ahle-Hadith movements were a palliative for the shortcomings in educational and social services, in the same way that the militias coming from those movements were a palliative for the shortcomings of the military. In a page taken from Iran’s textbook, Pakistani security forces nurtured organizations such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Haqqani Network, and the Afghan Taliban to pursue strategic goals. Thanks to diversified revenue streams, the creatures escaped in part the control of their creator.
While the Afghan Taliban would never have emerged around 1994 from Deobandi madrassas without funding and equipment from the Pakistani government, a diversified resource base has protected them from subsequent policy reversals from Islamabad. When they ruled Afghanistan until 2001, the Taliban could “tax” the busy truck trade between Central Asia and Karachi. Some were then, and still are, involved in lucrative opium trafficking, which binds them to local growers and allegedly builds shadowy bridges with Pakistani state officials. Like the Khmer Rouge in its time, the Taliban are the worse kind of financially solvent ideologues. The abuse they have visited on the Afghan population is directly related to their financial autonomy, all the more impactful that Afghanistan is so poor and their opponents, a ragtag assemblage of warlords, are themselves so brutal and corrupt.
Running for office has been a constant ambition for many Islamist movements, for that was the natural route to power and money. Political parties were spun off from social works whenever the regimes allowed it, which was an infrequent occurrence. In Turkey, a strong military core garbed since the 1950s by a constrained democracy kept communists and Islamists at bay. But Islamists patiently built a political machine, fed by the contributions of rural migrants and emigrants disenfranchised by a fragmented party system dominated by fickle and corrupt elites. Following a financial collapse that shook the establishment, the Islamist party was elected to power in 2002, and has since defanged the military and crushed the secular opposition. With a public debt at 50 percent of GDP, and a structural budget deficit, the Islamists in power have been anything but frugal. But they have sustained a strong rate of growth, reaping the benefits of genuine liberalizing reforms started in the 1980s. Hardball players in a merciless democratic game, they have used the courts to harass critics and competitors, all the while using public spending and patronage to satisfy their constituents. It is hard to see a transition of power there unless a large scandal or an economic bust brings them down to earth.
In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has been severely repressed since the mid-1940S, and particularly so under the regime of Abdel Nasser in the 1950s. An arrangement of sorts was reached after the military defeat of June 1967, and the Brotherhood was allowed to operate in the social sphere as long as it did not engage in politics. If members ran in parliamentary elections, it was as unaffiliated candidates, and they never competed for all the seats. But Egyptian society was allowed to become more religious, the regime sometimes winking at the reactionary judgments of sharia courts. The Brotherhood was useful for the military regime. First, its social activities palliated the lack of state welfare, whether in rural Upper Egypt or in the slums of Cairo’s overgrowth. Second, it lived on the same turf as the traditional left, eating away at the communists. Third, the ubiquitous socialminded Islamists of the Brotherhood were lumped together with the jihadis—who had challenged the state militarily in the 1990s—and presented to the West as a pretext to maintain military rule.
Few in the West believed that the Brotherhood was al-Qaeda, but few dared to test that hypothesis either. This relationship of convenience between the officers and the Islamists carried until the Arab Spring forced the army to jettison Mubarak and to revisit the terms of their arrangement with the Brotherhood. In the immature political landscape of post-Arab Spring Egypt, the Brotherhood stands out as a powerful faith-based machine, wellfunded and capable of efficient grassroots work. Its financial firepower comes from contributions of the domestic middle class and from the community of Egyptian expatriates. It counts wealthy individuals in its top ranks, like Khairat el-Shater, a businessman and the movement’s number two. When the rolling elections began in November, the Brotherhood’s newly founded Freedom and Justice Party exceeded all expectations, as did the al-Nour party—a rare instance of Salafis competing electorally. As this success translates into seats in the government, with ministries will come budgets, contracts, and more money for social works—and help greasing the wheels of reelection. If Turkey is an example, there are many ways to play that game. If the Islamists wanted a share of the perks of government, they were reluctant to take full responsibility for Egypt. It is only after being faced with their own success, or rather with the vacuum that is the opposition, that the Brotherhood resigned itself to field a candidate for the presidency. They first ran al-Shater, quickly disqualified because of a recent stint as a political prisoner, and then more comfortably railed behind Abdelmonem Abolfotoh, a physician and moderate Islamist who had taken a safe distance with the Brotherhood.
In Yemen, the Islamist al-Islah has been the main opposition party since the 1990 reunification of North and South. It is an odd alliance of religious fundamentalists and tribal interests—the leader of al-Islah is always the sheikh of the largest tribal confederation. Fundamentalism has been doing well in Yemen; its imams are said to be well-funded by regional charities, and they can tap into a vast impoverished and illiterate population. Fundamentalism has allowed the Saudis to keep in check the elusive Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who himself let them be because proselytizing was a way to bind the formerly socialist south to his realm. But relations soured, and for the last two presidential elections, al-Islah allied with their former socialist nemesis to oppose the bid of Saleh and his kin to remain indefinitely in power. The Arab Spring sealed the divorce, and from March to November the leaders of al-Islah have been fighting it out with forces loyal to Saleh in the streets of the capital Sana’a. When a Saudi-brokered compromise was finally implemented at the end of the year, the Islamists of al-Islah were brought into the new government.
Up From Repression
Other regimes never tolerated Islamists, bringing to bear against them the full force of authoritarianism. In Baathist Syria, the city of Hama was shelled by artillery in 1982 following years of unrest from the local Muslim Brotherhood. In Tunisia, leaders of Ennahda, an Islamist party that professed nonviolence, were sentenced to death and spent years in prison. For two decades, under President Ben Ali, the police monitored mosque attendance, and too observant young men could be arrested and detained for extended periods. In Qaddafi’s Libya, almost 1,300 prisoners, mostly Islamists, were reportedly massacred following a 1996 riot in Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison. Islamists who escaped the repression of those regimes were forced into exile, some in London, where they reconciled their ideology with liberalism, others in Afghanistan, where they connected with the mujahedeen milieu from which al-Qaeda emerged. This scorched-earth legacy makes the Islamist resurgence in Syria, Libya, and Tunisia the great surprise of the Arab Spring.
In Libya, the Islamist current remains ill-defined. Qaddafi was killed by a mob chanting “Allah Akbar”—the same hymn that accompanied the hanging of Saddam Hussein—but such sentiments do not reveal a focused political agenda. Abdelhakim Belhadj, a former mujahedeen arrested in Bangkok in 2004 and rendered to Qaddafi’s jails, famously led a rebel unit in the conquest of Tripoli. But Belhadj went out of his way to explain that his days as a jihadji were over. In Syria, the protest movement issued from the Arab Spring, and brutally repressed by Assad’s security forces, has struggled to escape a Sunni sectarian character, despite insistent appeals to minorities. In the first few months, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood morphed from a skeleton of exiles to a front for the rebellion within the newlyformed Syrian National Council, a shadow government in exile. But the longer the civil war drags on in Syria, the more diverse the breeds of Islamists who find there a terrain to thrive, including old-fashioned jihadis.
The most striking rebirth took place in Tunisia, where Islamist Ennahda inherited a revolution in which it did not participate. The aftermaths of revolutions are volatile periods, with fragile regimes hijacked by radical, authoritarian factions: the French Jacobins, the Russian Bolsheviks, the Iranian Komitehs. In Tunisia, the soul-searching, post-revolutionary phase saw the formation of an abundance of new parties. During those months, the historical leader of Ennahda, Rashid al-Ghannushi, returned from London and mobilized local supporters and donors. Rumors of funding from conservative Arabia were belied by the strict monitoring of the electoral agency. The Islamists were funded by local businessmen, like Nejib Gharbi, a wholesaler and spokesman of the movement. Their natural constituency was the hinterland, bypassed by the two decades of economic growth, and its unemployed or underpaid children amassed in the suburbs of the rich coastal cities. Their long suffering at the hands of the despised regime also appealed to the coastal middle class, which they courted by claiming as their own the more Uberai, progressive culture familiar to the Tunisian bourgeoisie. The verdict of the October elections was unequivocal: The government was theirs.
With power came the responsibility to quickly formulate a policy to respond to the economic predicament. In their first months in power, Ennahda walked a tightrope between indulging popular demands and preserving macro accountability. Their plan to boost growth in the short term through a phase of government spending before achieving self-sustaining growth at some point in the future seems lifted right out of a Keynesian-inspired IMF policy paper. There is no doctrine here; they are not driven by Quranic injunction but by the need to placate and reassure. Everyone gets something: public sector jobs for the poor, investment opportunities for the rich, and a plan of action for the IMF. The instinct of the Islamists is to let people make money and use charity as a means of redistribution, but policies that create growth and jobs rarely deliver greater equality. In the end, the most religious aspect of their economic orthodoxy is its wishful nature: The inherent prayer for everything to go well, because there are so many ways in which could go wrong. Free elections were not enough to placate the street, and the Islamists have struggled to restore order, having no choice but to betray spirit of the revolution and send forces to beat the protesters.
Countries in the region had been doing relatively well in the decade that preceded the Arab thanks in part to a controlled liberalization of their economies that brought foreign investments to selected sectors—deals often directed toward those blessed with political patronage. The liberal opening allowed cronies of the regimes to open local sweatshops and beach resorts that thrived on low wages, as well as to run commodity monopolies that skimmed off the surplus of a suffering middle class. Add to that the oil boom and real estate speculation, and you have good growth numbers but not the kind of developmental model needed by countries experiencing a bulge, with half of the population under 30, and which is said to need to create 50 million jobs within a decade. This model of unequal growth, with upward social mobility biased toward the politically connected, was forcefully rejected in the streets of Tunis and Cairo.
Before it became Islamist, the Arab world once flirted with socialism, and the paradox is that the legacy of great social reformers like Nasser and Bourguiba was picked up by the conservative monarchies and the Islamists. It is the conservative regimes imbued with Islamic legitimacy—either as descendants of the Prophet Muhammad (the dynasties of Morocco and or as custodians of the Holy Mosques (the Saudis)—that for all those years kept their eyes on social and economic indicators and invested in their people. In Morocco, the Arab Spring was answered with a constitutional reform followed by a general election, which brought the Islamists of the Party of Justice and Development to form the government. Monarchal rule hardly skipped a beat through all of it. In Saudi Arabia, the welfare tap was turned up. The revolution passed them by. Monarchy is no panacea: Bahrain’s was saved by foreign military intervention, and Jordan’s horizons remain clouded. But the Arab juntas, with their tired revolutionary (Algeria, Libya) and military (Egypt, Syria, Yemen) rhetoric, faltered. The abundance of natural resources was not even a factor: Libya had a greater endowment per capita than Saudi Arabia, but the lazy regimes that relied on rents of all kinds to maintain a debilitating status quo were wiped out one after another.
The Arab Community
The contagious nature of the Arab spring reveals a degree of community across the region, based on Islam and the Arabic language, as well as on a shared imaginary and economic predicament. The pan-Arab Ummah was not as dead as once thought, but commonality is not uniformity. The Islamist political parties are the children of their nations, and when in government they will have to contend with their own social conservatism, which will not be to everyone’s liking in a pluralist society. An Islamist winter will not easily smother the calls for individual liberty and dignity that were so spontaneously and stridently expressed in the Arab Spring. And Islamists face a greater challenge than a controversial social agenda. The Muslim world is poised to grasp the benefits of its demographic dividend: a vast population of working age. If the Islamists really want power, they should understand that they are only as strong as the society over which they preside. It is time to put their reputation for hard work and probity to work in the pursuit of economic growth.