Democratic regimes mushroomed under the “third wave”[i] of democratization, as authoritarian regimes were increasingly abandoned for the institutionalization and consolidation of democratic procedures, processes, and structures.[ii] Notably absent from this third wave, however, has been the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).  In the limited cases where democracy has seeped through MENA regimes, the overwhelming result has been a restricted form of democracy for which democratic principles concerning human rights, contestation, and freedom of speech hold tenuously.

Although frequent elections and a relatively high voter turnout are commonplace in many MENA states, political liberalization is not synonymous with democratization.[iii] Neither entirely dictatorial nor democratic, MENA regimes fall into what Thomas Carothers terms “the gray zone.”[iv] For incumbent regimes in this nomenclature, democracy is little more than a cosmetic treatment that goes on each morning, gets increasingly smeared by day, and washes off at night. Wielding an exceptional coercive apparatus,[v] robustly authoritarian regimes throughout the MENA region have proven adept in selecting from a “menu of manipulation” as a means to securing their place in the gray zone.[vi] What little opening incumbents have allowed for civil society has often been devoid of any meaningful contestation, with states placing stringent conditions on opposition groups, or co-opting them in exchange for shares of state patronage.[vii]

In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, there is renewed hope for a more legitimate brand of democracy. However, much to the consternation of pro-democracy western governments, free and fair democratic contestation in countries emerging from the Arab Spring would in all likelihood mean the ascendance of political Islamist groups. Indeed, some analysts contend that political Islamist parties in the MENA region, particularly in Egypt and Tunisia, have long been poised to win elections. Reflecting both their high-level of organizational adroitness and the particular socio-cultural dynamics of the countries they represent, had credible elections taken place over the last two decades in these countries, there is little doubt that political Islamists would have captured power.[viii] The broad-based appeal of political Islamists is perhaps best understood when taking into consideration their pragmatic modus operandi:

“The main reason for Islamists’ popularity is their hatred of corruption, the scourge of secular dictatorships throughout the region, and their promotion of justice and dignity, words that have resonated in the Arab spring even more than democracy. The Islamists appeal to the poor, often by providing a rudimentary welfare system via the mosque when state provision has been lacking. Their political appeal lies in their ability to get things done.”[ix]

Already in Tunisia, the moderate Islamist political party, Ennahda, has made significant inroads: In the October 2011 elections, they won 89 out of 217 seats (40 percent of the vote) in the Tunisian Constituent Assembly. In Egypt and Yemen, political Islamist parties are predicted to hold similar sway: The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood claimed 40 percent of parliamentary seats in elections held in early January 2012,[x] while Al-Islah, the main Islamist party in Yemen, makes up 40 percent of the main opposition coalition.[xi]

Analysts skeptical of political Islamists have warned against political taqiyya or “dissembling,” accusing political Islamists of parroting rhetoric that fuels the impression of a genuine commitment to democracy only to abandon their democratic principles and institute a policy of “one-man, one-vote, one-time” once they have assumed power.[xii] In essence, political Islamists are suspected of being for democracy what the Trojan horse was for the Trojans: an undermining ploy cloaked in political correctness. In the same manner that allowing the Trojan horse to enter their dominion did not bode well for the Trojans, it is argued that opening the democratic field to political Islamists will yield comparatively similar consequences for democracy.

Examining The Trojan Horse Hypothesis

Below, the premises that underlie the Trojan horse hypothesis are reviewed. Several key assumptions are made, including:

All Islamists are militant. Distinctions between political and militant Islamists are often blurred, causing many to accept the hasty overgeneralization that all Islamists engage in terrorist acts of violence as a form of resistance against their governments. However, collapsing these diverse actors into one grouping is an egregious simplification of their nuanced nature. Whereas both actors ultimately seek to establish an Islamic state, political and militant Islamists differ in their methods of achieving this end.[xiii] In contrast to their militant counterparts, political Islamists have renounced violent methods, preferring instead to participate in the political process as a means to affect change.

Islamist parties suffer from an undemocratic internal structure. Many observers of political Islamist parties have cited an intraparty democratic deficit as troubling. Party structures are generally arranged into hierarchical, centralized organizations with top-down decision-making procedures. Concomitant with this structural composition is a lack of transparency, further shrouding the inner workings of these parties. This raises the question, how can democracy be feasible without democrats?

Religious parties produce pluralism concerns. The MENA region is replete with a diverse array of religious minorities, including Coptic Christians, Kurds, and Druze. It is argued that in countries that host minority groups, the establishment of an Islamist state could prove especially problematic because religious identity would be weighed over national identity.[xiv] Many states, such as Egypt and Turkey, have opted to ban religious parties for fear that communal tensions would be inflamed and compound into large-scale civil strife, as was the case in Lebanon between 1975 and 1989 involving that country’s religious factions.[xv]

Islamists have a troubling human rights record. Political Islamist parties with previous ties to violence, such as Egypt’s Islamic Group (al – Jama’a al – Islamiyya), have often been criticized for their human rights abuses. The obfuscation of political Islamists as militant has also contributed to this commonly held belief. Paradoxically, because of a contrived or sincere fear of political Islamism, authoritarian regimes in the MENA region have cited the political Islamist threat as a pretext for suspending or flagrantly violating human rights standards.[xvi] In Egypt, for instance, opposition groups are routinely harassed by security forces and particular members sent to prison for an indeterminate period of time on botched charges.

Political rights and civil liberties will be curtailed under political Islamists. The implementation of an Islamist state grounded in sharia or Islamic law has raised concerns about how it will affect political rights and civil liberties. Already, the status of these rights and liberties in most MENA states are precarious at best. It is argued that institutionalizing Sharia, which has been found to discriminate against women and non-Muslims, would further diminish the fundamental rights and liberties necessary for democracy.

Islamists represent a regional and international security threat. After the events of September 11, 2001, attention was focused on the increasing radicalization and politicization of Islam in the Middle East. Misconceptions of political Islamists as militant, coupled with the treatment of Islamic activism as unintelligible extremism, rather than a social movement, have fulminated into concerns that Islamists pose a regional and international security threat. Attendant views regarding political Islamist opposition to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, such as support of Israel, the occupation of Iraq, and a large U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf have further cemented these fears.[xvii]

Islam is incompatible with democracy. An explanation that is often posited for the lack of democracy in the MENA region holds that Islam is a priori undemocratic. It is maintained that Islam, not only as a doctrine of faith, but a way of life, is responsible for the MENA region failing to establish democratic state structures and polities.  Empirical data collected from Polity surveys and Freedom House scores have consistently demonstrated that, compared to other countries, Muslim states tend to show a diametrically opposed trend when it comes to democratization.[xviii] A corollary argument claims that violence and intolerance are inherent within Islam, which has led some analysts to consider jihad as the sixth pillar of Islam.[xix] While an in-depth analysis of whether Islam is inhospitable to democracy falls beyond the purview of this analysis, it is worth noting that the use of violence has been found to be spurred by particular political and socioeconomic conditions. As Najib Ghadbian observes, “[the] political environment of repression and dictatorship, coupled with the use of coercion by most regimes in the Middle East, is conducive to violence and counter-violence by the disenfranchised and the marginalized groups in society.”[xx]

There is also a tendency to apply political culture as a residual variable in explaining phenomena.[xxi] In the context of Islam and democracy, John O. Voll identifies the aforementioned methodological strategy as the standard debate format, whereby a definition is given for “Islam” and another for “democracy,” followed by arguments oscillating between the definitions’ complementary or contradictory nature. Voll argues that the standard debate format provides inconclusive results as “the debates become circular because the conclusion depends more on the initial definition, than on any realanalysis. ”[xxii]


In Dankwart A. Rustow’s seminal writings, he emphasizes that democracy is a trial and error process that does not require “a lukewarm struggle, but a hot family feud.”[xxiii] In the MENA region to a large extent there is a democratic deficit because the kind of hot family feud that Rustow wrote about is missing. Ruling regimes in the MENA region have monopolized the bully pulpit, effectively drowning out the opposition through repression, intimidation, or co-option. Paraphrasing Lisa Anderson, Vickie Langohr writes, “Although we do not have sufficient evidence to argue that Islamists are not committed to democracy, we have ample proof that incumbent and ostensibly secular regimes are not.”[xxiv]

Until a delicate balance of power is struck between incumbents and opposition groups that does not severely disadvantage one group over the other, a hot family feud will never be feasible. Political Islamists present a welcoming challenge to incumbent regimes and offer a chance to unleash the hot family feud that has long been absent from the political landscape in the region. While it is difficult to measure the intentions political Islamists may have in store for democracy and the Trojan horse hypothesis illuminates some legitimate concerns, democracy in the MENA region will continue to be a sham if the political process is not opened to all contenders who wish to participate in that hot family feud.


*The author wishes to thank Prof. Gamze Çavdar for sharing her insight on this article. 


[i] Samuel P. Huntington, “Democracy’s Third Wave,” Journal of Democracy 2 (Spring, 1991), 12 – 34.

[ii] The number and proportion of democracies in the world more than doubling since the 1970s. See Larry Diamond, “Thinking About Hybrid Regimes,” Journal of Democracy 13 (April, 2002), 21 – 34.

[iii] Anoushiravan Ehteshami, “Is the Middle East Democratizing?” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 26 (November,1999), 199 – 218.

[iv] Thomas Carothers, “The End of the Transition Paradigm,” Journal of Democracy 13 (January, 2002), 5 – 20.

[v] Eva Bellin gives a detailed account of how Middle Eastern incumbents have maintained an ironclad grip on political power through employment of an exceptionally robust coercive apparatus. See Eva Bellin, “The Robustness of Authoritarianism in the Middle East,” Comparative Politics (January 2004), 139 – 153.

[vi] Incumbents have resorted to excluding competitors from the political process by hand-tailoring electoral laws, banning candidates or parties, and through systematic violence and intimidation of the opposition. See Andreas Schedler, “The Menu of Manipulation,” Journal of Democracy 13 (April, 2002), 36 – 50.

[vii] Glenn E. Perry, “Arab Democracy Deficit: The Case of Egypt,” Arab Studies Quarterly 26 ( Spring, 2004), 91-107.

[viii] Kaylan Geiger, “Political Islam poised to dominate the new world bequeathed by Arab spring,” The Guardian, December 3, 2011, Available at (accessed on April 15, 2012).

[ix] “And the winner is…,” The Economist,  December 10, 2011, available at (accessed on April 15, 2012).

[x] David Kirkpatrick, “Egyptians Vote in Final Round of Parliamentary Elections,” The New York Times, January 3, 2012. Available at (accessed on April 15, 2012).

[xi] Kaylan Geiger, “Political Islam poised to dominate the new world bequeathed by Arab spring.” The Guardian, December 3, 2011, available at (accessed on April 15, 2012).

[xii] Vickie Langohr, “Of Islamists and Ballot Boxes: Rethinking the Relationship between Islamists and Electoral Politics,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 33 (November, 2001), 591 – 608.

[xiii] Gamze Çavdar, “Islamist New Thinking in Turkey: A Model for Political Learning?” Political Science Quarterly 121 (November, 2006), 477 – 497.

[xiv] Magdi Khalili, “Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Political Power: Would Democracy Survive?” Middle East Review of International Affairs 10 (March, 2006), 44 – 52.

[xv] Mustapha Kamel Al-Sayyid, The Other Face of the Islamist Movement (Washington DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2003), 6.

[xvi] Neil Hicks, “Does Islamist Human Rights Activism Offer a Remedy to The Crisis of Human Rights Implementation in the Middle East?” Human Rights Quarterly 24 (May, 2002), 361 – 381.

[xvii] Jeremy M. Sharp, “U.S. Democracy Promotion Policy in the Middle East: The Islamist Dilemma,” CRS Report for Congress (Washington DC: US Congressional Research Service, 2006).

[xviii] Sanford Lakoff, “The Reality of Muslim Exceptionalism,” Journal of Democracy 15 (October, 2004), 133 – 139.

[xix] Anonymous, Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror (Washington DC: Brassey’s Inc., 2004).

[xx] Najib Ghadbian, “Political Islam and Violence,” New Political Science 22, no. 1 (2000), 77 – 88.

[xxi] Ruth Lane, “Political Culture: Residual Category or General Theory?” Comparative Political Studies 25 (October, 1992), 362 – 387.

[xxii] John O. Voll, “Islam and Democracy: Is Modernization a Barrier?,” in Modernization, Democracy and Islam, eds. Shireen Hunter and Huma Malik (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2005) 82 – 95.

[xxiii] Dankwart A. Rustow. (1969). “Transitions to Democracy: Toward a Dynamic Model,” in Transitions to Democracy, ed. Lisa Anderson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999) 14 – 41.

[xxiv] Langohr, 2001.


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