The rise of alternative democratic voices from within religious communities in the Middle East

Parallel to the radicalisation processes that are under way within the different religious communities of the Middle East and their increasingly confrontational paths, new democratic views and discourses are being formulated among these religious communities. Religious communities have been producing in their midst a political discourse that contradicts the main trends at play at the community, national and regional levels. Examples include the Shia voices denouncing the political corruption of their community parties in Iraq and rejecting Iran’s interference in Iraqi affairs, the Christian youth in Egypt and Syria refusing to support the authoritarian regimes in power, and the reformist voices within the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Tunisia. If these alternative voices manage to break the isolation in which they live and establish channels of outreach, dialogue with legitimate voices within their own communities, and common action with other constituencies within their societies, they could increase their influence and play a positive role in future political developments.

Alternative Christian voices in Egypt and Syria

Despite the well-spread narrative that Christian minorities support authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, Christians in Egypt and Syria have reacted differently to the wave of Arab uprisings. While the various Churches’ leadership perceived it as a threat to the powers they had gained through longstanding relationships with the autocratic regimes, other Christian voices saw it as an opportunity to build new democratic regimes in which all citizens enjoy the same rights regardless of their religious affiliation. In Egypt, in 2011, a segment of the Coptic youth established a youth movement to defend the political and religious rights of the Copts, known as the Maspero Youth Union (named after the Maspero area of Cairo, where Coptic youth organised sit-ins to protest against religious discrimination).

In Syria, during the first year after the 2011 uprising, a group of Christians met regularly in Damascus to discuss how Christians could support the revolution. They rejected the Church leadership’s support for the regime and drafted a letter insisting on freedom and dignity for all Syrians. Other Syrian Christians took part in the peaceful protests in other Syrian cities, such as Aleppo and Homs. However, the rise of Islamic religious forces after the removal of the old regime in Egypt, and within the revolutionary scene in Syria, has increased Christian concerns over their security. This has rendered the discourse on democracy and freedom less attractive. Nonetheless, these reformist Christian voices are still struggling to spread their ideas among their communities and most of these Christian voices had to readapt their discourse to focus on humanitarian issues rather than political reforms. In Syria, many Christians are involved in humanitarian activities for Syrians affected by the armed conflict. Their Christian family names make it easier for them to pass through regime checkpoints to deliver aid to areas under siege. Other Christian activists have left the country, but are still engaged in civil society initiatives supporting Syrian refugees abroad, for example in Lebanon and Turkey. In Egypt, the Maspero Youth Union focuses on reporting human rights violations to attract public attention to the discrimination against the Coptic community. They are also helping with delivering humanitarian aid, as they did with the Coptic families who left the city of Al-Arish in Northern Sinai after receiving threats from the Sinai branch of the so-called Islamic State in February 2017.   

Shia dissidence in Iraq

In Iraq, Shia militias have been gaining growing influence since the ouster of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime in 2003. However, the last few years have witnessed the rise of alternative Shia voices calling for political reforms. In the summer of 2015, Iraq witnessed a large wave of protests in Shia-dominated areas against the Shia ruling elite. The protests started in the city of Basra, and then spread to other southern provinces to reach Tahrir square in Bagdad a few weeks later. While some political figures – including the communist party – joined the protests, the major bulk of protesters have been non-partisan, including intellectuals, journalists and artists. The protests started by denouncing the poor public services before increasing their demands to challenge the political corruption that led to the defeat of the Iraqi military against the self-proclaimed Islamic State in the summer of 2014. This popular mobilisation was supported by some religious figures, including the most prominent Shia religious leader Sayyid Ali al-Sistani, who asked the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to stand against corruption and sectarianism, and to remove incompetent state officials regardless of their party affiliation or sectarian background.[1] While other Iraqis share these demands, the sectarian environment has hindered cooperation with youth activists from the Kurdish and Sunni areas. Moreover, the involvement of the Shia political leader Muqtada al-Sadr in the protest movement has reframed its demands to focus on Sadr’s own political struggle with other Shia political forces. Nonetheless, the liberation of Mosul in July 2017 opened new opportunities for cooperation between reformist voices from both Sunni and Shia regions. For example, a group of civil society activists and intellectuals organised an initiative called “The convoy of freedom” as a sign of solidarity with the people of Mosul. The initiative included more than 300 people from all over Iraq who travelled to Mosul to celebrate the liberation of the city. This initiative, and other similar ones, offers an important chance for Iraqi activists from different religious and ethnic backgrounds to meet and share ideas about the future of their country. Most of them agree that the sectarian political regime has had catastrophic consequences on all of Iraq’s religious and ethnic communities. They also agree that the best way to change this is through building a cross-sectarian alliance, rather than each community seeking to challenge their own political elites, as has occurred in protest movements in Kurdish and Shia areas.

Attempts to reform the Muslim Brotherhood in Tunisia and Egypt

The Sunni Islamic movement in Egypt and Tunisia has also been witnessing the rise of several reformist voices since 2011. In March 2011, a group of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood youth organised a meeting in which they discussed their ideas on the future of their movement. They insisted on the need for a full separation between the political activities of the party and all other religious and social activities of the movement. However, at that time, the Muslim Brotherhood leadership rejected any attempt to reform the movement.

In Tunisia, however, Ennahda succeeded in what the Muslim Brotherhood youth in Egypt wanted but were unable to achieve, i.e. to reform the movement by drawing a clear differentiation between its political and religious identities. After a few years of debate within both Ennahda’s leadership and between the leadership and its rank-and-file members, the reformist voices won. In May 2016, Ennahda’s 10th general assembly agreed to implement a division between the political party and the preaching activities that would practically prevent the political party leaders from also holding senior positions in religious associations or even from preaching in mosques. The congress’s final statement insisted that the party no longer belongs to the category of political Islam, but rather it seeks to establish a larger coalition of Muslim democrats that would include non-Islamist voices as well.[2]

New strategies for alternative/reformist voices

It is evident that the current turmoil in the Middle East has drastic consequences on the region and its populations, but it also offers opportunities that could be built on. The reformist voices within religious communities are one such case. Some of these reformist voices have succeeded in implementing their ideas, for example, Ennahda in Tunisia, while others are still struggling to defend their ideas, as is the case with reformist Shia voices in Iraq and the Christian democratic voices in Egypt and Syria. Within the current environment of religious and political polarisations – examples being the Sunni-Shia divide in Iraq and Syria or the Muslim-Christian divide in Syria and Egypt – these democratic voices often have little influence. These alternative voices face well-established institutions that are protected by networks of interests, as is the case, for example, with the sectarian political regime in Iraq. Changing these established rules and confronting the networks of interests associated with them will require these reformist voices to review their strategies.

The answer to this challenge is twofold: first to seek support from legitimate voices within their own religious communities, and second to establish cross-sectarian alliances. The support of Ennahda’s historical leader Rached Ghannouchi has certainly facilitated the Islamic movement shift, unlike the case of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Likewise, the support that Sayyid Ali al-Sistani provides to the protesters’ demands in Iraq has amplified the impact of these voices. In addition, these reformist voices need to build cross-sectarian alliances capable of bringing together all those who share their ideas regardless of their religious and ethnic backgrounds. The recent initiative of “The convoy of freedom” to the city of Mosul in July 2017 was a step in this direction. By relying on legitimate voices within their own communities and building cross-sectarian alliances, these alternative voices can solidify their space within their communities and compete to ensure the implementation of their ideas.

[1] al-Sistani to al-Abadi: rebellion against the corruption and the sectarianism, August 7 2015, full speech of Sayyid Ahmed al-Safi, the representative of al-Sayyid Ali al-Husaini al-Sistani, from (last retrieved on 04/10/2017)

[2] Final statement of Ennahda 10th congress, May 25 2016, (last retrieved on 04/10/2017)

The original version of this article was published by the Istituto per gli Studi di Politica Internazionale (ISPI) in Looking ahead: charting new paths for the Mediterranean, 2017, report of Rome MED 2017, pp. 23-26