To many people they couldn't be further apart: communism and Islamism. However, on closer inspection they have a lot in common.
The core is that both are ideologies financially supported by one or more countries. This makes them different from normal political parties as they not only need to deliver for their voters but also for their financial backers. So they might be in government, the economy might be doing well, crime might be decreasing and they might be doing well at the polls and yet they might still become under pressure from their financial backers because they don't do enough to further the ideology. And because the financial backers are in a position to play the factions in the party off against each other they can not ignore this pressure.
The supporting countries are usually strict dictatorships that don't allow within their own borders the kind of activism that they promote elsewhere. They defend that seeming contradiction with the claim that are already "pure" and that attacks on them would hurt the cause. So the ideology serves at the same time to defend repression at home and to project influence outside their borders.
Some of the resulting similarities are:
- In both cases party members are known for their loyalty and fanaticism. I suspect that that is caused to a large extent by the fact that there are no real ideological discussions in the party as the ideology is settled by the money supplier. This allows one to be a true believer. Sometimes elements of the ideology may be changed by the money supplier but that is still less stressful than seeing an endless ideological battle as often happens in really democratic parties.
- Both types of parties are very capable to survive in adverse circumstances like dictatorships.
- Both types of parties show a ruthless opportunism. Sometimes they may appear to be loyal democrats. But tomorrow they may dump and betray today's partners.
- Both types of parties are prepared to resort to terrorism, murder and whatever it takes to reach their goals.
- Coalition building is an important part of their power hunger. They can be very dedicated partners - as long as it suits them.
- They are always looking for the next honorable and popular cause that could improve the standing of the party. These are genuine contributions. The communists did much for social justice while for the Islamists are known for support for the poor and - in the case of Egypt - providing affordable health care.
- There is typically one big party (the communists or the Muslim Brotherhood) that is surrounded by a multitude of small parties (Maoists, Trotskyists, anarchists, etc, resp. Salafists and other Islamist parties). Where the big party tends to become dominated by old, somewhat conservative men these splinter groups accommodate the diversity of youthful enthusiasm. This constellation fits the big party as it encapsulates young enthusiasm while at the same time keeping the young fanatics at some distance so that they can't destabilize the big party. As a result the big party enthusiastically supports the splinter groups.
- The movement is split into major factions. The main fault line within the communist movement was between Marxist-Leninists and Maoist while the main fault line within the Islamist movement is between the Brotherhood and the Salafists. However, these conflicts don't stop the factions from collaborating on many fronts.
- Having a fixed ideology also makes leadership less important. Some communist parties had for decades the same leader. But replacement goes just as easily.
- Note that the end of foreign financial support will not automatically change the party. The internal hierarchical culture and the lack of tolerance for dissidents can stay around for a long time. Change is possible - as we saw in for example Poland - but it has to be explicit decision that makes the internal structure of the party more democratic.
- These movements tend to attract alienated youth who feel that their life is on a dead track. For some this is literally so: they are unemployed in some poor neighborhood and are dazzled when the movement opens for them opportunities to study in Cairo or go to Mecca. Other may be outwardly successful but miss a goal in their life.
These kinds of parties can be very lethal to democracies. There is not only the possibility that once they have won election they will never give it up again or that they may use a government position to grab power. But this threat also forces the other parties to become careful. As a result countries like Italy and Japan were for some 40 years ruled by the same party out of fear that if communists would be allowed to govern they might never release power. We see the same in the Arab world. The repression in Syria is the direct legacy of Brotherhood uprisings. In the case of Syria this was worse than elsewhere because it had a sectarian hue.
The polarization between untrustworthy Islamists/communists and the government also removes the space for other opposition parties. Normally under a dictatorship you see the rise of civil society organizations that are a-political and just represent people wanting their road paved or better public transport for their neighborhood. With Islamists or communists around such organizations tend to be hijacked by them.
The threat of violence has from the beginning hung over the Arab Spring. Everyone remembers how the Muslim Brotherhood threw Algeria into a civil war. Before the elections in Egypt and Tunisia the Brotherhood similarly made threats that they would take up arms if they got less support than they expected. In Libya the threats have gone even further and the democratic government seems there incapable of making decisions that go against the wishes of the Islamists.
We know how communism worked. Each "converted" country became a communist dictatorship that tried to export its ideology to its neighbors while making it impossible for its own citizens to get rid of communism. Just as communism Islamism has already been a powerful exporter of terrorism - with Osama bin Laden as its greatest success story - and of ideological fanaticism - as can be seen in many extremist mosques in Europe and the US. If this ideology is allowed to expand things will only get worse.
The Brotherhood has been accused of giving radicals a free hand - both to make hateful speeches and to commit violence, from pressuring women to cover their face to murdering opponents. When one reads about Chili under Allende one encounters similar - although less extreme - accusations.
The problem with this kinds of movements is that they stay around until the source has disappeared. Communism ended with the Soviet Union and similarly Islamism will only end once the Gulf States have become democracies.
Countries where such movements are important face an unsolvable dilemma. On the one hand they represent a large part of the population. Yet on the other hand they can not be expected to respect democratic rules. In my opinion in such circumstances it might be more important to focus on other aspects of democracy than elections - like freedom of speech and gathering and economic liberalization.
One example from a recent Debka report (Obama frowns on Egyptian army’s alignment with Gulf regimes, coming crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood): Our intelligence sources disclose that the generals in Cairo now believe the Muslim Brotherhood regime deliberately turned a blind eye in the past year to the massive flow of weapons smuggled in from Libya into Sinai and onto the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. The Brotherhood, it appears, had been quietly accumulating an arsenal for the contingency of its downfall by setting up a clandestine armed "Center of Revolt" for resistance operations against any takeover of rule in Cairo. This Center of Revolt has set up a coalition with the armed Islamist gangs terrorizing Sinai. This was confirmed in the last 24 hours by Salafist statements, such as: “Sinai is the center of revolt against the military coup which deposed Mohamed Morsi as president.” The generals realize the urgency of cutting down this Islamist terrorist-backed revolt before it spreads out of control to Cairo and the Suez cities of Port Said, Suez and Ismailia - not to mention the threat of sabotage to the international cargo and oil shipping traffic passing through the Suez Canal.