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What's it mean that an Islamist rules Egypt?

Egypt's President Morsi moved to consolidate his power this weekend. Here's what Morsi and the new Islamist politicians in Tunisia and Libya want to do.

By Correspondent, Correspondent / August 13, 2012

Salafis confronted police during a demonstration in Tunis, Tunisia, in February. Salafists want their country to adhere to sharia or Islamic law.

Amine Landoulsi/AP/file

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Cairo; Tunis, Tunisia; and Tripoli, Libya

Editor's Note: Over the weekend Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi from the Muslim Brotherhood sacked most of Egypt's senior military leaders, setting off a flurry of speculation about the presidents powers and the extent to which his Islamist movement will try to transform society. The following article was written for the Monitor's weekly magazine before the events of this weekend, and looks at Islamist movements across the region. It provides context for the unfolding story in Egypt.

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Gender segregation as practiced in Saudi Arabia. A ban on drinking alcohol in public. Rolling back women's rights. Outlawing offense to religion.

For decades, dictators across the Arab world warned that this is what awaited their citizens if the region's Islamist movements gained power. Now that those dictators are gone, the Islamists they oppressed are entering politics amid excitement and scrutiny. Many still wonder what they intend. Governance offers them a chance to experiment and evolve.

Tunisia and Egypt have arrived at their first test: writing new constitutions. Libya is expected to join them soon. Voters are watching closely to see how Islamist parties address issues such as women's rights, free speech, and the role of sharia.

Sharia is often translated as "Islamic law," but it is more than that. It is a comprehensive understanding of how Islam guides life, from legislation to personal behavior. There are myriad interpretations of what that means.

In Egypt, where the old constitution stated that the "principles of sharia are the main source of legislation," the second-place Nour Party wants to give Islamic jurists at Al Azhar, the ancient and respected Islamic institution, the authority to determine whether legislation complies with sharia – and make its word binding.

Meanwhile, in Tunisia, the moderate Islamist party that leads a coalition government has been explicit about not citing sharia in the new constitution. Most Libyans do want sharia in governance, yet spurn explicitly Islamist parties.

The differences underscore the breadth of the Islamist spectrum. How these parties handle their initial foray into politics will color perceptions of political Islam for decades to come.

In the West, separation of church and state is generally enshrined in constitutions and assumed in society. But these Islamist parties are operating in societies that are comfortable with religion informing politics, and even expect it. Most politicians across the Arab world support a degree of Islam in lawmaking, and even those who don't, avoid the secularist label, which smacks of godlessness in this region. In Egypt and Libya, even non-Islamist parties have agreed that sharia should be a basis of lawmaking. But Islamists take things a step further: They want religion to play a larger role in society – and there is broad public support for that in some places.

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