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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.

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Tunisia's Islamist party, Al Nahda (also rendered Ennahda), took 89 of 217 parliamentary seats in October elections, the first since the 2011 revolution that ended five decades of dictatorship and religious repression.

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As Islamists go, Al Nahda is low-key. It has stopped short of calling for sharia in Tunisia's new constitution and formed a power-sharing government with two non-Islamist parties, which seems acceptable to many Tunisians.

This month, however, the party proposed a law to criminalize any offense toward core elements of Abrahamic faiths, including God, the prophet Muhammad, and holy books. It wants similar limits in the new constitution.

The law is meant to ensure order, deterring only the most provocative acts, says Said Ferjani of Al Nahda's political bureau. There have been several riots in the past year over art and films deemed blasphemous by ultraconservative Salafis.

Still, such moves have some Tunisians fearing that religiously driven governance will erode the free speech they consider a central gain of their revolution. In June a court upheld prison terms for a cartoonist who caricatured Muhammad and a man who posted the images online. Both were convicted of "offending public morality."

For other Tunisians, however, revolution means the freedom to support a more Islamic society. Under Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, thousands of pious Muslims were jailed or driven into exile.

Al Nahda hopes to reassure everyone. "Tunisian society wants something light; you're neither forbidden to drink, nor from going to the mosque," says Sami Triki, a Tunis lawyer and member of Al Nahda's political bureau.

This is partly because Tunisia is shaped not just by its Arab-Muslim roots, but by its years as a French colony and by its first president, the secularist modernizer Habib Bourguiba.

"Western culture feels closer than Arab culture. It's in our clothes, our technology, in the fact that we speak French," says Khaoula Arfaoui, a shop employee from a working-class Tunis neighborhood who voted for Al Nahda. "But we also pray; we fast for Ramadan."

Ms. Arfaoui says she wants the state to encourage Islamic values, but not issue orders or prohibitions. "It should be more about education. Even our Lord told the prophet Muhammad he should not use force," she says.

While Al Nahda's leaders echo that message, not all Tunisians agree. Some Al Nahda voters have even joined Salafis in calling for sharia to be cited in the constitution as a principal source of law.

Two main Islamist parties have emerged in Egypt: the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), and the Nour Party.

Nour, which came in second in recent elections, was formed by Salafis, the most conservative of Egypt's Islamists. They believe in emulating the prophet Muhammad's early companions, and encourage the type of strict gender segregation and other practices seen in Saudi Arabia.

Nour spokesman Nader Bakkar says his party doesn't want to impose sharia on society until it is ready. But other party members and other Salafi parties have called for some elements – harsh punishments, such as chopping off thieves' hands; banning alcohol; and banning interest on loans – to be enforced quickly. (Mr. Bakkar says alcohol production and consumption by Muslims in Egypt should end, but non-Muslims should be free to make and drink alcoholic beverages at home.)


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