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.

Amine Landoulsi/AP/file
Salafis confronted police during a demonstration in Tunis, Tunisia, in February. Salafists want their country to adhere to sharia or Islamic law.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff
Maya Alleruzzo/AP
Mohammed Morsi has not yet tried to enforce sharia law in Egypt.

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.

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.

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.

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.)

Some Salafi legislators called for lowering the marriage age and repealing a law making it easier for women to divorce.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the 84-year-old force behind Egypt's leading political party, has not said whether it will support Nour's proposal. With the FJP winning nearly half the seats in parliament and a Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi winning the presidency by a thin margin, it holds much sway over Egypt's direction.

Brotherhood leaders say they prefer a gradual, bottom-up approach to increasing the role of Islam. But during the presidential campaign, Mr. Morsi repeatedly vowed to implement sharia. And back when it was just an opposition group, the Brotherhood said women and Christians should not be able to be president, and called for a council of clerics to decide whether legislation conforms to sharia – similar to Nour's proposal.

FJP leaders have repeatedly denied that they would ban alcohol or bikinis, which could harm Egypt's tourism industry, or take other drastic actions. But over time, they hope to bring laws and regulations more in line with their views.

Morsi has not pushed any religious agenda in his first month in office. Locked in a power struggle with the military and facing political polarization and a struggling economy, he has more pressing matters at hand.

Still, secular-minded Egyptians worry he will eventually turn back to the Brotherhood's interpretation of sharia.

Despite Libya's conservative Muslim leanings, voters handed victory in July's elections to the National Forces Coalition, which stressed problem-solving over ideology and rejected both secular and Islamist labels. Its Islamist rivals trailed in second place.

That doesn't mean Libyans want Western-style secularism. Most consider it natural that religion inform lawmaking. The question is not whether to apply Islam in governance, but how.

Marwa Hegaggi, a young doctor who ran unsuccessfully as a candidate for a Tripoli suburb, wants Islam to have a role in government but distrusts Islamists. "We're talking about tolerant sharia," she says. "They're talking about sharia, but coming from a radical angle."

Last year, Ms. Hegaggi worked in clandestine field clinics treating injured protesters. This year, she joined the centrist Accord Party to push for youth involvement in politics. She wants laws and a new constitution based solely on Islamic principles, but adapted to the modern state. "Courts wouldn't be religious," she says. "A judge wouldn't have the Quran on his desk."

The Islamists may have lost voters by seeming to harp on piety, which many Libyans saw as an attempt to lecture them on their own faith, says Salah Ngab, a medical student in Tripoli and writer on Islam and Libyan society.

Polemics of any kind carry a whiff of former leader Muammar Qaddafi, Mr. Ngab says. "[The Islamists'] discourse was ideological, and Libyans are sick and tired of ideology," he says.

He is part of what he says is a small minority in Libya who, although sincere Muslims, want religion kept out of politics.

"When you say, 'Islam,' you have to ask which Islam," he says. "The state would have to choose one interpretation over others. It's another form of dictatorship."

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