Egypt, Tunisia and Libya are all in transition, writing new constitutions. All three countries are coming out of dictatorships that more often than not oppressed Muslims. These new constitutions will usher in a new era that will answer many questions about the role Islam will play in the governance of these countries, and for the region as a whole. Many are watching with a close eye to how these new governance structures will deal with civil rights, women’s rights and free speech.
Balancing tradition Muslim values and western culture is not going to be an easy task in any of these countries. While in Tunisia, western culture may be more prominent due to their French roots, even those who call for an absence of Islam in their constitutions shy away from the term secular as it connotes a godlessness that is not easily embraced anywhere in the region. Many call for a strict interpretation of sharia and would seek to impose restrictions on a wide variety of behaviors such as drinking alcohol in public, outlawing offense to religion and gender segregation. Others call for a more liberal undertaking. Sharia not only means “Islamic Law” but is also a guide for personal life and behavior. There are many different interpretations on what it means and calls for, let alone how it should be incorporated into law and policy. So when groups say they will use it as a basis for lawmaking, it is difficult to say exactly what this means.
The moderate Islamist party that leads the coalition government has explicitly stated that it will not cite sharia in its new constitution. This party, called Al Nahda, took 89 of 217 seats in parliament. The coalition government is power-sharing government, with two other non-Islamist parties. While Tunisia, in comparison to both Egypt and Libya seems to exhibit a more mild approach to the incorporation of Sharia into governance, there are still calls for its influence. For example, Al Nahda proposed a law that would “criminalize any offense toward core elements of Abrahamic faiths including God, the prophet Muhammed, and holy books.”
There have been several riots the past few years centered on art and films that were deemed blasphemous. Free speech is a new commodity in Tunisia. After five decades of religiously oppressive dictatorship, many are worried that a religiously driven government will erode this newly enjoyed enterprise of free speech.
There are two main parties in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and the Nour Party. Nour came in second in the elections and was formed by the Salafis, the most conservative of Egypt’s Muslims. They call for similar policies to those of Saudi Arabia, such as strict gender segregation. The Nour Party has also called for harsh punishments such as chopping off the hands of thieves, and the banning of alcohol. However, there have been other, more liberal, proposals such as an attempt to make it easier for women to divorce. The FJP won nearly half of all parliament seats and are calling for a slow, gradual increase of the influence of Islam in society and in governance. FJP member Muhammed Morsi won the presidency and he has repeatedly stated he will implement sharia. The FJP even said that women and Christians couldn’t hold the office of president. They have also called for the creation of a council of clerics that will interpret whether or not a given law conforms to sharia. But which version of sharia is the question, and that will remain to be seen. Egypt, however, is the likely candidate for the nation that will have the most influence of Islam in government.
Following suit with Egypt, Libya has agreed that, “sharia should be the basis for lawmaking.” However, despite their conservative leanings, the National Forces Coalition won the majority of votes in July’s elections. They have rejected both Islamist and secular labels and call for “problem solving over ideology.” Nonetheless, having Islam inform lawmaking is still considered natural. Chick and Thorne say, “The question is not whether to apply Islam in governance, but how.” Those who desire for Islam to be kept out of politics altogether are certainly the minority.
In all three countries, these new constitutions will open a dialog that will give the people the ability to experiment and evolve a governance structure of their own. We will eagerly keep watch and see how this pans out.