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What's it mean that an Islamist rules Egypt?

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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.

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