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For Egypt's Islamists, tolerant policy is just good politics

The realities of Egyptian politics will make it difficult for Islamists in office to pursue the goals they advocated in opposition.

The era of an Islamist president has begun, but how will he rule? With Mohammed Morsi declared the winner of the Egyptian presidential election, attention now turns to how he might exercise his (as yet undefined) powers. Islamist groups now dominate two post-Arab Spring countries - Egypt and Tunisia - and they might usher in very different states.

When Rachid Ghannouchi, the head of Tunisia's Islamist Ennahda party, visited Cairo two weeks ago, he brought a message to Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood - they would need to share power in order to rule. Historically, the Brotherhood has enforced ideological discipline. Life in government, and an awareness after Egypt's parliament was dissolved that they will need secular support against the army, may mellow their views.

Following Mr Ghannouchi's meeting, and with a member of the Brotherhood now leading the Arab world's largest country, it is timely to revisit a question I posed to Ennahda's leader in Tunisia last year, shortly after his return from exile. I called it the Ramadan question.

The question is a thought experiment, designed to see where Islamist political leaders draw the line at preserving civil liberties. It runs like this: during Ramadan, two people meet on the street. One is fasting and the other is eating. The person who is fasting is offended by the sight of the other eating. On whose side does the law fall?

The question is pertinent because different countries have answered it differently. In some, the right to eat in public trumps the right of the devout not to see someone eating while they fast. Other countries draw the opposite conclusion.

For Mr Ghannouchi, this was a "personal matter ... in the private sphere". Ennahda would not, he said, prevent anyone from eating in public. The question of offence would not be solved "by law, but by respecting others".

Why does the Ramadan question matter? Because it touches on two essential ideas that every Islamist government will face: the role of government in legislating and enforcing moral behaviour; and rules governing civil liberties in public spaces, especially in Arab countries with a plurality of faiths and shades of devotion.

The role of government particularly applies to Egypt, where Salafists have done well in elections. Salafists follow a trend of Islamism that believes in legislating moral behaviour - in essence, using the law to make people better. In Tunisia, this trend is less apparent, although it exists. The Egyptian Brotherhood will face these questions in various forms, pulled between Salafists, on one side, and a powerful Coptic minority and secularists, on the other.

The essence of the Ramadan question is what type of political framework Islamists might build. One option is a liberal framework that enables the exercise of religion. "Liberal" in this sense follows the classical meaning, that of allowing as much liberty as possible. That does not mean a framework that is necessarily left-wing, but rather one that does not seek to make people more devout; the framework just creates an environment in which people can choose to exercise their religious beliefs as they see fit.

A hisbah state is different. Hisbah is the Arabic word for a religious doctrine that encourages a certain way of living, an expression of the Quranic doctrine to "enjoin what is good and forbid what is evil". States that create a hisbah framework take this in a political, rather than a personal, context and promote a particular view of religion in society. The best known example of this is Saudi Arabia's religious police.

For a country like Egypt, where there are different faiths and differing levels of devotion - many Egyptians are self-professed Muslims, but do not actively practise all requirements of the faith - it makes most sense to create a liberal framework. Such a framework would not necessarily infringe on the Islamist "project".

In Tunisia, the issues of civil liberties and government enforcement of morals had an additional interest after the revolution. Many urban middle-class people were used to the enforced secularism of the Ben Ali era and feared change with the newly legalised Islamists: they worried that the headscarf might be enforced, or any of a myriad of other moral codes. That hasn't happened and Ennahda, in a coalition with secular parties, has been at pains to suggest that it won't, even excluding reference to Sharia law in the preamble to the constitution.

This is the political model that Mr Ghannouchi suggested to the Egyptian Brotherhood. Whether the Brotherhood follows a consensus-based path will depend on its base, as well as the more hardline Salafists who may gain support by promoting hisbah policies. Relations with the military could also be decisive.

But a liberal framework for Egypt would not just be good policy; it would be good politics. By ensuring a constitutional framework that is not too religious - or rather, is neutral on moral questions - the Brotherhood could defend its political support from Salafist incursions.

The Salafist trend in Egypt draws its strength from those who want moral questions to be legislated. The Brotherhood might lose a battle on that terrain. Salafist hard-line parliamentarians are spending more time on obscure questions about facial hair and moral habits.

The Islamist trend in Arab politics is here to stay, as demonstrated by Mr Morsi's election. It is becoming not merely a running trend, but a ruling one. In each country, there are factors that will influence what type of Islamism comes to power. Tunisia is leading the way, but what Egypt does will win the argument. Taking moral questions out of the public sphere will not only take faith out of politics, but it may also keep the Brotherhood's politics in power.



On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai

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