Cairo (AsiaNews) - Forced into hiding for
more than 40 years, Islamists now want to impose their radical vision of Islam
in the countries that experienced the Arab spring. In Egypt, Salafist members of the
constituent assembly are pushing to change the first three articles of the
constitution in order to add direct references to Sharia. If this is done, Egypt would become a religious state. In Tunisia, Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali spoke
at his party's congress, Ennahda (Muslim Brotherhood), where he said that the
new constitution would be inspired by Islamic principles but would remain
secular and democratic. Libya is the exception. Progressives
within Mohammed Jibril's National Forces Alliance (NFA), which emerged as the
first political force in recent elections to the constituent assembly, said
emphatically that religion would be kept out of politics in order to build a
secular and democratic state based on the rule of law, not judgements of
religious authorities. Still even in Libya, the NFA's position has proven
divisive for some former members of the National Transitional Council (NTC). A
few days ago, former NTC chief Mustafa Abdul Jalil said that the new Libya would include refers to Sharia and
the Qur'an anyway.
In all these countries, religious
minorities, especially Christians, are quite concerned. If Sharia were to be
enforced, they would become second class citizens. Muslims too would be at
risk. In Egypt and Tunisia, a majority of voters backed the
Muslim Brotherhood in reaction to the "secular" regimes of Mubarak and Ben Alì;
nevertheless, they are deeply worried about radical shifts that might plunge
post-Arab spring nations back into a Muslim Middle Age.
In an interview with AsiaNews, Wael Mohammed Farouq, a
professor with the Arabic Language Institute at The American University in Cairo, said, "Islamists are in power, but
Egypt has been a secular state for more than 200
years and it will not be easy for politicians to transform the country without
clashing with popular opposition. No one wants to turn the country into an
Islamic state." The same goes for Tunisia.
The ongoing battle in Egypt's constituent assembly centres on amendments
to the first three articles of the 1971 constitution. Salafists, who have a big
contingent in the assembly, were able to change the first article, adding
'shura,' a term used in the Qur'an to refer to consultative bodies, in the
section that refers to the democratic basis of the state.
According to Wael Farouq, the real
battle will be over the second article, which says, "Islam is the religion of
the state and Arabic its official language. Principles of Islamic law (Sharia)
are the principal source of legislation." Islamists from the al-Nour party want
to replace 'Principles' with "rulings", binding legislation to Qur'anic legal opinions.
"Although it refers to Sharia, that
article was never applied in 30 years because the constitutional court only
relied on general Islamic principles like democracy, justice and freedom. Now
Salafists want to change the article and subordinate legislation to legal
rulings made by 14th century imams. If that happens, Egypt will turn into a religious state, turning
the clock back to the Middle Ages.
For the Muslim scholar, Salafists are
facing the opposition of moderate forces, especially the leaders of Al-Azhar University, government institutions and until
recently, even the Muslim Brotherhood.
"Al-Azhar is doing everything I can to
prevent changes to Article 2," Farouq said. "As the constitution itself says,
it [al-Azhar] is the only institution that can interpret the principles of Islamic
law. The Islamic university is respected by all Egyptians and represents
moderate islam, but in the future the grand imam could be a Salafist. For this
reason, many, including myself, want the article removed so that the state has
no religious bases. Society can have a religion, not the institutions of the
The debate that developed in the
assembly shows how hard it will be for Salafists to impose their views on today's
moderate islam. "They might get a majority but without support from the various
institutions, they will not be able to rule. Despite their power, I do not
believe Islamists can get the changes they want. Without such support, the constitution
will never be changed. This occurred in recent months, when the constitutional
court dissolved the assembly. They same could happen again in the next few
According to Wael Farouq, Libya appears to be an exception to the
general rule, and this despite the presence of powerful extremist Muslim groups
who rode on the coattails of the anti-Gaddafi revolution. "Progressive and
moderate Libyan forces are lucky because they never cooperated with the Gaddafi
In Egypt, the opposite is true. Most moderates
were involved with the regime or collaborated with Mubarak. People voted for the
Islamists just to keep out cronies of the old regime. The presidential vote is a case in point. Islamists
can claim 24 per cent of support, which is what they got in the first round of vote.
About 66 per cent are moderate and want a modern and secular state.
The power of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists
suffered a major blow following President Mohammed Morsi's decision to convene
parliament after the Supreme Constitutional Court ruled it unconstitutional.
Ordinary Egyptians, who have great respect
for the institutions of government, did not take gladly to the new president's action,
Wael Farouq explained. Many saw it as an attempt to hold onto to absolute majority
in parliament and avoid a defeat in the next elections.