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Tunisia, Egypt Islamists signal bigger religion role

MYT 4:15:00 PM

PARIS (Reuters)- After months of reassuring secularist critics, Islamist politicians in Tunisia and Egypt have begun to lay down markers about how Muslim their states should be - and first signs show they want more religion than previously admitted.

Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of the Islamist Ennahda party, speaks during a news conference in Tunis October 28, 2011. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi

Islamist parties swept the first free elections in both countries in recent months after campaigns that stressed their readiness to work with the secularists they struggled with in the Arab Spring revolts against decades-long dictatorships.

With political deadlines looming, the Tunisian coalition led by the reformist Islamist Ennahda party and the head of Egypt's influential Muslim Brotherhood both made statements this week revealing a stronger emphasis on Islam in government.

Popular List, an Ennahda coalition member tasked with writing Tunisia's new constitution, announced on Monday its draft called Islam "the principle source of legislation" - a phrase denoting laws based on the sharia moral and legal code.

On Tuesday, Egyptian Brotherhood leader Mohamed Badie said his group wanted a president with "an Islamic background." That term is vague, but not as vague as the conciliatory "consensus candidate" talk heard from most parties until now.

Secularists in both countries warned voters against trusting the Islamists and these subtle changes could have come straight from a secularist playbook on how Islamists would gradually insert more religion into the political and legal systems.

TAKING GHANNOUCHI AT HIS WORD

Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi, a leading reformist Muslim thinker during his years in London exile, reassured secularists last year by agreeing with them that the first article of Tunisia's constitution should remain unchanged.

The article, which said Tunisia's language was Arabic and religion Islam, was "just a description of reality ... without any legal implications, he told Reuters in November. "There will be no other references to religion in the constitution."

In the draft constitution, Islam is described as Tunisia's religion "and the principal source of its legislation."

"Using Islamic sharia as a principle source of legislation will guarantee freedom, justice, social equality, consultation, human rights and the dignity of all its people, men and women," it says.

Mentioning sharia means all laws must be consistent with Islam, a condition found in many constitutions in Muslim countries. This can be interpreted broadly, or strictly if those vetting the legislation impose a narrow reading of Islam.

Reaction in Tunis to the draft has been muted so far because Ghannouchi is planning a news conference on Thursday where he will probably have to declare Ennahda's position on it.

Hachmi Hamdi, who supported Ennahda before forming Popular List, said the draft was more Islamic than expected because "the public that voted for us is a conservative public that wants sharia as the principle source of the constitution."

EGYPTIAN PRESIDENTIAL POLITICS

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has decided not to present its own candidate for the presidential election due in June and argued until now that it wanted a candidate acceptable to all.

Even Emad Abdel Ghaffour, head of the leading Salafi Islamist Nour Party, told this to Reuters two weeks ago. He said the sharia mention in Egypt's constitution should be retained without being tightened, as more hardline Salafis have urged.

But Badie told the daily newspaper of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party on Tuesday that "the candidate must have an Islamic background."

"It's clear now the Brotherhood are willing to throw their weight into the ring ...to support someone who is in line with Islamic values and is sympathetic to Islamic law," said Shadi Hamid, an expert on Islamist groups based at the Brookings Doha Centre. "That will have major implications for the race."

Badie's comments seemed to rule out Brotherhood support for Amr Moussa, a former Egyptian foreign minister and Arab League secretary general seen as one of the frontrunners.

Lying between the two countries, Libya is also transforming its political system after ousting Muammar Gaddafi but has not yet held elections or begun work on a new constitution.

The chairman of the ruling National Transitional Council, Mustafa Abdul Jalal, has said Tripoli would take sharia as the source for its laws. Hundreds of Libyan Muslim Brothers and Salafists rallied last month to demand sharia law.

(Reporting By Tom Heneghan)

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