Egypt, Turkey, and Tunisia Are All Slowly Islamizing

Institutions are gradually shifting in favor of Islamists in many Arab Spring countries.
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A supporter of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood holds up a Koran during Friday prayers at a rally in Cairo on December 14, 2012. (Amr Dalsh/Reuters)

Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Qandil announced a cabinet reshuffle recently that included a number of new ministers from the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood's leadership. This development seems to have confirmed the worst fears of the Egyptian opposition, which has raised concern over the "Brotherhoodization" of the country. Although the increased representation of the Brothers in the government is cause for alarm for Egypt's secularists and liberals, they should be concerned about a quieter, but more worrying process -- the Islamization of Egypt's political institutions -- which is likely to be far more durable than the Brotherhood's grip on political power. This phenomenon is not just underway in Egypt, however. Islamist power and the Islamization of society are what the the future holds for Egypt, Tunisia, post-Assad Syria, and likely other countries in the region.

Given that the noticeable evidence of the Islamization in the Middle East is few and far between, the idea that Islamization is the trajectory of the region might seem misplaced. Egypt's Muslim Brothers and Tunisia's Ennahda have not declared alcohol forbidden, forced women to don the hijab, or instituted hudud punishments (i.e., specific punishments for specific crimes set forth in the Qur'an or hadiths). It was big news in Egypt several weeks ago when the Le Roi Hotel in the Red Sea resort of Hurghada poured out all its alcohol and established a female-only floor and swimming pool, but only because there have been so few incidents along these lines -- observers tend to forget that what was Cairo's Grand Nile Tower (formerly the Hyatt) went dry well before anyone ever contemplated Hosni Mubarak's ignominious fall.

Even if alcohol remains readily available in Egypt, that does not mean that the process of Islamizing its political and social institutions has failed.

Yet the fact that Egyptians and Tunisians can still drink Stellas and Celtias should be cold comfort. There will not be a moment -- a decree, for example -- that will indicate that a given Middle Eastern society will hew closely to the tenets and values of Islam. Rather, it will be a slower, more subtle process in which a country's political and social institutions are Islamized.

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There is widespread confusion about what constitutes an "institution" and there is bound to be misunderstanding of the concept of "Islamized institutions." To clarify, institutions do not have doors and offices. Neither the UN nor the World Bank is an institution. The improperly named Brookings Institution is actually an "institute." Rather, institutions are frameworks that direct the behavior of society through the establishment of incentives, disincentives, and norms.

Thus far in Tunisia, Egypt, and Turkey, Islamists have won, which means the political institutions of the state will, to varying degrees, reflect the priorities of the Muslim Brotherhood, Ennahda, and the Justice and Development Party (AKP), respectively. Yet what does it mean to "Islamize institutions"? It is a process in which Islamic legal codes, norms, and principles are either incorporated into existing laws, or supplant them. By grounding certain institutions in Islamic tenets, Islamist elites create an environment in which religion plays a greater role in society, including in areas that have not been directly Islamized.

The second article of the 1971 version of Egypt's constitution stated "Islam is the religion of the state; the principles of the Islamic shari'a are a principal source of legislation, and Arabic is the official language." In 1980, Anwar Sadat amended the constitution to say: "Islam is the religion of the state and Arabic its official language. The principles of shari'a are the principal source of legislation." Sadat's change represented a step in the direction of Islamizing Egypt's political institutions, which matched some of the measures the Egyptian president took in the mid-1970s in the cultural and educational spheres that gave a prominent role to religion in these areas. First, it provided an opportunity for Islamists to delegitimize the state on specifically religious grounds, given the gap between the constitutional requirement for Islamic law-based legislation and the reality that much of Egypt's laws paid little heed to shari'a. Second, the article helped pave the way for the further Islamization of the Egyptian political system 33 years later. The new constitution, which was adopted in December 2012, includes a number of innovations that clearly sets Egypt along an Islamist trajectory. Consider, for example, the following excerpt:

Al-Azhar is an encompassing independent Islamic institution, with exclusive autonomy over its own affairs, responsible for preaching Islam, theology, and the Arabic language in Egypt and the world. Al-Azhar Senior Scholars are to be consulted in matters pertaining to Islamic law.

As a variety of Egyptians and other observers have noted, this provision places the ulema in a position to determine the validity of legislation based on religious principles. Although al-Azhar's Senior Scholars are ostensibly independent from the government and do not have as broad a reach as Iran's Guidance Council for example, the two bodies are clearly analogues.

In addition, the new constitution includes Article 219, which to the uninitiated is extraordinarily difficult to decipher, but is intended to guard against the kind of expansive view of shari'a that Egypt's highest court had previously used in assessing legislation . The combination of all of these constitutional principles significantly advances the Islamization of Egyptian society and renders it unnecessary for leaders to promulgate a decree or law that specifically bans alcohol, for example. Of course, President Mohammed Morsi could take this dramatic step, but he would not need to unless there is political pressure -- say, from Salafis -- to do so. In a relatively short period of time, alcoholic beverages would become scarce because of the powerful disincentives associated with the religious tenets and norms that are now codified in Egypt's political institutions. The effect of this codification is similar, if slower, to an outright ban on liquor, as Egyptians will be compelled through both opprobrium and possible penalty to give up their beloved Stellas and Johnny Walker.

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Steven A. Cook is Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square. He blogs at From the Potomac to the Euphrates.

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