Newly-elected Islamist governments in countries such as Egypt need to address urgent economic issues such as unemployment ahead of religious concerns, political leaders and religious experts said at the World Economic Forum Thursday.
After the initial excitement following the Arab Spring, some Western political figures have expressed concern that the resulting democratic governments could move toward more laws dictated by very strict interpretations of the Koran.
“This revolution wasn’t liberal or secular, and it’s patronizing of Americans to think that when there’s democracy, Egyptians will turn out to be fluffy liberals,” Shadi Hamid, director of research, Brookings Doha Center, Qatar, said. “Egyptians should be able to vote for whoever they want and you should respect the outcome.”
There have been concerns about the safety of Christians in the region after Coptic Christian priests in Egypt said they were “under attack” following the revolution.
Sharia law, which is in force to varying degrees in Muslim countries around the world, can include punishments such as stoning and amputation. It has also been used to justify laws prohibiting women from working or driving cars.
Candidates backed by the pan-national movement the Muslim Brotherhood won the first round of elections in Egypt after President Hosni Mubarak was ousted last year following the protests in Tahrir Square, and will now have a big say in drafting the country’s new constitution. The more hardline Salafists came second.
“Few people would doubt that political Islam is a rising force in the region,” Rafik Ben Abdessalem, minister of foreign affairs for the coalition government of Tunisia, which came to power last year in the country’s first democratic elections, told CNBC.com. “The priority is to be pragmatic. We have an Islamist background but our priority is the interest of our state.”
He added that sharia law is “not a risk” in Tunisia.
Karen Armstrong, the former Catholic nun who has written several books about the history of Islam, pointed out that democracy took hundreds of years to evolve in Europe.
The region’s non-oil producing countries have suffered from the global economic crisis. Youth unemployment is a major problem in the Middle East and North Africa, where the ratio of youth to adult unemployment 2011 was 4.0, compared to 2.8 globally.
“After the revolution, the youth (of the region) still have the same expectations on unemployment, Amr Khaled, chairman of the board of trustees, Right Star Foundation International, Egypt, said. “All of us love and respect Islam, but the economy is the biggest problem.”