What the rise of political Islam is likely to spell

Tunisia's Islamists are claiming victory in their elections and across North Africa political Islam is on the march.

So does this mark a decisive defeat for al-Qaeda and its violent ideology, or perhaps an understanding that the ballot box offers a more effective way to achieve similar goals of society governed by religious principles and subject to Sharia law?

There are probably almost as many answers to that question as there are religious sages in Cairo or Qom.

The parties that campaign for the "green vote" in Tunisia, Libya, or Egypt have different positions on the defining issue of Islamism - whether to govern by religious law or allow different authorities, notably civil courts, to continue.

One thing is clear, that Islamic slogans and political language have great power in this new situation or Arab Spring.

"We, as an Islamic state, have adopted the Islamic Sharia as the main source of legislation," Mustafa Abdul Jalil the chairman of Libya's National Transitional Council said on Sunday, announcing his country's liberation from the rule of Muammar Gaddafi, "as such, any law that runs contrary to the Islamic principles of the Islamic Sharia is legally void".

In the case of Libya, Mr Jalil suggested this meant moving quickly to establish banks based on religious non-profit principles. He did not advocate cutting off the hands of thieves or stoning adulterers.

Elsewhere the presence of non-Muslim minorities, as well as the desire not to scare off foreign investors or tourists has produced different language.

Tunisia's Ennahda Party, which is expected to get about 40% of the vote when all the ballots have been counted, says that it does not believe in adopting religious law.

In Egypt the mainstream Muslim Brotherhood, recognising the concerns of the Coptic Christian minority as well as secular Egyptians who enjoy their freedoms, says it is not seeking to move to Sharia.

The Al Nour party by contrast wants, in the slogans of hundreds of thousands of supporters that we filmed a couple of months ago in Cairo, a "Sharia State Now!"

These parties between them are expected to poll well in November's Egyptian parliamentary elections, possibly even achieving an overall majority.

Critics of the Muslim Brotherhood, and indeed Tunisia's Ennahda, claim that they do really harbour the goal of an Islamic state but are cloaking this ambition in ambiguity as a matter of political expediency.

So does a belief that society, ultimately should be run according to Islamic principles put these politicians in the same ideological boat as al-Qaeda? Or does it make them little different to a US presidential candidate who, as a devout Christian, may hold messianic beliefs but does not expect the Second Coming during his or her term of office?

The other great question that could distinguish the new wave of political Islamists from the hard-liners of al-Qaeda is that of political pluralism - more specifically whether they will be able to relinquish power once they have won it.

Once again the language espoused by Ennahda or even Egypt's Al Nour party is clear; that they will accept the verdict of the ballot box even if they are defeated.

Experience in other parts of the Middle East is more equivocal. Hamas, which won the Palestinian vote in 2006 now appears as reluctant to put its fortunes in Gaza, which it has governed since 2007, to the popular vote as its Fatah rivals do in the West Bank.

Both factions have committed to elections as part of a reconciliation agreement, but the plan has yet to deliver significant results.

In Iraq, where Nouri al-Maliki's Shia grouping actually got fewer seats in the 2010 parliamentary elections than its main rival, he clung to power for months until he was able to out manoeuvre them in coalition negotiations. Mr Maliki remains in office today.

The benign interpretation of the rise of political Islam in North Africa is that it simply reflects a flourishing or religious and national feeling made possible by the removal of dictators who often saw the mosques as dens of sedition.

This repression spawned underground movements that included both the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda. The migration of some prominent believers in violent Jihad to its electoral form - such as Abdul Hakim Belhadj, the Tripoli militia commander - underlines the idea that political movements, like people, evolve.

For the moment most of the professionally sceptical - people like Western intelligence agencies or militaries - are taking the rise of North African political Islam in good faith.

Religious parties look set to win dominant roles in ruling coalitions and it will soon be possible to judge their commitment to minority rights or pluralism by their deeds rather than just their words.