Arabs ponder: Is it the gun or the law?

Armed revolution, international legality, or homegrown constitutionalism? These three options for national change were used this week in the three Arab countries that arguably have had the most impact on the Middle East region in the last century – Syria, Egypt and Palestine. Developments in the three countries offered strikingly different options for moving forward to the condition of national sovereignty and well-being that is the right of all people. These different routes to change and stability capture the wider condition of an Arab world still struggling to make the final transition in the century-long trek from colonialism to indigenous authoritarianism to populist democratic legitimacy. Which option proves most effective will impact widely on other Arab countries that also seek their own change for the better.

A good case can be made for applying each of the three strategies, though my own assumption is that a constitutional order defined by a body that credibly represents the entire citizenry is the ideal route to stable and satisfying statehood. Egypt, Libya and Tunisia are now in the throes of applying this strategy. Egypt is the most dramatic case, given the advanced but contentious state of its drafting of a new constitution, and the flamboyant manner in which President Mohammad Mursi recently placed himself above the law and was immediately challenged by judges and political forces in society.

The draft constitution that was agreed Thursday night will now be widely debated and put to a national referendum, triggering the critical next phase of Egypt’s post-revolution political development in which the charter provides an agreed rulebook for action in the public sphere. The draft being debated includes some troubling elements, granting considerable lingering autonomous power to the military that is also largely beyond the scrutiny of civilian authorities.

These are early days, though, and as we are witnessing these days any attempt by one part of Egyptian society to monopolize power will be fiercely challenged by others in society, whether through established institutions (Parliament, courts, media) or on the street through peaceful protests. If Tunisia and Egypt in the coming few months promulgate new constitutions that are credibly ratified by a strong majority of citizens, and launch political governance systems that are at once pluralistic, accountable and transparent, the Arab world will have achieved important steps forward toward sensible statehood. Other Arab countries will draw the appropriate lessons.

The Syrian route to change that started with mass peaceful protests in March 2011, and has now become an armed conflict backed by many Arab and foreign parties, is an option that is well attested in world history. Such savage civil conflicts often leave in their wake a legacy of bitterness and revenge that subsequently distort the peaceful transition to a stable democracy – either because defeated groups stay away from the process, or extremist ideological factions dominate the new power structure. How Syrians transition to a new governance system after the downfall of the Assad regime will determine if this model of national rebirth is one that other Arabs might apply in similar cases where a military regime rules a largely disenfranchised population, as has been common across the Arab world.

The Palestinian move to achieve non-member observer state status is not in the same category as the Syrian and Egyptian cases, but it does highlight the option of resorting to international law and to existing global institutions for ensuring the rights of a deprived people. The Palestinians have tried using this option for decades, usually without success, because the global institutions of law are often overridden by the brute political and military force of strong powers, whether global ones like the United States and Russia, or regional ones like Israel.

The upgrade in the status of the “state of Palestine” at the U.N. will not change realities on the ground, where Israel remains the controlling power. It might, however, open up some other opportunities for the Palestinians to use international legal and political mechanisms to challenge Israeli measures that subjugate and control Palestinians in many ways, including punitive measures such as international boycotts and sanctions that aim to mitigate Israeli criminal acts (such as colonization, murder, siege or collective punishments) in lands seized in 1967. If the existing international framework of morality and legality proves effective to some extent in constraining Israel’s aggressions against Palestinians, then we are likely to see other Arab countries resorting to similar measures.

The three options of international law and morality, indigenous constitutionalism and armed rebellion that were all on view this week provide a window into both the widespread demands for sovereign and democratic change in the Arab world, and the main methods available to achieve that change. They essentially boil down to the two principal choices of the law or the gun. We shall soon find out which option is more effective.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 01, 2012, on page 7.




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