There are few things in life as exhilarating as countries developing into constitutional democracies. I have spent the past eight weeks delving into this process in both the United States and the Middle East.
I have physically visited Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Providence and other seminal places in early American history, while vicariously also moving through Tunis, Cairo and Tripoli where I have closely followed the daily events surrounding the development of the new constitutions of Libya, Tunisia and Egypt. The parallels between the Arab transformations today and the American legacy from the late 18th century are striking, and help us understand better the universal and timeless complexities of constitutional democracy. The Arab and American worlds have struggled mightily to reconcile individual liberties and citizenship rights with a coherent national identity and a viable state structure, while also addressing issues of minority rights, religion and state, accountability, and centralized vs. diffused government powers.
I write this on Nov. 6, which is Election Day in the United States, while in Tunisia and Egypt millions of citizens are analyzing, debating and revising assorted drafts of their new constitutions, which will be ratified and validated by both a national referendum and a vote of parliament. The single most powerful lesson that I draw from my wanderings in both worlds is that the most important element in the formation of credible constitutional democracy is time, measured in two dimensions.
The first is that it takes time to agree on a viable constitution that configures the exercise of power, the responsibilities of government, and the rights of citizens. The second is that this is a process that keeps evolving over long periods of time, and is not a fixed destination that is reached and left in a permanent state forever.
The U.S. declared independence in 1776, but needed another 11 years to draft its constitution in 1787, and two more years until the Bill of Rights was added to the constitution in 1789. During this period the young U.S. experienced rebellions, mutinies, conspiracies and other inevitable aspects of such an ambitious project as forging an independent union from disparate colonies with different philosophies.
The process of improving the union and completing the pledge of democratic liberties and rights for all Americans has continued. It took the United States nearly two centuries to evolve from a stirring democracy in which only white men who owned land and slaves had the right to exercise power and a full range of individual liberties, to that desired more perfect union in which women, African-Americans, Jews, immigrants, and all other Americans enjoyed full voting and civil rights.
The nascent Arab democracies navigate the first stages of a similar exercise today, anchored in the exciting process of drafting constitutions that treat all citizens with respect and dignity. North African Arab states have been working on their new constitutions for, oh, maybe seven or eight months now. We will not need two centuries to make this journey, yet we also grapple with some of the same issues that early Americans wrestled with.
In Arab lands, these include defining the national identity, clarifying the role of religion in public life, the rights and roles of women and minorities, the balance between ethnic/tribal and national identity, the role of the armed forces, and the division of authority among the branches of government.
My impression from studying Arab and American constitutionalism is that a critical element at every step of the way is popular legitimacy, rather than technical perfection.
Constitutional clauses may be imprecise or incomplete in some cases in the early stages of drafting these magnificent documents, but whatever is agreed must have the authoritative stamp of popular validation and consensus, before the country can move on to the next step. And there will be many next steps (as we see from this American presidential contest, which again debated the 18th century issue of how much the federal government should tax citizens and care for their needs).
It is also intriguing to see many Americans and Arabs seriously worried about the similar possibilities that could result from democracy’s vagaries, such as radical forces capturing the levers of power in Washington, Cairo, Tunisia or Tripoli (these forces include radical Islamists or retrograde autocrats in the Arab world, and rightwing fundamentalists and neo-conservatives intellectual thugs in the USA).
My message to them both is the same: relax. If the democratic and constitutional process that shapes these countries’ political systems are reasonably credible and legitimate, i.e., they are validated by the citizenry, you get the chance again and again to hold power accountable, and to throw out the rascals and bring in new leaders in a few years. If Americans go and vote Tuesday, and Arabs participate actively in shaping their new constitutions, we will all be in better shape in the next century, when we get to do this all over again, and get one step closer to that more perfect union that we all covet.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. He tweets @RamiKhouri.