Mass demonstrations in Tahrir Square and street battles in Syria form the dramatic heart of the uprisings and revolutions that define many Arab lands these days, but the soul and the brain of the Arab world to come are being shaped in the epic battles now taking place to write new constitutions.As has happened regularly since December 2010, we must look back to Tunisia and Egypt for insights into this critical realm. The lessons to date are enlightening and heartening, as we see these days from passionate debates about issues like the status of women, the role of journalists, and the place of Islam and religion in state institutions and public life.
The fine points of writing new constitutions are often tedious and just slightly more captivating than Law of the Sea deliberations. So it is surprising perhaps to see street demonstrations and much political passion in Egypt and Tunisia over elements of the constitutional process, whether the composition of the bodies drafting the constitutions or the actual texts being formulated. This is not so surprising, though, in view of the widespread demands for constitutional reform across the entire Arab world, even in countries where no significant street demonstrations have taken place.
One of the telltale signs of the high importance that Arabs attach to this process is that calls for changing or reforming governments across the region have always been coupled with demands for new constitutions. These are important to the citizenry because they spell out in concrete and unambiguous terms the equal rights of every citizen, and they provide enforcement and accountability mechanisms to make sure that those rights are actually practiced. Arab constitutions for the past century (in fact since the first modern Arab constitution was promulgated in 1861 in ... Tunisia) have all promised a full range of rights and freedoms; but these rights were never fully enforced, leaving it to security-minded governments and narrow ruling elites to monopolize power in a manner that deeply disenfranchised most citizens.
So it is important to note that beyond Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, where lifelong autocratic leaders and their elites are being replaced by more legitimate elected governments, countries like Jordan, Morocco and Oman have started tinkering with their mechanisms of power and rule, in response to populist demands for constitutional reform and more egalitarian and participatory governance systems. The changes are limited and often superficial, but they do reflect both the nature of the populist demands for constitutional changes and the reality that long-serving regimes must respond to those demands in some manner.
These struggles for constitutional consensus are the most important of the many other contests that comprise the ongoing Arab transformations from national and personal humiliation to the rebirth and legitimacy of the state and its governing institutions, such as street demonstrations, media debates or presidential and parliamentary elections. The critical aspects of these constitutional processes are the composition of the bodies that draft them, and the substantive content of the texts. Publics have been closely monitoring both of these dimensions, and weighing in with their opinions when they felt strongly about developments.
The reason I find these processes heartening is that they indicate the Arab publics’ commitments to something far more important than merely overthrowing heavy-handed dictators, which is their insistence on living in societies that are governed by the rule of law and that actually respect values of equality, social justice and dignity. These constitutional deliberations also address foundational values that comprise issues such as the role of religion, the equal inclusion of citizens of all faiths and ethnicities, or the relationship of Arabism to other indigenous non-Arab identities.
The Tunisian deliberations are the most advanced, and have recently provoked heated debate and some lively demonstrations on three particular issues: the Arab and Islamic identities of state and society (is Tunisia an Arab/Islamic state or something broader than that?), and the role and status of women (are they fully equal to men or are they a “complement” or “associate” of men, as the current draft states?). Similar debates in Egypt address the status of Christians and other minorities, or the extent to which the government can curtail press freedoms to criticize official conduct.
Constitutional expert Iyadh Ben Achour, who presided over Tunisia’s High Authority for the Achievement of the Revolution’s Objectives, reflected the sentiments of hundreds of millions of Arabs who follow these constitutional dynamics when he told the Tunisia-live.net website this week that “Our revolution was civil, liberal, and pluralistic, and so should be the constitution.”
That seems to be a widely held view across the Arab world, and we shall discover in the year ahead whether this sentiment is translated into constitutional fact.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.