In the next few days we will mark the second anniversary of the start of the Arab uprisings, when Mohammad Bouazizi set himself on fire in Tunisia on December 17, 2010. The balance sheet of change in the Arab world over these two years has been epic and historic, but often turbulent and even chaotic, as citizens continue to shape new governance systems that respect rather than demean them.
While countries like Syria and Bahrain are locked into conflict modes of moving ahead, others like Libya, Yemen, Egypt and Tunisia are navigating somewhat tumultuous transitions that focus on building democratic and accountable institutions of state. Perhaps we are entering the ‘terrible twos’ of the age of statehood, when newly configuring governance systems, like two-year-old children, often act recalcitrant and troublesome. More likely, in my view, is the fact that we are finally passing through the most critical and defining moment of such democratic transitions, when governments and citizens alike create the constitutions that will define their national political life for many years to come.
The sharp emotions we witness in Tunisia and Egypt in particular reflect the intense feelings of citizens who understand in their bones why their new constitutions are important to them and to the development of their country. Here is my list of why these constitutions—and the processes that create them—are so important, and arouse such passions.
1. This is the first national political process in an Arab country in which every major political actor is involved in determining the outcome—the citizens, political parties, the presidency, the armed forces, the judiciary, the media, civil society, constitutional drafting committees, and the parliament.
2. The constitution that emerges will shape the national political system and its institutions for decades to come, so citizens and organizations are keen to ensure that their interests are protected.
3. The constitutional process addresses all the important issues that people care about, including religious-secular balances, the role of the military, the rights of citizens, the protection of minorities, the relative powers of the presidency and parliament, the rights and roles of men and women, and other such critical issues.
4. The new constitutions define both the new rules of the political game in Arab countries and simultaneously express the collective national values of the people, both of which are dear to the hearts of the newly liberated and empowered citizenries.
5. Citizens believe that constitutions are documents that not only define citizen rights and the limits of state power, but also provide mechanisms that will guarantee compliance of all parties on these issues. They must differ from previous Arab constitutions that included impressive language about equal rights for all citizens—but those rights were usually not enforced.
6. The constitutions are widely seen as documents that reflect and protect the gains of the revolutions that overthrew the old regimes, and prevent a recurrence of the former autocracies. They define mechanisms of separation of powers and checks-and-balances that prevent any one group in the country—the military, Muslim Brothers, old guard, revolutionary youth, or anyone else—from taking full control of the political decision-making system.
7. I spoke recently with the impressive Tunisian scholar, lawyer and constitutional jurist Yadh Ben Achour, president of Tunisia’s Higher Political Reform Commission that has overseen constitutional reforms after the revolution, and learned also that citizens see the new constitutions as “founding moments” in their national history, and “a point of discontinuity between the old autocratic political culture and mentality of paternalism and authoritarianism, and new democratic values and practices.”
Since December 2010, citizens across the Arab world have been calling for three broad things: social justice, citizenship under the rule of law, and constitutional reforms. Even in countries that have not had massive street demonstrations that overthrow regimes, like Jordan, Kuwait and Morocco, citizens have demanded changes in the constitutional systems that can enhance their rights and equalities as citizens. Constitutionalism, therefore, is clearly the throbbing heart of the process of real change that millions of Arab men and women have agitated, and in some cases, died for, in the past two years.
Citizens know in their bones that in the new Arab world being born, constitutions matter. They are not just symbolic documents, or copies of European texts, as was the case previously. They define who we are as citizens of sovereign states. They capture our values and guarantee our rights and responsibilities. They limit the power of the state. They affirm our humanity. That is why people are out in the streets fighting to make sure that this time around, after three generations of dilapidated statehood and denied citizenship, these constitutions will have integrity, and make us proud to be citizens of sovereign Arab states.
Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. You can follow him @ramikhouri.
Copyright © 2012 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global