Writing Constitutions in the Wake of the Arab Spring

The Challenge of Consolidating Democracy

(Photo: Swiv / flickr)

The wave of revolutions that ousted dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya continues its sweep through the Middle East. In the countries that experienced upheaval first, however, the revolutionary phase has already given way to the process of democratic consolidation. One of the most important aspects of this phase will be the development of new constitutions to formalize each country's future political arrangements.

Even before this year, the nature of constitutions in the Arab world varied widely. In Saudi Arabia and Muammar al-Qaddafi's Libya, for example, the Koran stood in as constitution, with more technical matters, including succession and the nature of consultative councils, covered by a basic law. Other countries, such as Egypt and Tunisia, developed relatively secular constitutions in the 1880s.

All the codes, however, had two major features in common. First, they generally detailed the aspirations of the state, for example, to be part of the Arab Umma and uphold the principles of Islam. Such constitutions are in direct contrast to the U.S. one, which aims to limit the state. Second, like Western constitutions, Arab constitutions tended to be laden with strong guarantees for civil and political rights. The Jordanian and Egyptian canons, for instance, contained extensive sections outlining the rights of freedom of speech and assembly.

Of course, the first mandate of the Arab constitutions -- to empower the state -- routinely trumped the second -- to protect the people. Arab governments often ignored their generous legal protections for human rights, generally under the cover of emergency legislation that sidelined all or part of the code in order to give governments a free hand against "dangerous" opponents. This reflected many Arab governments' zero-sum understanding of the political process.

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