The uprisings across many Arab countries in 2011 are above all inspiring struggles by citizens to pursue a vision of what their countries can become. An entire generation of young people, who form the majority of the population in the Arab world, have taken to the streets to end dictatorship and the monopoly of power by regimes that have enjoyed at best a highly doubtful kind of pseudo-legitimacy.
This historic wave is both negative and positive: against forms of oppression and corruption that imposed endless privations and denied meaningful opportunities, but also for the construction of new nations that reflect the views and aspirations of their own people.
This combination of impulses can also be understood as the desire for new “social contracts”. In fact, one of the main sources of anger triggering the uprisings may be found in existing constitutional constructs that fail to provide even for a minimal level of genuine democratic rule and principles.
The existing constitutional texts of many Arab countries contain universally recognised rights and freedoms. But they lack effective mechanisms to implement such rights, which would ensure basic freedom in people’s daily lives.
It is natural, therefore, to see that one of the earliest and most vigorous debates to follow change in the region - whether overthrow of the old order (as in Tunisia and Egypt) or government-led reform (as in Morocco and Jordan) has been about the constitutional process and the drafting of a new and democratic constitution. So far, the various countries are pursuing different paths.
The different paths
In Tunisia, where the “Arab spring” started in December 2010, the choice has been to keep the existing constitutional arrangements until after voters elect a constituent assembly on 23 October 2011. This assembly will be assigned the task of drafting a new constitution for the country.
In Egypt, almost immediately after the fall of the Hosni Mubarak regime in February 2011, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces opted to schedule a referendum where voters were asked to approve designated amendments to the old constitution. The resulting (approved) text was then used to issue what was called a “constitutional declaration”, which operates as the basic law for the transitional period.
Such a declaration responds to some of the most urgent popular demands and establishes a roadmap for the election of the first post-Mubarak parliament; in turn, this will (if all goes to plan) elect a constituent body to deliver a new constitution for the country.
In Morocco, King Mohammed VI decided to form a “royal national committee” mandated to propose a new constitution, which in turn was endorsed through a referendum. Many Moroccans continue to question this option, on the grounds that the outcome is a constitution given to the people rather than being developed through wide participation and involvement by all segments of society.
In Jordan, King Abdullah II appointed two committees (the “national dialogue committee” and the “constitutional reform committee” ) which drew up substantial amendments to the existing constitution. These are currently being reviewed by parliament; once adopted, they should allow new laws on political parties and the conduct of competitive elections to be approved.
The constitutional process in each country reflects aspects of its own political order and traditions. Yet there is a common effort to ensure that the process is discussed, designed and implemented in ways that can eventually provide a guaranteed improvement on the previous flawed settlement.
Across these societies, people are seeking a new foundation for political and civic action - accountable institutions that lead to real competitive elections, genuinely representative constituent bodies, consensus-building and negotiations among diverse actors. The success of these efforts is vital to ensure that the result is a democratic “basic norm” that enables the societies concerned to live in peace and enjoy the fruits of democracy: freedom and dignity.
The shared norm
A good example of consensus-building can already be seen in Egypt: the “Al-Azhar declaration”, to which most political parties, forces and leaders in the country have subscribed. This declaration establishes a “red line” of inalienable and indisputable democratic principles that any future constitutional text should take into account. In the current Egyptian political context this is of great importance, yet this same context means that some regard it as an attempt to establish preconditions in a process that should be left to the free expression of the popular will.
Soon, other countries than the ones mentioned (Libya, Yemen, Syria) will face the need to engage in their own constitutional processes. The existing processes in the region - and many others around the world - may well offer lessons that can help toward smooth completion and delivery. In this way another promise of the “Arab spring”, that of a broader awakening that crosses national borders, may also be advanced.
Many young people in the Arab world describe the extraordinary events of 2011 in moving personal terms as their “new birth” - an individual as well as a collective experience. The adoption of new “social contracts” which ensure that these emergent citizens indeed gain their rightful share of universal democratic rights and freedoms will alone ensure that the birth is a happy one.