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The Arab Constitutional Transition

By Karina Piser and Myriam Benraad

On a February 7, 2014 visit to Tunisia, French President François Hollande congratulated the National Constituent Assembly on their new Constitution—a “major text” that does justice to the Tunisian revolution and serves as a model for other countries in the region. This Constitution undoubtedly marks a significant step for the country that launched the region’s wave of popular uprisings, and is a major step forward in a transition that has been punctuated by political crises and episodic violence. After over two years of ideological deadlock among assembly members resolved with civil society’s mediation, the text’s completion is a tangible indicator of democratic consolidation. Could Tunisia's process of constitutional reform provide an example to neighboring MENA countries?

The Constitution offers a number of praiseworthy provisions, notably pertaining to gender equality in social and political domains (Article 46). The right to creativity, diversity, and tolerance are also encouraged as pillars of Tunisian national culture (Article 42). But certain challenges remain, particularly regarding Islam. Article 6 fails to resolve the debate over religion’s role in law and society and instead juxtaposes two antagonistic visions of Islam and the State.

While religious actors pushed for the State to protect the sacred, members of the secular opposition pushed for freedom of worship and the banning of takfir (excommunication of non-believers), a demand invoked after an Islamist deputy accused an opposition member of being an “enemy to Islam,” echoing the rhetoric that surrounded the assassinations of secularist deputies Chokri Belaïd and Mohamed Brahmi in 2013.

Can Tunisia’s Constitution provide a model for neighboring processes, as its uprising did in January 2011? In some ways, certainly. Civil society’s active role in pushing discordant politicians towards consensus stands out in a region marred by violence. But an all-encompassing model would be hard to apply to countries as politically and socio-culturally distinct as Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Yemen, Iraq, and Egypt. At the same time, certain recurrent themes—reinforcing independent institutions, supporting elections and national dialogues, reforming judicial and security sectors, and encouraging human rights—should inform the international community’s approach in accompanying transitional processes.

Morocco and Algeria are two countries where the status quo endures. In 2011, Morocco’s King Mohamed VI, in power for nearly 15 years, organized a referendum on constitutional amendments that the February 20 movement, a protest group that called for change, categorically deemed superficial. Against a backdrop of mounting poverty, perspectives for democratic progress remain weak. In Algeria, constitutional reform is inexistent, despite the aging President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s 2011 reform package that local daily Al-Watan described as an “alibi” for reinforcing his authority. Bouteflika’s recent announcement that he will be running in the country’s April elections for a fourth mandate—met with protests that the army immediately quashed—only reaffirms his apathy towards a democratic shift.

In Libya, constitutional reform hinges upon much needed stability, hampered by an exponential rise in militia violence since Qaddafi’s fall in 2011. Armed groups control entire pockets of Libyan territory. And even if interim leaders manage to ebb violence, tremendous hurdles remain in codifying democratic values. In June 2013, the National General Congress (the new Libyan assembly first elected in 2012) passed an electoral law that only allots six seats for women and minorities, prompting Amazighs, Tubus and Tuaregs to boycott the vote. Militia violence contributed to massive abstention in the February 2014 elections to form a constitution-writing body, which were held just a month after the Islamist Justice and Construction party withdrew from the interim government. This volatile climate places the Libyan state on the brink of collapse, only magnified by the federalist push in the Cyrenaica region, which unilaterally declared autonomy in March 2012.

Similar territorial logic is evident elsewhere in the region. Since the new Constitution was adopted in 2005, Iraq has been the theatre of conflict between central Baghdad and its peripheral Kurdish and Shiite areas. Since 2011, part of the Sunni population has also been demanding autonomy. Iraq’s large oil deposits compound tensions and crystallize violent rivalries between parties, militias, and tribes. Although less visible in the media, Yemen also faces challenges in drafting a Constitution after months of national dialogue, during which leaders produced a series of progressive recommendations pertaining to women’s rights, economic development, and federalism. This summer, a referendum might be held regarding the establishment of a federal system based on autonomous regions, which many consider to be the sole means of restoring security and satisfying the Southern region.

Egypt finds itself on the verge of authoritarianism since the July 2013 coup d’état that deposed popularly elected Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi. A Constitution was indeed adopted in a referendum in January 2014—and passed with 98.1 percent approval—but amidst a climate of popular passivity (evident in a mere 38 percent turnout rate), disenchantment, and fear. And while the January 2014 Constitution does offer some strong provisions on women’s rights and education, unprecedented repressive tendencies will drown the charter’s progressive points. The violent and escalating crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, journalists, and activists, makes any hope for implementation and political stability impossible. General Abd al-Fattah al-Sissi, Egypt’s new strongman, recently announced that he would be running for elections, leaving little hope that the conflict will be resolved peacefully and democratically. 

The constitutional processes in the MENA region are at a critical point of progress. World leaders should aim to ensure security in these regions so that citizens and governments can push for democratic reform. It is important to understand the very tangible barriers to democracy, from natural resources to inter-party conflict. In this context, will Tunisia provide a viable example for constitutional reform? Will neighboring countries take note?

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Myriam Benraad is a Policy Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).  Karina Piser is a Researcher at ECFR.

[Photo courtesy of Dominique Tourel]

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