Does the Arab spring need a bill of rights?
The hefty victory of an Islamist party in Tunisia's election kicks off a year of constitution writing. Urgently needed now is a bill of rights to guarantee freedom for all, regardless of creed or politics.
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Politically, there is agreement in Tunis and Cairo and elsewhere on "democracy." Yet this is mainly about voting and elections; conceptual rifts are deepening. Will states adopt a simple democratic "majority rule" system, or one that builds in rights that protect minorities ahead of time, a "national consensus" model?Skip to next paragraph
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Basic questions are unanswered: Will women be allowed positions of leadership? Will full participation by non-Muslims in politics, public office, and courts be assured? In states like Syria, with a plethora of minority groups and intra-Muslim divides, if change comes, will all Islamic family members receive full rights?
In post-Muammar Qaddafi Libya, interim leaders now say they have adopted sharia as the main source of law – a common formulation in Islamic governments, which is open to a wide range of interpretation. As part of this, Libyan leader Mustafa Abdul Jalil said, marriage laws would be changed to allow polygamy.
"There is a massive disconnect between the discourse of a civil state with an Islamic reference, and the practice of substantive democratic rights on the ground," warns Mariz Tadros of the University of Sussex in Britain. "The Islamists are saying they want a civil state. But [that state] won't be civil. Bit by bit if the sharia is institutionalized, we will see an elite corps with a privileged standing making rules. Rights won't be granted without qualification ... but it will be called a democracy."
Compared to Eastern Europe's revolts
As a historic event, the Arab Spring has been compared to 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Yet the overthrow of the Soviet Union was achieved through years of disciplined dissident opposition and the eventual rotting of the Soviet economy.
The Arab revolts, by contrast, have seemed in some ways too easy. "The events of 1989 were preceded in countries like Poland or Czechoslovakia, or even East Germany by years of intellectual and political activity ... in Charter 77 [an East-bloc dissident demand for human rights] and Solidarity," says former Polish Solidarity figure and poet Adam Zagajewski. "In Poland you had this very powerful system of clandestine publications, underground magazines. That's the difference, in that this spring came like an explosion from nowhere. So this ... makes me maybe not skeptical but makes me ask, What are the foundations of this?"