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.

By , Staff writer

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    Pictured are the leader and founder of the moderate Islamic party Ennahda, Rached Ghannouchi (r.) and Ennahda's secretary general, Hammadi Jebali, of Tunisia's moderate Islamist party Ennahda, banned for decades.
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In less than a year, the Arab Spring swept through the Middle East with a speed both historic and breathtaking. Arab youths lost their fear and apathy and went out on the streets. Three dynasties or dictatorships have crumbled. Bashar al-Assad of Syria is at a precarious moment.

What is left in the Arab aftermath are two main ideas: democracy and Islam.

After decades of secular rule by autocrats, millions of Arabs are eager to give Islam fuller expression in their lives and their governments. But that desire worries secularists, minorities, and more moderate Muslims, who constitute as much as 30 to 40 percent of the citizenry in some countries and seek concrete guarantees of rights in a coming year of Arab constitution-writing.

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In Tunisia's Oct. 23 election, which impressed the world with its openness and lack of violence, Islamist party Al Nahda (also spelled Ennahda) won 41 percent of the vote. Now the new constitution of one of the most educated, secular Arab states will be shaped in a politically religious context.

As the Arab Spring enters this new phase, something is urgently missing – an element needed to define the Arab Spring as more than a series of uprisings, says a growing chorus of expatriate Arab intellectuals. That something is a "bill of rights" that puts in writing the rights sought by this year's street protesters.

"We are at the turning point," argues Samir Aita, a member of the Syrian opposition and president of the Society for Arab Economists who splits his time between Paris and Damascus, Syria. "We are fighting about values in the middle of an uprising.... If this is not a fight for values, then it is not a revolution. It is just a series of uprisings. If it is a fight over values, you put it in writing. What is needed to consecrate the Arab Spring as a real revolution is a declaration of rights as witnessed in the French Revolution."

Constitutional models will soon proliferate in the Arab world – 12 drafts are already in circulation in Tunisia, and on Nov. 28 Egyptians are set to elect law-makers to shape a new constitution.

In a region chockablock with minorities, and with no autocrats to ensure stability, what such documents need are unequivocal guarantees of equality for all citizens, regardless of race or creed.

Protecting rights of minorities, women

Evidence of the need for minority protection in the Middle East is already coming thick and fast: This month – eight months after the Arab Spring – 27 Coptic Christians were killed when Egyptian tanks rolled into a crowd of protesters. Yet there is little accountability in Cairo for the massacre of peaceful protesters, part of which was caught on YouTube.

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?

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?"

So far the issue is raised mostly by expatriate Arab intellectuals, opposition groups, Egyptian writers and circles around presidential candidate Mohammed ElBaradei, and other artists and academics who want modern constitutional guarantees without making them sound like ideas imposed by the West.

But Al Nahda's victory in Tunisia might be a wake-up call for previously silent secularist and civil society backers in Arab states to unite, says Karim Emile Bitar, who recently edited an issue of the monthly ENA magazine in Paris that looks at the Arab Spring's achievements and drawbacks.

This summer brought a tussle between two Syrian opposition groups over basic issues: The National Council for Coordination of Democratic Change in Damascus insisted on a declaration of rights that included separation of religion and state and other basic rights to be agreed on before the regime topples. They used an old Syrian motto, "God is for religion and the state is for everyone else." But Muslim Brotherhood members on a separate National Council, an expatriate group now backed by the United States, Turkey, and Europe, would not accept it. They dismissed the separation idea and bill of rights as matters to be worked out later.

Gulf money backs Islamists

The push for a modern bill of rights is complicated by years of autocrats suppressing the state mechanisms necessary to enforce such rights – courts, schools, police, and so on.

But a more significant issue may be an underlying struggle between secularists and Gulf nations already funding the Islamic faithful. Al Nahda had by some counts more than 180 local groups, many of which reportedly received Gulf funding. Regional economists have argued since February for a "Marshall Plan" for Arab Spring states – forms of support for the educated but unemployed youths that formed the demographic core of the movements.

With Europe in debt crisis, that assistance is seen as more likely to come from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council, a local economic bloc. Worried about budding protests of its own earlier this year, Saudi Arabia distributed tens of billions of dollars in aid to its youth, and calm has prevailed. But Gulf funds to support Islamist groups in other parts of the Middle East come with a tacit understanding not only of the authority of Mecca and Medina in matters of Islam – the Saudi cities are considered the two holiest in the world – but also an intent to spread its more orthodox Wahhabi version of the faith.

After the Oct. 9 killing of Copts in Cairo, the often-pointed Egyptian writer and secularist Alaa al-Aswany commented on his blog, "If the Wahhabis cannot stand the sight of a church while they are mere members of the society, how would they behave towards us, Muslims and Copts, if they ever take power in Egypt…?!"

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