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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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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.

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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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