How to draft a constitution: six steps for the Middle East

Egypt’s military has suspended the country’s Constitution and tasked experts with overhauling its fundamental law.

Other countries in the region may also soon be in line for such a make-over – redesigning government institutions, enshrining individual liberties, entrenching guarantees of democratic accountability. But not all constitutions are created equal. Here are a list of six big issues to consider when creating a Constitution from scratch:

1. How quickly should countries write a new constitution?

Khalil Hamra/AP
Egyptians gathered again in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Feb. 18 to mark the fall of Hosni Mubarak – and to press military rulers to work toward democratic reforms.

Russia, a country that’s had five constitutions in the past century, has plenty of advice to offer on the wrong ways to go about writing a basic charter, experts say. “Egypt probably shouldn’t be trying to change its Constitution just now,” says Sergei Alexeyev, an author of Russia’s 1993 Constitution and a professor at the Yekaterinburg Institute of Private Law. “Better to concentrate on restoring human rights and freedoms in practical ways and then, after the storm has passed, turn to writing the constitution with a cool head.”

If a country takes its time and does it right, it will probably only have to do the job once, analysts say. Most people point to the United States, which has managed with one set of fundamental laws, plus orderly amendments, for more than two centuries. But America’s Founding Fathers took a dozen years after the Declaration of Independence before they wrote a basic charter.

“Good constitutions take a lot of time,” says Andrew Reynolds, a professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who has been consulted on constitution design for countries including Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and South Sudan.

Fred Weir wrote this from Moscow. Sarah Lynch and Kristen Chick in Cairo and Ariel Zirulnick in Boston also contributed to this report.

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