Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

The year of drafting constitutions | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Whether this is the year of the Arab Spring or the Arab earthquake, we must acknowledge that it is also the year of drafting constitutions, whether in countries that have passed through a state of change, such as Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, or countries that are just around the corner from such change, like Syria and Yemen, or even those that have simply undertaken political reforms, such as Morocco and Jordan.

With this change, our region is witnessing a futile debate about the drafting of constitutions, and who is authorized to compose them. Should they be written by the election winners, whether they are Islamists, conservatives, or Liberals? When I say this is a “futile” debate, this is because it focuses on specific points indicating systematic errors, rather than wider social ones. So today we hear that if the Islamists are the victors in Tunisia, or Egypt, or even Libya and elsewhere, will they ensure women’s rights, pluralism, and freedoms? Of course there are no fundamental questions about whether the new constitution will guarantee the right to co-existence, the transfer of power, whether it will support development and the pursuit of science and knowledge, and whether it will ensure that freedom breeds innovation and eminence amongst nations, rather than screaming and name-calling.

We have seen, and continue to see, pointless debates about constitutions in some of our countries which are being devoured by sectarianism, such as Lebanon and Iraq, and even Egypt with regards to the rights of the Copts, and in accordance with the misleading concept of majority and minority. In Iraq, for example, if we acknowledge that the Shiites are the majority and the Sunnis are the minority, the majority here – i.e. the Shiites – does not exceed 50 percent, and the minority – i.e. the Sunnis – constitutes nearly 40 percent. So, how can you nullify nearly half of your society, and even subject them to your vision and your beliefs? This is impossible of course. In the Egyptian case, however small the Coptic proportion is in terms of percentages, the number of Copts is no less than 12 million people in any case, so how can you ignore this number? It is madness of course!

Accordingly my advice for writing constitutions, and to those concerned in our region, is to read very carefully the following quote from the new book by former US president Bill Clinton (Back to Work), on the subject of the US constitution and the founding fathers who wrote it (page 28):

“In other words, our constitution was designed by people who were idealistic but not ideological. There’s a big difference. You can have a philosophy that tends to be liberal or conservative but still be open to evidence, experience and argument. That enables people with honest differences to find practical, principled compromise. On the other hand, fervent insistence on an ideology makes evidence, experience and argument irrelevant: If you possess the absolute truth, those who disagree are by definition wrong, and evidence of success or failure is irrelevant. There is nothing to learn from the experience of other countries. Respectful arguments are a waste of time. Compromise is weakness. And if your policies fail, you don’t abandon them; instead, you double down, asserting that they would have worked if only they had been carried to their logical extreme”.

In summary, those who write the constitution should be idealistic, or statesmen, and not ideological!