By Abdulrahman al-Rashed
3 February 2014
We know there is no sacred political work, constitutions included. Constitutions have always been written, rewritten, burnt and burnt again. What is important is to be realistic. Constitutions, regimes and political and civil work are a human production that reflects society’s culture and experience. The old constitutions of the Arab world during the first half of the 20th century used to reflect better cultures - perhaps because they were influenced by colonization which led to a developed understanding of the modern state.
Later constitutions were more enlightened than those that followed perhaps because governing elites imitated the colonizer. This was the case in Tunisia when Habib Bourguiba formulated the constitution of the modern state in 1959. Egypt’s constitution, before Bourguiba in Tunisia, reflected the desires of the military after they took over the country’s administration. In 1971, Egypt’s constitution became more objective during the era of President Anwar Sadat. Consequently, it was more in line with the nature of the Egyptian people. Hosni Mubarak, however, later added an article that gave him more control over state affairs.
The Tunisian Constitution
The new Tunisian constitution has been described as the best civil constitution in the Arab world. It has attained the approval of the Islamists and the liberals and achieved an outstanding result in the vote as 200 supported it and only 12 objected to it!
So, it garnered a semi-consensus despite its liberalism and the clarity of its interpretation of civil rights. In Egypt, the constitution was criticized upon the allegation that it is not based on Shariah law, although it is a lot more Islamic than the Tunisian constitution. In the Egyptian constitution, Islam is the religion of the state and Shariah is the primary source for the state’s laws. However, the Tunisian constitution rejected listing Sharia as a source for legislation. Unlike the Egyptian constitution, the Tunisian constitution frankly rejects the involvement of religion in the state’s affairs. The Tunisian constitution also prohibits the political exploitation of mosques and criminalizes acts of accusing others of infidelity and of inciting to hatred and violence.
All this happened due to the approval of the constitution by the majority of the Islamic Ennahda Party and most other Islamic Tunisian members of parliament. In Egypt, the 50-member committee wrote and reviewed the constitution and promoted a system that takes into consideration conservative Egyptian culture. A constitution that very much resembles the Brotherhood’s constitution was born, and despite that, they attacked it.
Constitutions Are a Mirror
As I said, constitutions are a mirror of time, society and culture. They change as circumstances change. Who knows, he who will govern Tunisia tomorrow may rewrite the constitution just like Zein al-Abidine bin Ali did. Over the duration of 10 years, bin Ali went from being a military attaché in Poland to becoming an ambassador then a minister and then Tunisians heard him on the radio declaring himself president. The Islamists supported him for three years and cheered for him and then they disagreed with him over the Gulf crisis after they supported Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait.
The journey of establishing states is long and complicated. It is firstly and mostly a result of cultural convergence and not the other way around. In the 20th century, there were parliaments in Sudan, Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Southern Yemen and their role was suppressed even though popular protests did not occur.
Parliaments were suppressed in the name of fighting the remains of colonization and in the name of fighting the Zionist enemy.
They ended up as hollow political powers signing the president’s decisions without argument. Look at Syria for example. Imagine, it is one of the oldest Arab countries to build a parliament - the People’s Council inaugurated in 1931. How did its political progress stall to see it become one of the most dictatorial countries in the region in less than 50 years?
Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today.