Does the Arab Spring Need a Bill of Rights?

By Marquand, Robert | The Christian Science Monitor, October 28, 2011 | Go to article overview

Does the Arab Spring Need a Bill of Rights?


Marquand, Robert, The Christian Science Monitor


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.

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.

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. …

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