The assorted political crises in Egypt, Tunisia, Kuwait, Lebanon, Syria and other Arab states show very clearly why credible constitutions are such important documents. They provide a set of ground rules for the practice of politics and nonviolent power contestation, and they also reflect a fundamental national consensus on the nature, role and identity of the state, and the rights of citizens. These two elements of orderly contestation and genuine citizenship are missing in most Arab countries, which is why the region sees so many countries in the throes of political tensions or outright warfare.
This also highlights the importance of getting the constitutional formation process right in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, the three Arab countries most advanced in that direction. It is troubling to see so many Arab countries in the past few years reach near immobilization due to the increasing polarization of political sentiments. This happens in countries with different political systems and socio-economic conditions, such as Syria, Egypt or Kuwait, though they share the problem of the immaturity of Arab political systems.
Syria is at war with itself; Lebanon limps along with chronic and intense political disagreements that include outright boycotts of government institutions; Kuwait and Jordan have seen opposition forces challenge the government in the streets; and Egypt is locked in a bitter fight between the president and opposition groups over the new constitution. Smaller scale versions of these face-offs prevail in most Arab countries, which all lack credible institutions that represent the citizens and mechanisms to achieve political consensus on important issues.
This is not a passing political problem or phase to be navigated. It is much worse. I think this is another confirmation that a fundamental structural weakness of almost every Arab country is the basic nature of the state, which has not worked very well in many cases. Where it seemed to be working well (Kuwait and Syria come to mind, and reflect almost all other Arab political systems) the surface calm hid a much more turbulent and unstable reality underneath: citizens who had no real say in how their countries operated, because most of them had no role in how their countries came to be in the first place.
This makes it even more important that Arab countries that are now writing new constitutions navigate this process in a credible and legitimate way. The tensions in Egypt indicate that this is not happening, though we are still in the first stages of the process, and the mistakes that have occurred can all be corrected by men and women of good will. The intense confrontations in Egypt over the process of writing and ratifying the Constitution indicate how passionately people feel about this process, because they realize how important it is to shaping the future of their country. One of the reasons that much of the political contestation takes place in the streets, and largely peacefully, is the absence of rules on political decision-making, which they desperately desire.
Even existing bodies, such as the presidency and various courts, are challenged mainly by mass demonstrations or boycotts, rather than active engagement, which is a sign of political immaturity. This primacy of street action and unilateral behavior makes it very difficult to gauge the actual political sentiments in any country, mainly because we do not know where the silent majority stands. In Kuwait and Egypt, for example, energetic street demonstrations may reflect minority views among the public, or they may in fact reflect a majority. We simply do not know.
This is why more mature political systems rely on action through representative institutions and, ultimately, the judiciary that interprets the Constitution. One weakness of the Arab transitions under way across North Africa is that the rules for navigating these transitions were not sufficiently clear or rigid. So when the Egyptian president unilaterally grabbed some of the judiciary’s powers – only temporarily, he says – those who opposed his move had no clear way to deal with this other than taking to the streets or boycotting his referendum on the Constitution.
The end of Assad rule in Syria will probably come through warfare, but then Syria will have to go through the same process that Egypt is experiencing. This is proving complicated across the region because entire citizenries are being asked at once to write their political rules books, achieve national identity consensus, work out the protection of minority equal rights, and agree on the values and principles of statehood. This is the first time that Arab citizens undertake such a thing, and it is normal that they make mistakes on the way. The important thing is to see if they also learn from those mistakes.
On the whole, I would say it is better to experience these bumps and work through them toward the day when we can enjoy credible constitutional systems, rather than remain stuck in the old autocratic order that has started to collapse across the Arab world.
(Rami Khouri is published twice weekly by The Daily Star, where this article appeared on Dec. 5, 2012)