Two constitutions, one triumph

Tunisians on the third anniversary of the revolution, photo by AFP-Getty

The Tunisians and Egyptians are both in the process of approving new constitutions but only one can be said to be edifying to witness.  A constitution is the archetypal consensual document, representing the equilibrium point that balances diverse national aspirations and political values.  In the evolution of the US constitution there was constant negotiation, both high-minded (see ‘The Federalist Papers‘) and low, resulting in an agreed document that has endured for over two centuries — in some corners, it has practically taken on the aura of a sacred text.

In Tunisia today, just about everyone, no matter their political persuasion, believes the third (and it would seem final) draft of the constitution enshrines their political beliefs — imperfectly, of course, and not without compromises all around, but in a way that all parties can live with.  This is how the New York Times begins its coverage:

Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly is close to passing a new Constitution that legislators across the political spectrum, human rights organizations and constitutional experts are hailing as a triumph of consensus politics.

Two years in the making and now in its third draft, the charter is a carefully worded blend of ideas that has won the support of both Ennahda, the Islamist party that leads the interim government, and the secular opposition. It is being hailed as one of the most liberal constitutions in an Arab nation.

“They finally found some equilibrium,” said Ghazi Gherairi, secretary general of the International Academy of Constitutional Law in Tunis, the capital. “It is a result of consensus, and this is new in the Arab world.”

Egypt, by contrast, botched the passage of its most recent constitution in late-2012, when the Muslim Brotherhood seized a momentary political and legal advantage to push through a sloppily-written constitution that served no interest but its own.  That document survived barely a year.  Today, Egyptians begin voting on a new constitution, which they are likely to ratify; it is a better document, but the process was deeply flawed.

The Muslim Brotherhood — denounced as ‘terrorists’ now but still the only party to have won an election in Egypt — was excluded from the drafting, which means some large fraction of the population will feel the constitution has been foisted upon them and does not represent the enshrinement of their aspirations and values.  The last time a large numbers of Egyptians felt that way about their constitution it led to a coup d’état.  The tens of millions of people who voted for the MB in the last election don’t have that option, but their disaffection and sense of betrayal just stores up problems for the future.  It would have been much better to bring their representatives into the process, even at the cost of nudging the constitution a bit in their direction, in order to have them invested in the document for years to come.



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