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December 17, 2012, Monday

War over constitutions in Arab Spring countries

The Arab Spring is on the first day of its third year. The wave of rebellions sparked with Mohamed Bouazizi setting himself on fire in Tunisia snowballed into mass gatherings in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Jan. 25.

Now the Arab Spring has entered a different stage. Dictators have been ousted. They have been replaced with governments that represent the majority of the people. But problems linger and they have even multiplied and become exacerbated. The worsening performance of the Tunisian and Egyptian economies is the most important indicator of aggravating problems. The opposition is not satisfied and new alliances and groupings are being formed. Muslim societies are searching for ways to live in harmony with democracy, to which they are not accustomed. Profound social discontent and complaints from social groups represented in the government produce a harsh opposition. Direct democracy itself is facing big tremors.

Commentators have already started to talk about the long winter awaiting the Arab Spring in its young age. That democratically elected governments are accused of being “dictatorships of the majority” and that Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi has come to be referred to as “pharaoh,” “dictators” and even “Hitler” is proof that there is an ongoing disagreement as to the basic principles of democracy.

Neither ruling governments nor opposition parties have been able to internalize democracy. The opposition is raising objections to the mandate the public gave to the ruling party and is proceeding to render the administration dysfunctional. The ruling governments, on the other hand, assume their mandate is unrestricted in introducing new rules. The contention is essentially about how the new rules of the political system will be set. Tunisia and Egypt are drafting their constitutions. The first round of the referendum on the new constitution has been concluded. In Tunisia, the debate on the new constitutions is under way. Unlike them, the Islamists of Turkey, who have been in power for 10 years, do not appear to be in any hurry. The reason why the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) of Egypt is in a hurry compared to the languor of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) of Turkey gives us hints about the main reason for the contention.

With its effort to draft a new constitution, Egypt is actually seeing a power struggle. The constitution is one of the main weapons in this struggle. By drafting a new constitution, the Morsi administration is trying to inhibit the old regime, which is watching for an opportunity to stage a comeback. Tunisia, too, seems to be in a hurry in this regard. But in Turkey, such a threat has already been averted completely, and therefore Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is resting his oars before proceeding with the constitution. The difference between making a constitution and waging a political struggle explains the difference between the conditions of Egypt and Tunisia, and Turkey. Yet the ruling governments in these three countries face the same aspersion from the opposition: establishing a dictatorship of the majority.

“A dictatorship of the majority” is one of the oldest criticisms frequently voiced against democracy. Democracy does not consist only of majority rule. It is essential that the powers and authorities of the government be restricted with rules with respect to the minority. This is called a constitutional democracy. The only way to inhibit dictatorship and arbitrariness is to restrict the administrative powers and authorities of the governments that are elected to office in the Arab lands via constitutional rules. And the whole contention is about what these restrictive rules should be. As they attempt to set these new rules, the MB and Tunisia’s Ennahda fear the risk of the resurrection of the old regime and losing their power.

The rule by majority is in effect rule by the poor. The religious/conservative majority gives Islamists the governmental mandate in order to get rid of poverty. The opposition, on the other hand, still maintains its power over the economy and, therefore, tries to preserve its wealth. The Arab Spring is proceeding with the tough quarrels between the Islamists, who have secured the political power thanks to majority support, and the opposition, which obtained economic power during the dictatorship era and is now trying to preserve it.

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