Here’s to Tunisia’s new constitution, let’s hope it matters

Tunisia has a new constitution, and it’s relatively liberal. It’s a much-needed sign of progress in a region that hasn’t seen much of it lately, and we’re all naturally very excited.

Some of us are perhaps more excited than others. Here’s Mustafa Akyol in The New York Times:

In 2011, protests led to the ouster of Tunisia’s longtime dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. The spirit of revolution soon spread to other Arab countries, albeit with less-impressive results. Libya suffered from bloody internal turmoil; Egypt reverted to brutal military rule; Syria continues to be ravaged by civil war. In Tunisia, however, the nascent democratic process has not been derailed. The country’s new Constitution — the most liberal and democratic charter the Muslim Middle East has ever seen — remains the Arab Spring’s crowning achievement to date.

Ratified on Jan. 26, the Constitution is a strikingly “We the people” document in a region where “Me the state” has long been the norm. It protects civil liberties, establishes a separation of powers, and guarantees women parity in political bodies. Though it declares Islam the country’s official religion and refers generally to Tunisia’s identity as an Islamic state, the Constitution protects religious freedom for all.

Civil liberties, separation of powers, gender equality, and religious freedom for all… Now, I understand how the author badly wants to swim in this wonderful liberal-democracy-for-all-soup. After all, I can only imagine how disappointing it must be to have expected this to occur in Turkey and instead getting penguins, porn lobbies, and pepper spray.

Also, I’m not completely convinced by describing Tunisia’s constitutions as “the most liberal and democratic charter the Muslim Middle East has ever seen”. I’d like to see a real comparison between Turkey’s 1960 constitution and this one…

But the problem, however, is that constitutions, even well-written constitutions, are nowhere near enough to create a solid democratic society. As for some of the topics, like religious freedom and gender equality, many of the more authoritarian constitutions in the region include such provisions. In the case of women’s rights, as an example the Arab Human Development Report of 2005 points out the irrelevance of such provisions in facilitating real change in female participation.

The relevance of formal institutions, in particular constitutions, has also been a significant focus in the political economics field, with seminal work by Torsten Persson and Guido Tabellini. Lately, however, research by the same authors (see here) as well as Daron Acemoglu, James Robinson (see their blog and book, and critical review of Persson and Tabellini book) and their coauthors, have largely moved beyond this. They’ve recognized that for the sake of development, much more than a constitution saying people should be nice and respect each other is required.

Laws and constitutions are great, because they provide guidelines for how people should behave. But without mechanisms that guarantee that they will behave in that manner, constitutions may end up having limited consequences.

Turkey provides a wonderful example of this. The recent corruption scandal involving government ministers, their relatives, as well as blatant attempts at a cover-up (see coverage by Al-Monitor’s Turkey Pulse), are examples of people in power doing the opposite of what the laws, if not even the constitution, says they should be doing. Another example is the use of manufactured and fraudulent evidence against now-convicted suspects in the Sledgehammer and Ergenekon trials (see here). Surely, there are laws preventing framing political opponents. They were just ignored.

Moreover, good constitutions can be amended to become worse ones if there are not strong enough forces to prevent this. Again the recently proposed bill to make Turkey’s court subservient to the Ministry of Justice is but one of many examples.

So for those aching to see Tunisia’s positive development as a new Nirvana for a liberal democratic Middle East, let’s just take a breath, shall we? Tunisia still has a real challenges ahead. It remains one of the more polarized societies in the region, with huge differences in voter preferences between secular and religious groups. It face the threat of militant Islamist infiltration along its borders, and the threat of political violence remains a looming concern.

Tunisia’s constitution is a good, if not a great, start. The real test, however, is yet to come. Constitutions only make a difference when people choose to abide by them.

2 thoughts on “Here’s to Tunisia’s new constitution, let’s hope it matters

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