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Islamists tackle constitutional matters differently

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The uprisings of 2011 fostered hopes for democracy in the Arab world, but also a big fear: what if the old tyrannies go, only to be replaced by new, Islamic ones? This fear has pushed some in Syria, especially its minorities, into a grudging tolerance for the brutal, but at least secular regime. A similar fear has reared its head lately in Egypt and Tunisia, too, as both prepare to write new constitutions. But in each of the three countries, Islamists have responded in quite different ways.

Post-revolutionary rules gave Egypt’s parliament the task of forming a 100-person constituent assembly, which it did last week. Instead of consulting widely with other parties, as they had promised, the Islamist groups who now hold two-thirds of parliamentary seats packed the assembly with their own fellow travellers. Critics responded furiously, saying the new body includes few women, non-Muslims or minorities such as Nubians from the south or desert Bedouin. Puzzlingly, it also excludes Egypt’s most prominent legal minds and constitutional scholars.

Many non-Islamist nominees to the assembly have resigned, angered by what they see as the squandering of an opportunity for national unity. The Islamists say they acted within the law, that the assembly is representative and that secularists would have done the same were the situation reversed. That may be true, but it is a risky move nonetheless. The parliamentary alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood and the ultra-conservative Salafists, whose commitment to minority rights is scant, confirms secularist anxiety that the next political order could prove to be a shallow, majoritarian democracy. It may also work to the advantage of the ruling military junta, with whom the Brotherhood is engaged in an escalating war of words, and introduce new tension into Egypt’s upcoming presidential election.

Tunisia’s much smoother transition has avoided such a crisis. This week Ennahda, the Islamist party which won 41% of seats in the constituent assembly elected last October, reiterated an earlier pledge. The country’s new constitution will retain wording that Tunisia is an “Arab and Muslim” state, but contain no added reference to Islamic sharia as a source of law.

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