Two Recipes for Two Constitutions: It Echoed The 19th-century Myth Of "An-Nahda"
10 February 2014
By Amir Taheri
Last Tuesday was the third anniversary of the uprising
in Tunisia that led to the departure of President Zine
El-Abidine Ben Ali. The event also triggered upheavals
in other Middle Eastern nations, notably Libya, Egypt
and Syria. Looking for a shorthand description of what
was happening, some pundits came up with the term
"Arab Spring," recalling the "Prague Spring" of the
1960s when Communism appeared to be heading for the
exit. The expression also recalled an earlier
"spring"—that of 1848 in Europe when several nations,
among them France and Prussia, experienced
revolutionary upheavals. Other pundits, however,
preferred the term "Islamic Awakening," partly because
it echoed the 19th-century myth of "an-nahda."
One problem with both labels was that they pretended
to describe widely different events with a single
analytical tool. More importantly, they tried to stick
an identity on events that had not yet completed their
course. The European Renaissance was not thus baptized
on the day it supposedly started in Florence. The term
was first used two centuries later. The French
Revolution did not start, let alone end, on July 14,
1789—its official calendar mark.
In any case, what is interesting as far as recent
events in the Middle East are concerned is that they
had little to do with either Arabism or Islam. The
Tunisians who defied their police state were not
demanding more religion; they were already Muslims.
Nor did they seek to make themselves more Arab; they
were already as Arab as they wished to be. Subsequent
elections held in several countries, including some
that, like Jordan, Iraq and Morocco, had not been
directly affected by the events, showed that neither
Arabism nor Islamism could secure a clear majority. On
average, the Islamists persuaded around a fifth of the
electorate to vote for them. Arab nationalists did
So, is there a different way of looking at the events
of the past three years? I think there is. But before
we get to that, let's clear away some conceptual
underbrush that could cause confusion.
The fact that Arabic is the main language in the
countries concerned does not mean that they all have
identical political structures and cultures.
Just ask yourself which is the world's second-largest
English-speaking nation, after the United States, in
terms of numbers? No, it is not Great Britain. It is
the Philippines. Yet, few people would try to
understand the archipelago's politics solely through
the prism of language. Even Canada, Australia and the
US, their common linguistic bond notwithstanding, have
different political cultures and structures. You
cannot understand their politics solely by referring
to the fact that they use versions of the English
language. A common linguistic bond does not guarantee
political unity, as we now witness with Scotland's
quest for independence from the United Kingdom.
Reference to religion is equally insufficient for
understanding a nation's politics. For example, both
Norway and Zimbabwe are Christian-majority nations.
The European Union has officially recognized 22
stateless nations. These are people who often share
the same religion and language with a bigger community
inside the same country but continue to claim an
identity of their own. Examples include Catalans and
Basques in Spain, Corsicans in France and Frisians in
When we come to Islam, the picture is no different.
Anyone who would try to understand the politics of
Bangladesh and Iraq, to cite just two examples, with
reference to Islam alone would not go very far.
Nations in general and nation-states in particular are
created by numerous geographic, geopolitical,
historic, mythological and cultural factors. Like
every language, every nation has a political grammar
without which it cannot be understood.
Besides language and religion, historically, Tunisia
and Egypt have other factors in common, including
their incorporation into the Fatimid and Ottoman
Empires and their experience under European colonial
rule. However, while that history has created some
similarities, those affinities do not make them
identical. Tunisia is Tunisia and Egypt is Egypt.
Coincidentally, that point was highlighted by the two
draft constitutions Tunisians and Egyptians were
invited to approve this week.
The Egyptian exercise was prompted by a desire to
avoid taking risks with what the men who drafted the
proposed constitution regard as " the security of the
state." The proposed constitution is a clear attempt
at restoring what Amr Moussa has called "the positive
aspects" of the republic founded by Gamal Abdel Nasser
and maintained under Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak.
The revolution is over, now is the time for
The Egyptian referendum had other, undeclared aims: to
provide Gen. Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi's administration
with a measure of popular legitimacy and, hopefully,
to give the death decree issued against the Muslim
Brotherhood a stamp of public approval. Finally, the
draft is designed to reaffirm the special status the
armed forces' leaders wish to retain at the heart of
The Tunisian draft, however, is prompted by a degree
of risk-taking unexpected from a deeply conservative
society. This is especially true in the case of
ultra-feminist measures designed to give Tunisian
women a share of power that women do not have even in
Western democracies. Unlike the Egyptian draft that
would strengthen the executive branch, the new
Tunisian constitution is designed to increase the
powers of the legislature and the judiciary, a novelty
in Middle Eastern political culture.
The Egyptian draft aims at restoring the authority of
the state apparatus in a new disciplinary context. In
contrast, the Tunisian text is designed to strengthen
civil society against the machinery of the state. The
future will show whether the two constitutions are
actually implemented in real life, but if they are
they are sure to produce different types of society.
This week showed that similar events could produce
widely different results.
Well, would it be far-fetched to suggest that there
was no "Arab Spring" and no "Islamic Awakening"? If
not, what happened? The answer is that we had a series
of political models that, for different reasons, were
past their "sell-by" date and were thus doomed. Their
demise came in different ways and, in some cases, such
as Syria, is still pending.
Amir Taheri was born
in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and educated in Tehran,
London and Paris. He was Executive Editor-in-Chief of
the daily Kayhan in Iran (1972-79). In 1980-84, he was
Middle East Editor for the Sunday Times. In 1984-92,
he served as member of the Executive Board of the
International Press Institute (IPI). Between 1980 and
2004, he was a contributor to the International Herald
Tribune. He has written for the Wall Street Journal,
the New York Post, the New York Times, the London
Times, the French magazine Politique Internationale,
and the German weekly Focus. Between 1989 and 2005, he
was editorial writer for the German daily Die Welt.
Taheri has published 11 books, some of which have been
translated into 20 languages. He has been a columnist
for Asharq Alawsat since 1987. Taheri's latest book
"The Persian Night" is published by Encounter Books in
London and New York.