Constitutional Changes

Egypt and Tunisia will soon rewrite their constitutions, while Morocco has recently approved several constitutional reforms. What is the system in each country, and what is going to change? Here is an overview of the current events on constitutional reform in these three countries.

Egypt

In Egypt, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), made plans to hold a parliamentary election in the fall, after which the elected parliament will select a body to rewrite the constitution. Some fear this system will empower Islamists, who may win a substantial majority in the parliamentary elections. These dissenters advocate constitutional reforms now, before the government holds parliamentary elections. On June 9th, a coalition of human rights groups voiced concerns that the SCAF was operating undemocratically: the SCAF had proposed several democratic referenda to the 1971 Constitution in March, all of which passed overwhelmingly. After their passage, the SCAF scrapped the old constitution and rewrote the new referenda as essentially a new constitution, without putting it up for a revote.[1] These groups and others are calling upon the SCAF to follow Tunisia’s model and appoint a body to rewrite the constitution before parliamentary elections.

Tunisia

Some may see Tunisia’s process as exemplary, but it also faces challenges. Tunisia’s interim government decided to set a date for the election of constituent assembly – a kind of second transitional government – which will act as an interim legislative body and write a new constitution. The people will then vote according to the new constitution. The government scheduled the constituent assembly elections for July 24th, but later postponed them until October 23rd at the insistence of new, smaller parties who asked for more time to organize.[2] In frustration, the largest Islamist party, Al-Nahda, pulled out of the elections committee. This demonstrates that the divide between liberals – often secularists – and conservatives – often Islamists – continues to grow in Tunisia.[3]

Morocco

Morocco’s president Muhammad VI proposed a series of constitutional reforms on June 17th in response to the February 20th Movement. The Movement, named for the date of the first large protest this year, is led by Moroccans from across the political spectrum, from liberals and human rights activists to Islamists, all calling for democratic reforms. Under the previous constitution, the king had absolute control over all branches of government; the legislature served as a democratic façade on an absolutist regime. In the days after the proposed reforms, protestors again took to the streets, calling the reforms insufficient. But on July 1st, 98.5% of the population approved the referenda.[4]  The new constitution recognized Morocco as a Muslim state while also guaranteeing the free practice of religion to all faiths.[5] It also recognized the Berber population’s native language, Amazigh, as an official language of the state.[6] Women will have “civic and social” equality with men, rather than the former guarantee of “political” equality.[7] The prime minister will now be elected, rather than chosen by the king, giving the government more independence. The referenda also give new powers to parliament, as well as some reforms to the judiciary (though it is still part of the executive branch);[8] however, the king is still a religious leader and controls security and “strategic major policy choices,” according to a report by the Carnegie Endowment.[9] The referenda do not define the parameters of these major choices, effectively leaving the king unlimited power, if he chooses to use it. Praise and criticism has come from all sides; some call the referenda a positive step toward a democratic transition, while others call it an attempt to placate the protestors and prevent the kind of unrest that much of the Arab World has seen this spring.

Expect a post coming soon analyzing potential new democratic systems for these three countries in light of academic studies of constitutional theory.


[1] “Egypt: a constitution first.” The Guardian. Jun 12 2011. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/jun/12/egypt-a-constitution-first

[2] “Suspicion and Strategy in Free Tunisia.” Foreign Policy. Jun 20, 2011. http://mideast.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2011/06/20/suspicion_and_strategy_in_free_tunisia

[3] Ibid.

[4] “A Very Small Step.” The Economist. Jul 7 2011. http://www.economist.com/node/18929381?story_id=18929381&fsrc=rss

[5] Marina Ottoway, “The New Moroccan Constitution: Real Change or More of the Same?” Carnegie Endowment. June 20 2011. http://carnegieendowment.org/publications/index.cfm?fa=view&id=44731&solr_hilite=constitution

[6] Ibid.

[7] “Q&A: Morocco’s referendum on reform.” BBC News. June 29 2011. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-13964550

[8] “A very small step.” The Economist. Jul 7 2011. http://www.economist.com/node/18929381?story_id=18929381&fsrc=rss

[9] Ottoway, “The New Moroccan Constitution: Real Change or More of the Same?” Above.

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About Colleen McCullough

Colleen is a philosophy major at Princeton University, class of 2012, minoring in Near East Studies.
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