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Constitutions matter! is the Arabs' cry.

Summary: Three months since the first demonstrations in rural Tunisia initiated a wave of rebellion that has spread across the Arab world, we have witnessed the toppling or serious destabilization of some regimes and a revived discussion of political reform in half a dozen others. Seen from within the Middle East, several important issues emerge

Three months since the first demonstrations in rural Tunisia initiated a wave of rebellion that has spread across the Arab world, we have witnessed the toppling or serious destabilization of some regimes and a revived discussion of political reform in half a dozen others.

Seen from within the Middle East, several important issues emerge that should capture the attention of anyone who cares to grasp the substance of this new Arab revolt. These issues provide an important foundation for dealing with the political evolution that will continue to define the Arab world for years to come, and as such are important guideposts for the future rather than mere analytical milestones from the recent past. They relate to the nature of change being demanded, and the fact that such demands have been around for decades but that the outside world was not interested in hearing or acting upon them.

Persistent popular pressure forced the resignation of the interim Tunisian and Egyptian prime ministers this week, and has maintained the momentum in both countries for revising the constitution and scheduling new national elections. These two core issues are mirrored across the entire Middle East, for they are the common denominator of discontented citizenries. They clarify that this Arab revolt is about more than ending corruption, increasing available jobs and wages, reducing abuse of power, or removing a dictator here and there. The common desire across the entire Arab world is to introduce totally re-legitimized power structures and governance systems that use structural constitutional change to achieve three critical goals: bringing about credible citizen rights and political representation; enforcing accountability of public power through realistic mechanisms for the consent of the governed; and setting term limits on heads of state.

These demands cannot be achieved by tinkering with the current exhausted and discredited political systems, raising public-sector salaries or initiating a vague "dialogue" with opposition movements. The cry from all corners of the Arab world is for profound structural changes, not superficial reforms, cosmetic adjustments or fleeting buy-offs. Removing prime ministers who were associated with the former regimes is a strong sign of the importance that demonstrating Arab citizens are attaching to a complete break with the past. These citizens don't want to improve the old regimes and systems; they want to bury them and replace them with legitimate governments.

The focus on constitutional change affirms the importance of installing a new political order that is both credible and institutionalized. In other words this order must be seen as providing both a fair system for the exercise of power and citizenship rights, and must also be impervious to the manipulation of strong personalities or power centers, such as the military, religious groups, or populist forces.

These pivotal constitutional demands are the heart and soul of the changes that Arab citizens have initiated in their countries -- noticeably without the prodding of foreign armies or governments, or a reliance on well-meaning but rather irrelevant civil society education and training courses. (Not surprisingly, the next most common thing we will hear across the region, after the call for real constitutional change has been implemented, is for foreign governments, armies, political brokers and cultural carpetbaggers to stay home.)

The other important thing about this process is that it is not new or unexpected, contrary to the prevailing accounts of many international observers and analysts, who continue to express a combination of surprise and befuddlement at what is sweeping our region. The fact is that any honest analyst of the Arab world who took the time over the past four decades to listen to ordinary people and elite figures, or to analyze development statistics, would have seen many signs of ordinary Arabs and political activists struggling to express their discontent and demanding real change in the arenas of democracy, accountability, human rights and equitable socio-economic development.

Following the advent of the modern Arab security state in the 1970s, this discontent was exemplified in the three countries today most impacted by the current Arab revolt, namely Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Indeed, hundreds of individuals, organizations and movements courageously challenged their regimes, articulated legitimate grievances, and demanded more democratic governance systems.

I will discuss this legacy in more detail in a separate column. For now, we should remember, give credit to, and honor those brave Arab men and women in their thousands who risked their life, or lost their life or freedom, to point out the abuses, incompetence, and mass home-grown humiliation of the prevailing Arab power structures that were largely supported by Western governments.

There is nothing new or unexpected about what is going on, other than the fact that Arab regimes and the world outside can no longer close their eyes and ears to the demands of Arab citizens who take their citizenship seriously. They have ended their complacency and taken to the street to seize their rights and rewrite their constitutions.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Date:Mar 5, 2011
Words:896
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