One of the major challenges that Islamist parties in power face is drafting a new constitution. Khaled Al-Qazzaz, foreign relations coordinator, Freedom and Justice Party (Egypt); Osama Al Saghir, member of National Constituent Assembly, Ennahda (Tunisia); and Mohamed Gaair, head of public relations, Muslim Brotherhood (Libya), discussed how a new constitution could be drafted to act as an instrument of reconciliation and how it should define the place of Islam and sharia. The panel also addressed the growing chasm dividing Islamic parties from liberals and leftists. Carnegie’s Nathan J. Brown moderated.

The Role of Sharia

Qazzaz, Al Saghir, and Gaair discussed their parties’ positions on the role of sharia in their countries, which illustrated some major differences between the Islamist parties:

  • No Need for Sharia in the Constitution: Al Saghir argued that there was no need to explicitly refer to sharia in the Tunisian constitution because constitutions are consensual documents that must represent all parts of Tunisian society and that all parties agreed upon the “Islamic and Arab identity of Tunisia” as a better point of reference for consensus.
  • Sharia Explicitly Mentioned: Qazzaz said that the Freedom and Justice party, and all main parties in Egypt, supported the wording of Article II of the current constitution which states that the principles of the sharia ARE the main source of legislation. When pressed by Brown on which institution would have the right to interpret what sharia meant and how it was implemented, Qazzaz said that this would be the role of the elected parliament, not al-Azhar, the clerics.
  • Unified Culture: Gaair anticipated the Libyan constitution would be closer to the Egyptian rather than the Tunisian model on this issue. He noted that unlike Tunisia and Egypt, the Libyan people are almost all Sunni Arabs and Islamists, and that because Libya does not have liberals, leftists, or seculars, it would be easier for them to push for a stronger role of sharia in the constitution.

Differences with Other Modern Constitutions

  • A Role for International Human Rights Law: The speakers differed on the implementation of international human rights instruments in their domestic constitutions. Al Saghir said that Ennahda supported respecting all international conventions that did not contradict the Arab and Islamic identity of Tunisia. He added that it would be up to the parliament, elected by the people, to decide whether or not this condition had been met. Qazzaz noted that the Mubarak regime signed all international human rights conventions but did not implement any. The Freedom and Justice party believes that God requires them to uphold human rights, Qazzaz said. Disrespect of human rights and women’s rights results from dictatorships and colonized minds and lands, he added. Gaair agreed that Islamic principles do not contradict international human rights conventions except on minor issues when Arab and Islamic cultures may have a different interpretation than the West.
  • Modern Democracies: Qazzaz said that most modern constitutions in the world uphold the higher objectives (or the “maqasid”) of the sharia, a view that was echoed by Al Saghir and Gaair. All three noted that sharia principles call for justice, democracy, freedom, pluralism, and the rule of law, all of which are protected in modern constitutions in the world, and that their Islamist parties only differ on minor issues.

Challenges for the Future

  • Presidential Versus Parliamentary System: Qazzaz and Al Saghir both noted that the question of what type of government would exist—a presidential or a parliamentary system—would probably be the highly contested by different parts of society during the constitution writing process.
  • Decentralization: Gaair argued that in Libya, decentralization was probably going to be the most contentious issue while writing the new constitution, especially since the Libyan people in the East, in reaction to the centralized tyranny of the Qadhafi regime, want a return to decentralized government  as a bulwark to future tyranny.