When the Arab Street Enforces the Constitution


The peoples’ revolution is brewing in Tunisia, Yemen, and Egypt. These nations, unlike the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, have established state constitutions that promise a democratic form of government and espouse the principle of popular sovereignty. Article 3 of the Tunisia Constitution declares that “The sovereignty belongs to the Tunisian People who exercise it in conformity with the Constitution.”Article 4 of the Yemen Constitution declares that “Power rests with the people who are the source of all powers.” Article 3 of the Egypt Constitution proclaims that “Sovereignty is for the people alone who are the source of authority.” Invoking these constitutional provisions, the people of Tunisia, Yemen, and Egypt have resolved to enforce their democratic rights and liberties.

In blatant violation of national constitutions, President Zain El-Abidine Ben Ali ruled Tunisia for twenty four years (1987-2011), President Ali Abdul Saleh of Yemen has been in power for over twenty years (1990-2011), and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt has occupied the highest state office for thirty years (1981-2011).  The people have finally elected to recall these irremovable Presidents by resorting to street power, the ultimate expression of sovereignty against tyranny. The reasoning of the peoples’ revolution is no other but the one that has inspired other revolutions: “When a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce (the people) under absolute despotism, it is (the people’s) right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.” The peoples of Tunisia, Yemen, and Egypt can no longer tolerate sham democracies.

Sham Democracies

It is commonplace in North Africa and the Middle East to establish irremovable autocracies through the medium of sham democracy. Over the decades, sham periodic elections have been held in Tunisia, Yemen, and Egypt to elect parliaments and presidents. However, the same ruling party returns to power and the same President wins an overwhelming majority of popular vote. The periodic democratic ritual is staged to delude the people and the world that the governments in Tunisia, Yemen, and Egypt are anchored in the will of the people. Nothing is farther from the truth.

In October 2009, Tunisia held sham presidential and parliamentary elections. The Constitutional Democratic Rally, the ruling party that has governed Tunisia since its independence from France in 1956, received nearly 85% of the popular vote. To conceal electoral fraud, the ruling party refused international monitoring of the elections. In Egypt, the National Democratic Party has retained power since its creation in 1978. In the most recent sham elections held in 2010, the National Democratic Party won 81% of the seats in the national legislature. Opposition parties that could have challenged the ruling party were banned and their leaders arrested.  Yemen is essentially a one party state. The next parliamentary elections are scheduled to be held in April, 2011. It remains to be seen whether the Yeminis would allow the General People’s Congress, the ruling party, to return to power.

Even sham democracies are tolerable if rulers are competent and just. But sham democracies are doubly unbearable if the people face unremitting economic hardships. Hope is at the lowest ebb when protesters wave baguette as the symbol of revolution. In Tunisia, President Ben Ali and his family exploited state power to amass huge amount of personal wealth. Corruption at the top trickled down to the bottom. Tunisian protests began the day a farmer set himself on fire when the police, in order to extort money, impounded his vegetable and fruit stand. Yemen, the poorest country in the region, has made little economic progress under President Saleh’s incompetent administration. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak has run the state as a personal fiefdom. The members of the ruling party are blissful and affluent whereas millions of ordinary people live in shanties. Economic hardships are further aggravated when omnipresent security forces resort to cruelty, torture, and inhumane treatment.

United States Support

It is unclear how the United States would react to the peoples’ revolution in Tunisia, Yemen, and Egypt. While the Obama administration has expressed lukewarm support for Tunisians after Ben Ali’s departure, no real support is offered to the peoples of Yemen and Egypt. If history is any guide, the U.S. would give public lectures on the people’s right to peaceful protest but secretly support the suppression of revolts in Yemen and Egypt. As usual, concrete U.S. interests will trump the peoples’ right to institute representative governments. The U.S. would support President Saleh for his commitment to physically eradicate al-Qaeda, which is taking root in Yemen. Likewise, the U.S. would support President Mubarak for his commitment to suppress the Muslim Brotherhood, a religious political party that opposes U.S. policies in the Middle East. The despots have memorized the logic of American self-interest.

By betting on the discredited Presidents of Yemen and Egypt, however, the U.S. will choose the wrong side of the inevitable revolution. The revolution for genuine democracy, even if brutally suppressed, is unlikely to fade away. The people seem determined to enforce the national constitutions that promise free and fair elections, freedom of speech, the right to vote, and the right to remove a ruling party that no longer serves their social and economic needs. In his 2009 speech in Cairo, President Obama rejected the notion of pawning other nations for securing American interests. He said, “For human history has often been a record of nations and tribes subjugating one another to serve their own interests. Yet in this new age, such attitudes are self-defeating. Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail.” Now is the time for President Obama to support the peoples of Tunisia, Yemen, and Egypt in their sovereign struggle to self-enforce the democratic constitutions that have yet to deliver genuine democracy.

LIAQUAT ALI KHAN is professor of Law at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas and the author of A Theory of Universal Democracy (2006).


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