Eritrea: The artistry of constitution making

In 1991, after two decades of armed struggle against military rule, a tiny country wedged between Sudan and Ethiopia won its independence. This country is Eritrea and its revolutionary independence vowed for genuine democratic change. To accomplish this, a consitutent assembly was created.

The 50-member constituent assembly was responsible for organizing public education and debate on the constitution as well as drafting it. A multifaceted process was undertaken to fulfill that task. First came academic preliminary research. Public education came next to teach citizens about basic constitutional principles. Then the assembly facilitated national public debate before writing the first draft. Lastly, it presented that draft for public feedback before finalizing it.   

The constitution-making process in Eritrea was comprehensive and founded on the fundamental belief that the procedural element of democracy is just as important as the outcome.

What is particularly significant about this process is its emphasis on national constitutional education.

A constitution is worth exactly squat if no one understands what it is. Spending three years’ effort in reorienting everyone’s attention to the citizen’s role and responsibility is a valuable strategy. It boosts citizens’ awareness of their rights and duties thereby planting the seeds of a healthy democratic culture. It also extensively tutors prospective governors on proper governing dynamics. It provides the citizenry with the conceptual tools and principles that allows it to support a scrupulous governor and hold accountable an unscrupulous one.

This process took three years in Eritrea, which had a population of 4.5 million at the time. Egypt has a population of 85 million and people are now talking about writing a constitution in a period ranging from two weeks to six months.

Despite the fact that Eritrea’s constitution has not been fully implemented since the country plunged into military conflicts with Ethiopia and have been plagued by authoritarain rule that halted its democratic transition, the research and educational phases that commenced Eriteria’s constitutional experience are very significant in highlighting the artistry of the constitution-making process and could be very instructive for Egypt.

Eriteria’s constituent assembly inaugurated the process by asking itself a series of comparative and reflective questions. For example, what lessons did the experiences of other countries offer? What values and goals did Eritrea need to promote and incorporate in a constitution? It also included structural questions about the form of government and technical ones on the length of the constitution.

In order to answer those questions, the assembly divided itself into six committees: four research committees (RCs) dedicated to answering the questions above, a committee dedicated to civic education and public debate (CEPD), and an executive committee (EC) to coordinate tasks and actually write the constitution.

In addition, the assembly established two advisory boards. In one, Eritrean experts were to provide advice on Eritrean customary law. In the other, foreign experts were to provide a comparative and multidisciplinary perspective on other countries’ constitutional experiences.

A series of international conferences were then held in which the RCs’ findings were discussed. The findings were then streamlined into eight position papers on topics such as the electoral system, women and the constitution, etc.

Meanwhile, the CEPD committee was preparing for public education. It first researched the most effective ways of reaching an 80 percent illiterate society. It began training hundreds of instructors. It also established local offices in an effort to decentralize the data distribution and collection process. Through these means, CEPD introduced the role of the constituent assembly to the public and explained the basic idea of the social contract.

After preparing its educational tools and setting up the public for the debate, the CEPD began disseminating the information on the constitution. A simplified version of the RCs’ findings was distributed and the trained instructors held public seminars to explain them to the public. Due to Eriteria’s high illiteracy rate, the committee also used songs, plays, poetry, short stories and comics to circulate the ideas. Debates on constitutional principles were held in schools and universities and broadcast on the radio and television.

Particular attention was given to recording, aggregating and analyzing the public’s opinions. This was critical in bolstering the people’s self-confidence. After years of being sidelined, they were finally being taken seriously. Their ideas were documented. It was good practice, for both the governing and the governed, on how they should engage each other as priorities were realigned to emphasize and empower people. It was an intensive period of role-playing, where mutual responsibilities were being rehearsed before getting on stage for show day.

After that educational phase, the citizens’ ideas were submitted to EC, after which it wrote the first draft of the constitution. The draft was then batted back and forth between different constituent assembly committees for refinement. It was then published in newspapers, broadcast on radio, and widely circulated among civil society organizations for public scrutiny. After incorporating the public’s feedback, the assembly finalized the draft and submitted it for ratification by a different elected body.

Eriteria’s constitution was finally ratified in 24 May 1997.

In contrast to this thorough constitution-making process, Egypt’s current constitutional declaration assigns only two weeks to gauge public opinion. We had three weeks to discuss the nine amendments of the March 2011 referendum and that wasn’t near enough for most people to grasp the meaning and implications of the articles. Now we are talking about two weeks for an entire constitution?

Worse still, there is talk about merely amending the 1971 or 1954 constitutions.

We had great expectations after the 25 January uprising, which gave us a historical opportunity for creativity and inspiration. We were supposed to start anew, dedicating our energy to concocting original solutions to our problems. This was supposed to be a moment of reflection and imagination and now we are talking about amended and precooked constitutions. It is rather sobering to look at our aspirations a year ago and how they have withered a mere year later.

Eritrea was but one example out of many that we can learn from and there is still room for maneuver. Our constituent assembly’s role is to be fully expounded by the laws mandating its prerogatives. We can still re-orient ourselves toward actual innovation. Courage, conviction and creativity are qualities we Egyptians have always had in abundance. What we have always lacked is the political will to cue and cultivate them. For 30 years, they robbed us of our will and we succumbed to their political lethargy. Now, it is different. If Eritrea could have a decent constitution-making process, so could we.

Dina Yehia is a graduate student at University of Chicago’s Islamic studies department. 

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