Tuesday, 14 June 2011

A Historical Lesson on Transitions for Egypt and Tunisia

By Lorianne Updike Toler

Chaim Potok said that beginnings are hard.  I would add that they are messy.

Last week it was announced that Tunisia will delay elections for its constituent assembly, the body which will draft their constitution, from July to October.  Yesterday, I read this article in The Guardian about Egyptian civil society organizations calling for a constitution before elections in September.

The issues at play involve economic instability due to the lack of political stability, keeping interim powers (such as the Supreme Armed Forces) at bay and temporary, and defining what is legal in an era of constitutional change.

Such tough transitional issues were discussed in an April conference in Tunisia on post-revolution transitional periods.  Recent examples from post-dictator transitions in Latin America and their possible relevance were evaluated, but the conference seemed to make no reference to transitional periods from history.  Why is it that our memories are so short?  Can we not think past living memories?  Or is it simply that historians have chosen not to participate in the constitutional dialogue, dominated by lawyers and social scientists of various ilks.

I can't help but be reminded of the United State's forgotten transitional period.  We essentially had eleven years of economic, political, and social chaos under the Articles of Confederation.  The states, fearing conglomerated power (having just staved one off), built a weak confederated government with little power and no resources.

Inflation raged, debts went unpaid, and shipping and trade rights were violated by Britain and others on the high seas.  James Wilson, who later penned drafts of the Constitution and was an early advocate for independence in Pennsylvania, benefited from the war circumstances and was a hated creditor.  He and several co-creditors were forced to barricade themselves into Wilson's Philadelphia home, re-dubbed "Fort Wilson," to fend off hungry and debt-ridden veterans.  Several died in the fracas.  (Sound familiar?)  Yet the debtors' revolt which most shocked the country occurred in  Massachusetts lead by a man called Daniel Shay, who nearly seized the states' munition supplies before he was found out and brutally repulsed by state forces.  

It took several tries and two years before a proper convention of the states was called to "amend the Articles of Confederation," but of course much more than that was done.  What was initially extra-legal, in time, due to careful analysis of what was necessary for the new constitution to be accepted by the people, became legitimated and supreme law.

This historical vignette suggests that perhaps modern democracy founders could learn to be more patient with hard, messy beginnings.   Despite the hardness and the messiness, especially where new beginnings for countries are being chiseled out, it is important to be patient enough to keep the long view--both from history and the future - clearly and squarely in front of us.

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