The Constitutionalization of the Civil State in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen

By Limor Lavie
Submitted to Session P6586 (State Religion Relations: Coercion, Accommodation, and Pluralism, 2021 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
Arab States;
Middle East/Near East Studies;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
The popular uprisings that took place in the Arab world from the end of 2010, triggered a wave of regional constitution-making. Based on the perception that constitutions are “the state’s charter of identity”, the focus of this paper is the symbolic and foundational aspects of new Arab constitutions. More specifically, it offers a contextualized analysis of the way in which three Arab constitutions – in Egypt (2014/2019), Tunisia (2014), and Yemen (2015) – came to a similar self-declaration of a “civil state” (dawla madaniyya), following these uprisings. This self-expressive proclamation, which did not exist in their former constitutions, nor in other constitution worldwide, is the product of ongoing internal struggles of Muslim societies over the definition of their collectivity between conservatism and modernity, religiosity and secularism.
The paper stretches the symbolic and practical meanings of this concept in each case individually. In Egypt, the civil-ness of the state anchored in article 200 of the amended 2014 constitution encapsulates a decades-long debate on the place of Islam in politics and on the country’s religious/non-religious orientation. The Egyptian self-definition of a civil state enshrines the one-sided anti-Islamist narrative of the June 2013 coup regime, while empowering the Armed Forces to thwart the resurgence of an Islamist rule in the future; in Tunisia, granting immunity to the constitutionalization of the civil state reflects a settlement between Islamists and non-Islamists regarding the role of Islam in politics; in Yemen, the constitutionalization of the civil state, which remained only a draft, expresses an aspiration of detribalization and modernization within an Islamic model of statehood. Notwithstanding their variations, all civil state perceptions are based on some common premises, most notably the notion that the optimum is an Islamic state which is simultaneously modern, non-secular and non-theocratic.
Furthermore, the paper seeks to trace the path of migration taken by this idea from one country to another, and the interconnectedness between the three cases, while pointing out possible implications on future Arab constitution-making in other countries. Finally, the paper explores the possibility that the civil state is turning into a “constitutional building material”, that constitution drafters in other Muslim countries can shop for from an emerging regional catalog of standardized constitutional idioms.