A guiding character for
Arab democracy

I. The context of change

Today, we are witnessing a new “Arab Awakening.” This political-social awakening is the dawn of progress guided by the star of freedom, and fulfillment of human dignity is its sole horizon.

All those of goodwill welcome the Arab people’s rise against dictatorship and their hope of building democratic systems based on freedom, equality and justice. This movement—what can be called the Arab Awakening—complements the Lebanese experience, thus confirming the validity of Lebanon’s dedication to upholding these values in the Arab world and the wider Middle East. The ongoing Arab revolutions will inevitably result in the establishment of new systems of governance and it is essential for these new systems to protect the sovereignty of states, the security of countries, the pluralism of communities and the human rights of individuals.

The first slogans voiced by the revolutionaries of the Arab Awakening were in harmony with the basic aspirations of Arab societies, namely: freedom, democracy, a civil state and human rights. Now, the emerging governing authorities are responsible for respecting and abiding by these principles and, thereby, realizing the aspirations of their peoples.

The success of any freedom revolution rests on its ability to move a society from repression, oppression and discrimination to freedom, equality, justice, diversity and separation of religion and state. In other words, freedom revolutions succeed when they lead to progressive change.

Personally, and because I am committed to the cause of strengthening human rights in the Arab world, I reject power games; because I am committed to pluralism, I reject the dominance conferred by the numerical superiority of any one group; and because I support the shared values embedded in various religions, I reject the creation of narrow sectarian regimes.

Out of personal concern for the ongoing revolutions that have paved the way for the Arab peoples to seek a better future, I have found it useful to draft this “Guiding Charter for Arab Democracy” in the hope that it might benefit the rising forces of change as they contemplate new laws and constitutions. Hopefully, this Charter can help the growing community of Arab democrats avoid certain historic blunders.

II. Principled a concepts

  1. Freedom is a natural endowment born with the individual at the moment of his or her birth. It is not subject to negotiation, compromise or rationing. Given that the right to freedom is universal, this implies that freedom includes public and private liberties, group and individual liberties, and freedom of religion and belief without distinction. These unified and integrated freedoms must be organized within a system of impartial laws legislated by free individuals. It is necessary for the laws that govern public life to be derived from—and to protect—the concept of freedom. Furthermore, freedom as enshrined in legislation should correspond to freedom as expressed in universal democratic principles.

  2. The term “human being” embodies both men and women. Because the genders are equal in the rhythms of life and death, it follows that they should be equal before the law and equal in terms of their rights and responsibilities. Equality between men and women allows individuals to succeed based on their capabilities and opportunities. Without gender equality, discrimination is inevitable and inevitably leads to dysfunctions that undermine the concept of freedom and threaten the security of individuals, families and whole societies.

  3. Individuals and groups enjoy the right to resist injustice, repression and occupation, but they must not resort to terrorism—meaning acts of violence that violate universal norms of civilization. The struggle for self-determination, or sovereignty and independence, is not terrorism. No group of people is entitled, under the pretext of resistance, to act on behalf of the state and singlehandedly determine the fate of the people, monopolize the decision for war or expose other groups and an entire nation to danger. Resistance that does not contribute to the task of building a democratic state and its institutions is not legitimate.

  4. Most Arab countries are pluralistic in that they are composed of groups belonging to various races, religions, sects and cultures. This reality should be recognized through a citizen’s—and a community’s—right to live in security, freedom and dignity without facing individual or collective discrimination limiting their role in any of life’s numerous domains. The term “security” in this context means the security guaranteed by the law and not the security of physical protection provided by the strong to the weak as a benefit that can be withdrawn at will.

  5. The fact that the Middle East is the birthplace of world religions bestows upon life in that region a spiritual dimension that facilitates the establishment of a balanced, lawful and just state. The great religions call, in essence, for consolidating a spirit of amity and brotherhood among various groups and individuals. It is self-evident that the teachings of religion accommodate and embrace concepts of democracy, social justice and civic life. In the same spirit, civil legislation should not adopt an atheistic aspect that undermines the teachings of any religion.

  6. Our world has witnessed forms of radicalism that have led to collective and individual tragedies within both national and religious communities. The causes and consequences of this state of affairs must be resisted so that open-mindedness, dialogue, understanding and consensus prevail. Dialogue rather than confrontation leads to a harmonious and fraternal society free of domination and subjugation. The central challenge in a globalized world is pursuing change through peaceful association with “the other” rather than attempting to overpower him.

  7. The right of Arabs to decide their future is unassailable. The exercise of this right entails recognition by Arab societies of civilized pluralism. To enshrine pluralism, legislation must guarantee equality at all levels and in all domains of private and public life. Accordingly, no group should emerge within the state to dominate other groups and monopolize political or social rights. Indeed, the ruling majority governs but does not dominate. The right of disagreement, the right of opposition and the right to express a contrary opinion peacefully are absolute.

  8. The principle of equality does not invalidate the legitimacy of political agreements and conventions that are drafted within a country to safeguard a balance between its various components. Such compacts must be entered into freely and without pressure, coercion or intimidation. Needless to say, any such agreement should respect fundamental human rights.

  9. Democracy is embodied in a constitutional system through sound political practice, cultural norms and a sense of moral responsibility. True democracy is expressed through the separation of powers, balance among institutions and periodic rotation of power between national parties. This can be achieved through an electoral mechanism that responds to changing political, social and economic needs. No group should face discrimination under electoral laws, and a numerical majority should be formed from parties operating within the context of societal pluralism.

  10. The philosophy of the state should regard a people as a living concept and not as a docile instrument. From this perspective, the people are the source of power and sovereignty, not the state. Governing authorities derive their legitimacy from the people. A people’s worth is measured in the degree of their commitment to human values and their rejection of factionalism. In this way, a societal contract is built that rejects sectarian and ethnic entities that operate beyond the state’s laws and constitution.

  11. The legitimate exercise of authority carries with it a responsibility to manage the affairs of the people through the rule of law and not coercion by force. Governing authorities have a responsibility to create structures that benefit citizens and gain their trust. Citizens should not perceive the state as an opponent that applies pressure or compulsion. The principle of decentralization, which has become a characteristic of modern democratic systems, enhances positive interaction between legitimate state authority and the citizenry.

  12. The legislator’s duty is to draft laws that earn the people’s respect, enable progress, and promote equality between ethnicities, genders and races. Laws must respect the conscience of human beings and their freedom of thought, opinion and speech. A person’s legal affiliation as a citizen of a particular state does not eliminate his or her enjoyment of universal human rights. History demonstrates that when human rights are respected, conflicts ebb and peace prevails. Contrariwise, when human rights are trampled, clashes and even crimes against humanity arise.

  13. The duty of every political order is to establish impartial justice— independent of the governing authority—in order to protect citizens. Every citizen is equal in rights and duties before the law. No authority has the right to banish a person from his or her country, or displace people within their homeland, or limit freedom of movement for political or ideological reasons. Furthermore, justice prohibits subjecting those accused of crimes to torture or humiliating and degrading treatment.

  14. The function of any political system is to administer the affairs of its people in order to achieve their wellbeing through measures such as providing social, health, housing and educational opportunities. Additionally, it is the duty of every state to develop society by implementing policies that improve prospects for future generations in the form of employment and sustainable development. Similarly, government must ensure that national resources are utilized for the sake of the public interest.

  15. Arab countries have the right to be guided by all available sources of legislation, provided these sources are consistent with the principle of the separation of powers, the articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the Recommendations of the World Conference on Human Rights (issued in Vienna in 1993). The UDHR and other conventions and statements invalidate all manner of individual or collective discrimination. However, this does not mean that Arab societies should simply inculcate the moral concepts of Western societies, for the universality of humanity does not negate the specificity of particular cultures and communities.

  16. All Arab states must respect the sovereignty and independence of all other states, and must not engage in hostile actions for the purpose of domination, control, expansion or occupation. Each state should, in words and actions, refrain from terrorism or violence as tools for resolving international conflict.

  17. Recent developments in the Arab world and globally provide the Arab League with a unique opportunity to reinvigorate itself by updating its structure, enhancing its operations and expanding the scope of its work. In this way, the Arab League will be empowered to respond to the new challenges and needs of Arab peoples. The League would then be empowered to bolster social and developmental solidarity among the Arab countries, and to do so in a way insulated from political interests and alliances. The duty of the Arab League is to assume a responsible and effective role against any Arab regime that employs systematic repression against its people or any component of its society. Similarly, the League should position itself to oppose effectively any Arab group that violates international law.

III. Insuring constitutional security

Guiding principles like those elaborated in this Charter should be enshrined in constitutions and upheld by national laws that are applied in conformity with international law and human rights canons. In the twenty-first century, the legitimacy of governing systems rests on respect for such principles and concepts. Because these concepts can only be upheld within a receptive environment, it is essential that they are confirmed by international agreements and treaties and by public awareness and educational campaigns.

Democratic practices and human rights must cohere into an indivisible, interconnected whole that protects the fundamental, natural and intuitive rights of each person and group. Discrimination in the implementation of these concepts harms not only individual citizens, but also groups and even whole societies. Violations of the principles of democracy and freedom can lead to violence on the local, national, regional and even global levels. The degradation of rights—and rule by violence and intimidation—are precisely what the Arab democratic revolutions oppose.


The original version of this Charter was issued (in Arabic) in Beirut, Lebanon on 27 January 2012.