Putting the Law into People's Hands: Post-revolutionary Law in the MENA Region
PILnet's Forum on Public Interest Law in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) ended last week in Tunis on an inspiring note. Participants all agreed that law in the MENA region needs to change in a simple but profound way: it needs the human touch. Creating opportunities for people to engage with the law has significant implications for legal institutions and political systems, a theme that bound together the work and experiences of the Forum’s diverse participants.
The event, which PILnet organized in collaboration with the Arab Institute for Human Rights and the Open Society Foundations, brought together dozens of participants representing a broad swath of civil society and the legal communities of Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan.
The Forum was opened by Iyad Ben Achour, who is the President of the Council to Protect the Goals of the Revolution and—perhaps more than anyone—embodies the Tunisian revolutionary spirit, the country’s greatest export. Ben Achour spoke of the need for "revolutionary law." When the law becomes oppressive, he said, the people should rise up and replace the existing legal order. That seems to be going more or less according to plan in Tunisia at the moment, though the direction is much less clear in the other countries of the Arab Spring.
But few would want to subject the people of the MENA region to perpetual revolution. Perhaps what is needed now, in the post-revolutionary phase, is more like what the Germans under Bismarck dubbed the "law of the peace." That concept was the intellectual foundation for the legal assistance programs that presaged the development of state-subsidized legal aid when the German welfare state was formed in the nineteenth century. The theory was that channeling the unmet social demands of a growing and restive population in the Berlin city-state would help the budding polity avoid large-scale bloodshed.
As we saw in Eastern Europe two decades ago, transforming law in a post-revolutionary context requires more than simply reforming positive law and legal doctrines. The very understanding of the relationships among individuals, the society, and the law must shift.
One Forum participant, Judge John Kazzi of Lebanon, is ahead of the curve. And he suffered the consequences when he was punished professionally for interpreting Lebanese law as requiring that women have an equal right to pass along citizenship to a foreign spouse. As he eloquently put it at the Forum, "I chose not to be a servant of the law when the law is oppressive or discriminatory."
Of course, creating durable change requires the long hard slog of building new institutions and that takes time. But a Forum discussion about the Polish experience with civil society programs relating to the judiciary helped make that seem obtainable. Participants observed how Poland’s experiences provided practical examples of how to balance the twin goals of independence and accountability.
Equally stimulating discussions explored many other elements that go into the project of reformulating the relationship between law and society: the advocacy role of NGOs, the content and methods of legal education, the basic need for legal aid to the most needy and vulnerable segments of society, and so on. All discussions were marked by a sense of promise.
The MENA region continues to go through profound changes, the dimensions of which are hard to grasp. But clearly one of the most compelling possibilities created by these changes is the opportunity to put the law into the hands of people.