The Magna Carta’s many lessons for the Middle East

A covenant for a better future to unite all, remains a foreign notion

Mohamed Chebarro

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England this week celebrated 800 years since the signing of the Magna Carta, the document that is said to have paved the way for basic human rights in the Western world.

A covenant between rulers and the ruled ensuring justice to all and no imprisonment without due access to representation and proper arbitration, these were all facets of the new found sense of human rights for all.

The Magna Carta, or the great charter which was the subject of celebration in conferences, speeches and discussion, is the foundation of English liberties and the bedrock of the rule of law which evolved to become a foundation of what we know today as the liberal and legal order and perhaps the foundation, or one of the foundations, of modern democracy.

A covenant for a better future to unite all remains a foreign notion

Mohamed Chebarro

When we look at the Middle East and its modern states, one cannot but envy the English who lived 800 years ago, for they secured more than what many cannot even dream of getting today, tomorrow, and even 100 years from now.

That document’s contribution is basic, and it calls that “no freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseized of his freehold, or liberties, or free customs, or be outlawed, or exiled... or condemn him but by the lawful judgment of his peers but by the law of the land.”

Unfortunately, the anniversary of 800 years of civil rights went unnoticed in most Arab countries.

The Middle East's experience

In Syria the state is busy mercilessly bombing its own people as a punishment for an uprising that simply demanded that some rights and equality norms get a review 60 years after the establishment of the Syrian state and 40 years after one family began its rule over 25 million Syrians.

In Iraq, and with the help of democratic countries like the United States and Britain where the Magna Carta originated, Saddam the dictator was removed, ending decades of oppression and disregard toward human rights and laws or the respect of basic human dignities for his own people.

Instead of establishing peace and reconciliation committees to wipe clean the bad memories that tainted relations between Iraqis who were pro and anti Saddam, the communities let loose their imagination to avenge what the state did to this community or sect or ethnicity throughout the country.

The new leaders of Iraq failed to base any of their constitutional clauses on a simple but supreme clause to call for the respect of human rights, and to state that the happiness of their people is supreme. Instead they were busy dividing the spoils of the oil rich Iraq on a sectarian and ethnic basis.

Victims of oppression

In Libya, post Qaddafi, the country's liberal and Islamists, once victims of oppression by the state and the absence of the rule of law, are busy fighting to implement a vision of the state that suits their ideological and religious leaning after more than 30 years of Qaddafi and a self-styled direct rule by people’s committees. Peace, reconciliation and equality rank low on Libya’s priority list, instead it is a return to tribal versus regional enmities and a race to again control the oil fields of Libya .

In Egypt, though revolution ended the 33-year-rule of Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood came to power armed with the holy book and their exclusive interpretation of how state and society should be organized.

The constitution’s re-writing was obstructed for fear of instilling Shariah law as a sole source of legislation and soon after, the military came back to power armed with more than 30 million demonstrators asking the army to safe guard the state and not the rule of law.

The list is long, but one constant in the post-colonial states in the Middle East is the lack of a source of legislation worthy of mankind, as exemplified by the Magna Carta 800 years ago.

The states of the Middle East are far from this mind set now, and will not reach anywhere near that for the foreseeable future, as borders are re-drawn and the struggle carries on between the devil represented by the dictators holding on to power and the deep blue sea of division, sectarianism, ethnic struggle and or extreme terror groups such as ISIS.

Through the Arab Spring that turned quickly into winters of discontent it was clear that the debate lacked a discussion about rights, equality of humans, not in front of God, but vis-a-vis the rule of law.

A covenant for a better future to unite all, remains a foreign notion and is simply absent from the vocabulary or lost in the many debates of the rebelling societies mainly focused on defining the role of Shariah law, religion, sect, ethnicity or the tribe.


Mohamed Chebarro is currently an Al Arabiya TV News program Editor. He is also an award winning journalist, roving war reporter and commentator. He covered most regional conflicts in the 90s for MBC news and later headed Al Arabiya’s bureau in Beirut and London.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.