Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Students Protest Constitutional Changes

Factional divisions left at home as northern groups demonstrate against centralised, presidential government.
By Ahmad Nahim

A student demonstration in the city of Mazar-e-Sharif last week brought the northern region's three main ethnic groups together in a rare show of unanimity - in opposition to the proposed new constitution for Afghanistan.


The several hundred students who marched through the streets of Mazar-e-Sharif on November 12 belonged to the Uzbek, Tajik and Hazara communities. They complained that the constitution did not sufficiently reflect the interests of their groups and their region.


The protest was organised by the three political factions in northern Afghanistan, which showed a common purpose that is unusual given their record of mutual antagonism. Their armed wings have clashed violently in the area around Mazar-e-Sharif over the past two years.


General Abdul Rashid Dostum's Junbesh-e-Islami men only recently signed a truce with the rival militia led by Atta Mohammad of Jamiat-e-Islami. Yet these two groups - generally identified with the Uzbek and Tajik ethnic groups, although this is not the full picture - reportedly helped organise the demonstration. They were joined by the Hazara party Hezb-e-Wahdat, which has also been involved in fighting in recent months, generally involving other Hazara factions in the north.


The protestors said that their traditions were not adequately represented in the constitution draft, which is due to be debated by a national assembly or Loya Jirga starting on December 10. They also said the constitution would give the president too much power.


The students handed in a petition with 16 demands to the United Nations mission in Mazar-e-Sharif, which passed it on to the national commission responsible for drawing up the constitution.


The demands included a call for the regions to have more power devolved to them, and for the central government to be less strong than is currently being proposed.


They also claimed that the constitution gives precedence to the Pashtu language, and they called instead for three languages - Dari, Pashtu and Uzbek - to be used for official purposes such as the national anthem, banknotes, and communication in the army.


In fact, the new draft says there are two official languages, Dari and Pashtu, and the only provision for the latter being used exclusively is for the national anthem.


Tajiks and Hazaras speak versions of Dari, which together with Pashtu has historically been the main language used for administration and education across Afghanistan. Uzbek has never had such official status.


The constitution envisages a strong presidency with wide-ranging powers, and no prime minister. There will be a two-chamber parliament, but it will not be set up until a year after the president is elected.


Harun Torany, speaking on behalf of the Uzbek demonstrators, told IWPR he was against a strong presidency, "We want a parliamentary government. We don't want all the power going to one person in government."


Another student, Qobad, said, "The national anthem should be national. It shouldn't be in the Pashtu language, because all the people need to know it."


The protesters also said they were against giving King Zahir Shah the honorary status of "father of the nation" - even though the constitution accords no further role to the monarchy, and the title was given to him last year after he returned from 30 years in exile.


"We don't want Zahir Shah, the former king, as 'father of the nation', because he has not served the people of Afghanistan," said Basir Bahrawi, speaking for the Tajiks in the demonstration.


Pashtuns in Mazar-e-Sharif dismissed the protests, saying General Dostum, Atta Mohammad, and Mohammad Sardar Sayedi, a local Hezb-e-Wahdat leader, had orchestrated them because they fear that a strong central government in Kabul would curb their own power.


"The demonstration is something that is null and void, and it is of no importance," said Gul Rahman, a Pashtun shopkeeper in Mazar-e-Sharif. "The demonstrators want the national anthem to be in three languages, a pointless suggestion."


The students' demands were, however, mirrored by concerns expressed by other northerners interviewed by IWPR. They fear that the constitution will create an excessively powerful central government in Kabul.


The deputy head of Balkh University's law faculty, Nurullah Moshini told IWPR, "The exceptional power of the president, who has a stipulated 22 powers and duties in the draft, is worrying. It will lead the country into a dictatorship where just one person has all the authority."


Moshini also pointed to what he sees as contradictions between Islamic jurisprudence - which the constitution says will be applied in cases where there is no written law - and international human rights standards.


Yama Sharaf, who heads the law and political sciences faculty at the university, echoed these concerns, saying that freedom of speech - particularly on matters relating to Islam - need to be set out much more clearly in the document. "Freedom of expression must be interpreted according to the law, not to ideological beliefs," he said.


But a member of the national body responsible for Muslim shrines and holy places, Mawlawi Sayed Mohammad Arif Wazin, who was visiting the north, was adamant that Muslim values must be paramount. In an interview with IWPR, he stressed that Islam was better - and liberty more beautiful - than democracy.


Students in Kabul have also protested against the constitution in the past week. The small groups of protestors who appeared on Kabul University's campus echoed the Balkh students' objections to the presidential system, the honorary status accorded to the king, and the decision that the national anthem will be sung only in Pashtu.


But their main anger appeared to be directed against the suggestion that the government would charge fees for higher education. The draft constitution says primary and secondary schooling should be free, whereas the 1964 constitution that was resurrected as an interim measure after the fall of the Taleban in 2001 states that all education will be paid for by the state.


On November 18, Kabul University abruptly announced that students would start their winter break at the end of this week, and take their final examinations in the spring instead of in December. Officials said the decision was taken because there was no heating or electricity in the student residences. But some students told IWPR that the real reason was to reduce the likelihood of demonstrations during the constitutional Loya Jirga.


Ahmad Nahim and Qayoum Baabak are IWPR contributors in Mazar-e-Sharif.