Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

The vision of a new Arab president | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Moncef Marzouki, the new President of Tunisia and an Arab intellectual who came to power without ever really expecting this to happen, wrote a few days ago about good governance, roughly eight weeks after assuming the presidency. He addressed the problem of democracy in the Arab world, concluding that the theory of good governance can never be consecrated without a commensurately mature society. This brings us back to the never-ending argument over whether a culture of democracy should be the starting point, or whether a democratic ruler alone is the horse to lead the nation towards democracy.

Marzouki believes that one of the main problems for Arabs when it comes to democracy is that it is an imported system, since the Arabs failed throughout their history to invent or apply a similar system. Accordingly, we must attempt to “resettle” Western democracy and plant it in the Arab soil. Marzouki argues: “The problem is that for most Arabs, the resettlement of democracy simply means applying a ready-made recipe comprising of its four main ingredients; individual freedom, public freedoms, an independent judiciary and free elections. Through this mechanism some people expect to have a stable political system that ensures good governance”.

Now Marzouki, with his two contradictory characters – the intellectual critic and president – can view his world from the top. Is it possible that the ballot box can reflect the peoples’ desires? Is the state, as he advocates it, capable of achieving social justice? Is the freedom of expression in mass media and parliament capable of meeting the demands of the majority?

It is remarkable that only two months after becoming the President of Tunisia, Marzouki seems to be despairing. He believes that the elected state does not have all the tools of power to foster democracy, for it is not in control of the media, the market, the army or the intelligence services. Accordingly, democracy through its three branches –legislative, judicial and executive – is still not enough. Of course, we are all aware that if an elected state controls the media and the economy, it will likely transform into a tyrannical regime. The problem lies in public awareness and its ability to manage the delicate balance between the forces of society.

Enlightenment is both the problem and the solution. An effective media apparatus and a free economy both need a conscious society to flourish. The tools of freedom are less successful in culturally undeveloped societies – such as the Arab communities – and they themselves can turn into despotic authorities that in fact curb civil liberties. Without granting immunity to freedom, democracy becomes meaningless and would most likely turn into a dictatorship of the ignorant majority.

This is Egypt’s current problem and Tunisia’s to a lesser extent. Lawmakers and representatives of the state are calling for more restrictions. The media, on the other hand, supposedly the voice of freedom, is pursuing those who violate already existing restrictions. Due to these difficult early beginnings, an intellectual in a “newly democratic” Arab community may reach a moment where he in fact laments the former tyrannical regime. This is a conclusion reached by Marzouki himself, who is one of the most prominent Arab advocates of democracy. According to Marzouki, “what is even worse is that such a debate will remind people that they only protested against tyranny when they lost hope in its ability to achieve their aspirations for development and social justice. They might protest again tomorrow against democracy for the same reason.”

The solution is largely cultural; elections alone will not suffice. Yet it seems that some intellectuals, not only the masses, are ignorant of the meaning of democracy, which means that the battle ahead of us is a long one.