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Democracy and the Arab Spring - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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A number of Egyptian media outlets held the first ever live debate in the Arab world between the two Egyptian presidential candidates who enjoyed the highest public opinion poll rating, namely Amr Musa and Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh. The media was successful in running the debate in a well-organized and appealing manner.

The debate was held amidst an Egyptian and Arab scene filled with ballot boxes, particularly in the electoral districts of states where revolutions have taken place such as Tunisia and Egypt, as well as in stable states likes Jordan, Morocco and Kuwait. Ballot boxes are now preoccupying people’s minds, as well as the aspirations of different political trends, and so we see the media filled with rhetoric about democracy being the “savior”, in accordance with a widespread misconception.

Democracy, according to the version developed by the West, is the political expression of debate between three major concepts: justice – with its incorporated concepts of rights, equality and so on; freedom – as the major principle governing modern Western liberal thought; and happiness or wellbeing – being the primary objective for an individual, society and the country as a whole.

However, there are constant efforts in the Arab world to transform democracy – as a mechanism rather than a concept – into a one way street towards justice, freedom and happiness. Hence, immense cultural and ideological theories have been promoted to sum up the so-called “mechanism” of democracy; which in reality means only elections and ballot boxes. Therefore, according to this misconception, when people rise up against injustice and abuse, the solution does not lie in addressing their concerns, but in providing a mechanism for democracy. In this case, when people speak out against repression and confinement, freedom is not the objective; rather it is democracy, the mechanism. Similarly, when everyone works towards their aspirations and the masses express themselves, and when individuals seek to gain happiness, the state need not promote their wellbeing because the mechanism of democracy is sufficient. Hence, the ballot boxes have become something akin to Aladdin’s lamp that can fulfill all wishes and dreams.

Western culture is rich and full of debate, books and ideas that have touched upon the concepts of justice, freedom and the search for happiness. Yet, the West has never summed up this profound and rich debate into the “democracy mechanism”, or even more crudely, “ballot boxes.”

Each of these philosophical concepts that established democracy have political, economic and social manifestations expressed in a variety of ways, and so they have received different reactions in the Arab world. In the political sphere, some people consider Western democracy as a model that must be applied domestically, as when it is directed from abroad it is merely “domination.” As for the economic sphere, the Western capitalist system was considered by many Arab intellectuals to be imperialist, and hence they put forth alternatives: some leftist and some Islamic – the latter becoming known as the Islamic banking system that was created and used by religious groups for decades – or a mixed system incorporating both socialism and Islam. As for the social sphere, whilst it was easy for the West to civilize its society through civil organizations and the tools of the media, some Arabs have viewed such manifestations as a “cultural invasion.”

Some writers believe that at the time of Arab revolutions it is a great shame not to be an advocate of democracy, or it is a shame that Arabs are making comparisons between the priorities of democracy and development, or indeed they are wary of the principle of democracy, even if these concerns stem from a realistic, historical or philosophical framework. Yet these writers have been deluded by a similarity of names, rather than meanings, which has prevented them from understanding democracy as it rose in the West. This prevents them from considering the cultural, civil, religious and social environment in which the concept of democracy was born, and distances them from the modern application of its mechanisms.

The modern application of democracy in the West experienced a hard labor and extremely difficult phases, especially in France, which some people use as a comparison to the current state of affairs in the Arab world. Yet surely the differences here are too big to pass by unnoticed by any observer, let alone an intellectual, especially when they are distant from the influence of the public, the domination of the mob and the mania of democracy’s supporters.

The mechanism of democracy is a political and realist manifestation of a philosophical and intellectual discourse. It is a form of social mobility stimulated by economy, rather than politics. Indeed, Charles Baird believes that the founding fathers of the United States were motivated more by economics than by philosophical principles.

It is worthwhile here to recall that modern political democracy in the West is nothing more than a manifestation of the liberalist individual culture that established itself over centuries, until it was eventually successful in overstepping the fundamental barriers of language, race, religion and nationalism. This paved the way for a genuine awareness of democracy as an effective and active political mechanism, although not necessarily fair in its representation of the people, or in its results. This is because democracy has also brought dictators into power like Hitler in Germany or Stalin in Russia, and thus Europe and the world had to pay a high price when the mechanism of democracy promoted their opponents through the ballot boxes.

When the mechanism of democracy was activated, its deeply-rooted philosophical history failed to protect a country like Germany from Hitler’s Nazism. Likewise, the philosophy of the Enlightenment did not prevent someone like Maximilien Robespierre from rising to power in France and creating a climate of despotism. Yet whilst democracy’s history and heritage did not prevent such politically barbaric characters from emerging, it did help to expose and erode their presence when they were at the peak of their authority and aggression. Democracy also later helped to rectify and reshape the political scene, in accordance with its accumulated philosophical and critical heritage, which was largely religious during the Renaissance period and largely political in the post-Enlightenment period.

As a final point, it is worth noting that the theory of democracy, as a comprehensive concept, has no answer to the spread of extremism during revolutionary times. Extremists could be viewed as people who have many tools, either for victory or sabotage, whilst no doctrine of freedom can hinder them, even when they themselves express this!