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Contemplating Democracy - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Democracy today has become the system of choice for ‘most’ of the world – both eastern and western countries alike – so that one may say we live in the age of democracy. Democracy is no longer, as many would believe; one of the choices, as was the case until very recently, but has rather become something of an inevitability if the state and society seek to join a world that has transformed into a single entity with shared values and consistent visions – otherwise there would be isolation leading onto extinction in a world where isolation is no longer an option.

Away from the concept of democracy as the spirit of the age, it has historically proven itself to be the system most capable of preserving social peace in the long term, this being in accordance with the democratic experience as has been implemented in America and Western Europe; especially if it is based on fundamentals or a strong infrastructure rather than being a mere partial practice that adopts the insignificant part and leaves the most significant one. Arabs are a part of this world; they must acknowledge that they are part of it and of its interactions. Accordingly, they have to be part of these interactions unless extinction is their choice – which, after all, is the choice of those who have no choice.

This question of democracy always occurs to me as I see democratic experiences in the Arab world (which in fact, are mere experiments) fail and collapse one after another while being successful in most other countries, whether in the East or the West. Furthermore, if they do fail once, they do not twice; and if they fall once, they rise again only to benefit from the errors of the past, determined to make a success of the experience that is no longer an experiment.

Why does the application of democracy fail in the Arab world when it succeeds in other countries?

It is such a big question that needs more than one brief article to attempt answering it; however, an incomplete one or an attempt is better than none.

The answer seems to lie in the fact that all Arab democratic experiences, both those that existed before the military element became entangled with politics or after the military element got lost within politics, share the common denominator that democracy was only practiced in form without seeking to establish a solid basis for it in a manner that would ensure its endurance by rooting it in society before politics. If there is an excuse for the failure and fall of pre-military experiments, then there is nothing to justify their collapse after the military element was introduced. A strong economy cannot exist without an infrastructure to support it, as is the case in political life in general, and political systems in particular.

Democracy is a political system that cannot thrive without a basis, and liberal democracy in particular, is not just a political practice inasmuch as it is a lifestyle, a distinct social behavior that has a cultural framework without which the democratic practice cannot prosper. Just as a thriving economy needs an infrastructure of communications, transportations and institutions without which growth cannot be achieved, building a democracy requires an infrastructure, or rather, a network of elements without which democracy cannot be. This network, or the basis of democracy, consists of a few elements that can be boiled down to four basic ones: culture, education, institutionalization and law. Without a democratic culture – a liberal mind, an educational system to instill these values in the souls before the minds, an active civil society, and a legal system to regulate interaction between the units of society, ensuring the protection of their movement and independence – one cannot talk of democracy even if there is a ballot box or if there exist parties and regular elections just as there cannot be a thriving economy without a network of good roads and a series of ports with sufficient capacity.

Democratic culture and the liberal mind, which are essential when discussing democracy, form the basis. This culture constitutes several values, perhaps most important of which are the values of freedom, the freedom of movement within the sphere of law; equality, in citizenship and before the law; individuality, upon the consideration that the individual is the building block of society; pluralism, it being the nature of life; and tolerance, that everyone has the right to believe in what they desire without imposing their beliefs on another. From these primary values, other secondary values manifest, which ultimately serve the same purposes. Based on these values, whether primary or secondary, convictions and practices are shaped. Supported on the value of freedom are the freedoms of speech, belief and congregation, in addition to other civil freedoms. Based on the value of equality is the notion of citizenship; a modern state, democratic or otherwise, cannot thrive without citizenship being the reference for the relationship between authority and the individual; or else it would not be a state in the modern sense. Based on the value of individuality are the notions of humanity and human dignity. After all, the individual is the tangible entity of what constitutes human beings away from philosophical intricacies and ideological interpretations that destroy human beings in the name of other human beings. Based on the value of pluralism is the notion that difference is the key, which is how God created the world and how He intended for it to be – or else He would have created mankind as one nation sharing the same belief and living in full uniformity since Eternity. Based on the value of tolerance stems the notion that perfection is solely reserved for God and that only He knows Absolute Truth whereas human beings can merely make individual efforts and judgments. Everyone has their own relative truth even if they claim it to be absolute. This judgment and pursuit of Truth are the basis of every eternal and historically significant civilization; else all that is left is silence and paralysis followed by loss into historical obscurity.

This culture cannot dominate and prevail unless there is some form of nurturing of fundamentals and principles. There are various institutions of education, most important and influential of which is the educational system that rears minds from an early age unto adulthood. Family, propaganda and the media, among others, are important institutions that shape upbringing but the educational system is the most critical since without it, no other institutions are capable of bringing about the desired effect or sought culture. Plato founded his republic on a strict educational system capable of creating and instilling values in the minds; the emphasis being on the importance of the educational system as the backbone of the state and its values, rather than the values that Plato himself sought. The reason behind this is that even if there were a democratic system being practiced on a supreme level, and if the constitution was built upon democratic values, but the educational system instilled other values that were contradictory to the declared ones, it could only end in failure.

Values like such would be mere theories and abstract notions if they are not translated into a tangible reality, which is where institutionalization plays a role; it being the translation of the these values so that individuals may practice these rights and freedoms. As part of the democratic infrastructure on which the basis of democracy is built rather than on the political institutions that rise on top of it, institutionalization means nothing beyond the existence of a broad and active civil society where the individual enjoys the personal prerogative of self-expression by various means. The narrower the space of the political authority and the broader the space of civil society, the greater the chance there is for the democratic experience to succeed. A civil society is ultimately the actual translation of all the abovementioned values, whatever they may be, and the ability to express them freely and peacefully. The matter that attracted Alexis de Tocqueville the most to the early American democratic experience was its voluntary spirit; building without feeling an obligation to do so. This would not have been the case if the space of civil society had not been greater than the space of the political authority.

However, all these matters – culture, institutionalization and other diverging values and specific behaviors – cannot witness stability or endure without the existence of a law that regulates movement and interaction among the various units of society. Freedom and pluralism without law are nothing but chaos. Individuality without law becomes sheer selfishness. Equality cannot exist without legal obligation. When law is absent, society in general is embroiled in a tooth-and-claw conflict one way or another. Law regulates and protects all these values and lends them meaning.

Vladimir Lenin made a statement to this effect, which was true in form but proved disastrous in practice. Lenin said that freedom is so precious that it must be rationed. He was right to say that but he strangled freedom as he rationed it, he emptied it of its meaning and freedom no longer existed except that which belonged to one party. This, however, is particular to the Soviet experience; still the social and political culture of the time did not nurture and embrace the aforementioned values that make for a successful democracy. Thus the questions remain: Is this infrastructure available to any of the Arab societies? Have any of the Arab regimes sought to lay down its foundations?

Turki Al-Hamad

Turki Al-Hamad

Turki Al-Hamad is a distinguished Saudi Arabian political analyst, journalist and novelist. Mr. Al-Hamad was educated in Saudi Arabia and the United States, where he obtained his PhD from the University of Southern California, later returning to Riyadh to teach political science. He retired in 1995 to take up writing full time.

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