The Rising Ceiling of Democracy

I have received a request to blog about the topic of democracy and “whether the Middle East is ready for it.” My initial reaction to such a question is frustration: “Why is there this belief that democracy is some sort of elite process that only certain cultures or peoples are sophisticated enough to engage in?” I sarcastically asked if people think Egyptians plan their Friday evenings without asking the group what people want to do, or if they think that their subservient nature forces them to simply follow the “strongman” of the clique.

I do not entertain any notions that certain religions, cultures, or peoples are intrinsically incapable of ruling themselves. Period, full stop. Aside from this, I think that it is worthwhile to discuss the process of democratization, or really of democracy itself, as no such system is born overnight. In the United States, it took more than a hundred years before women were allowed to participate in our democracy, quite the glaring oversight. If any country today attempted to call themselves a democracy without giving women the right to vote, they would be the laughing stock of globe. Our great country maintained its “peculiar institution” of human bondage for nearly 80 years, all the while maintaining our belief in “liberty and justice for all.” Even today, one could point to many weaknesses or oversights in our democratic system that need to be addressed.

Wilson just got schooled

But the United States is not the only country whose democracy is a work in progress. France, the United Kingdom, India, Israel, Turkey, Brazil–these are all democratic countries that continue to face challenges. Some are newer to the game, or are dealing with the added hurdles of poverty and higher levels of illiteracy, but none of them are “perfect” democracies.

So what of Egypt and Tunisia? It is clear that there is a will–I don’t think anyone can dispute that. There has been an awakening in the Arab world, a flexing of a muscle that disproves what the dictators had long impressed upon the people: that they are weak and incapable of ruling themselves. In this inspiring TED talk, Wadah Khanfar, the director of Al Jazeera, explains how there has been a “liberation of the feeling of inferiority.” In this excellent New Yorker article, Wendell Steavenson interviews a former Egyptian Ambassador to the United States, who states his moment of clarity on the revolution:

“Early in the protests, when the regime imposed a curfew, his son and a group of friends had been on the square all day and had come back to his apartment building, just two blocks away, to rest. He had invited them all to sleep there, but they were determined to go back to the square. He reminded them that there was a curfew. “They said,
Who applies this curfew?’ They said this very simply and confidently, and it struck me that these kids now finally believe in the ownership of their country.”

Power to the People

However, as this article and many others have pointed out, the revolution can often be the easiest part of building a democracy. And that is not to downplay the triumph of these revolutions, but rather to say how immensely difficult it is to build a democratic system. It’s not just about holding elections, or building a civil society, or creating an independent judiciary, or developing a strong legislature, or an effective–but checked–executive, or hemming in the military, or protecting minorities, or including women, or fighting corruption, or guaranteeing human rights, or any of the other single hallmarks of the democratic process. It’s about creating a system in which all of these things are expected, enacted, and protected.

My big question is not whether Egypt and Tunisia are capable of creating such a system, but whether or not their populations have the patience for how long such a process might take. The Founding Fathers created a good system, but with certain flaws. Most historians agree that it was quite an elitist project, exclusive to non-whites and women. Conversations have already begun in Tunisia and Egypt about how to include all segments of society in drafting constitutions, something which is a good idea but hard to implement on a short time line. Democracies are often about trial and error, and as the U.S. experiment shows, they require time and effort to perfect.

In the above referenced New Yorker article, the journalist meets a pharmacist who, before the protests in Tahrir, had been disillusioned with politics.

“…he was from Alexandria, and that seven or eight years ago, when he was still in college, he had decided to ignore politics. He had picked up a copy of Time (magazine) and saw headlines on the Iraq War–President Bush, Israel and Palestine, terrorism. Then he realized that the magazine was from 1991. ‘I thought to myself, It’s the same news, it’s the same politics. It’s not going to change.’ Now, sitting by a tent in the square, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of people demanding an end to Mubarak’s regime, he smiled ruefully at his former apathy. ‘Now I have an opinion. Now I am talking about politics.’

This story of personal transformation moved me. These revolutions are about this moment of clarity, this “click” that seemed to take place in the minds of hundreds of thousands of people who decided that they deserved more, and they were no longer scared by bullies and thugs who claimed to be legitimate leaders. But this pharmacist says something equally poignant when he recognizes that the battle for democracy has just begun:

“It’s getting more complicated by the hour…the solutions we required a week ago are no longer valid. The ceiling of democracy is getting higher.”

As Americans and others know, that ceiling will continue to rise. I am grateful for some of the things that Thomas Jefferson gave me, but I am also thankful for what Abe Lincoln, unions, suffragettes, MLK, LBJ, and the Warren Court contributed to our country. By throwing off the yolk of dictatorship, Tunisia and Egypt have taken the first important step toward government for the people and by the people. But it is the first step in a long, and bumpy road.

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