First Published: 2011-02-08


The Shock & Awe of Democracy


The road to democracy is a long and arduous one. Institutions need to be created, people need to be educated in the principles of democracy and an environment of ‘government of the people, for the people and by the people’ needs to be nurtured and developed, says Syed Neaz Ahmad.


Middle East Online

The road to democracy is a long and arduous one. Institutions need to be created, people need to be educated in the principles of democracy and an environment of ‘government of the people, for the people and by the people’ needs to be nurtured and developed, says Syed Neaz Ahmad.

The recent upsurge and call for democratic rights in the somewhat volatile region known as the Middle East has taken the world by shock and awe in many regions. "Tunisia has fallen, Egypt is on the brink and as a hunger for change engulfs the Arab world" political scientists ask - who's next?

Democracy has been described ‘as a form of government in which people elect their rulers themselves (direct democracy), as in ancient Athens, or elect representatives to rule in their national interest (indirect democracy), as in most modern democracies. Elections, to be democratic, must be held regularly, be secret, and provide a choice of candidates; the elected assembly must also be free to legislate and criticise the government policy.’ Sounds nice but let us take a closer look at the concept of ‘a government of the people’ though not necessarily for the people or by the people.

The Greek concept of democracy was confined and was specific to the confined structure of the city-state. It did not operate through representative institutions but through direct participation of the citizens in the decision-making process. Debate and persuasion became vital skills. People could on occasion be swept away by the power of demagogue, but within this forum they learned to listen to and analyse argument.

Homer’s Iliad provides a picture of an early feudal society of kings, nobles and common fighting men. Each city then followed its own course in working out the structure of government. The first struggle lay between kings (monarchy) and the nobles (aristocracy). Then the pressure came from their influential citizens (oligarchy). When a state plunged into chaos, a strong man (tyranny), often benevolent and public-spirited, would emerge to bring order (or at least claim to do so).

Today’s democratic ideas stem from 18th century utilitarianism and current debate centres on the elitist theory of democracy – which government is by political elite, which though voted into power invites little participation by the electorate. This is where the good concept of democracy and its erratic practice receive a hit below the belt. It is obvious that, despite its evolution through the centuries, democracy has to be adopted and adapted to suit local circumstances.

These days it is fashionable to present oneself as a believer in democratic principles. I see nothing wrong in that. But we all speak different languages, have different dress codes, our cuisine is different, geography and history is different, our educational systems are different; so, why is it necessary to import a system of government that is alien to our political thought and culture or at best we haven’t done the groundwork to make democracy work. Is it really necessary for the entire world to accept and adopt one single system of government?

The misadventure with democracy witnessed in many countries over the past several decades has proved that this man-made system is not the panacea – at least not for countries where political awareness, political grooming and political institutions do not exist or are not allowed to develop. Egypt is a case in the point. Officially elections were held and rulers were elected - though in most cases with almost no or little opposition. This resulted in a particular party retaining the control of the country for some 30 years with President Hosni Mubarak sitting at the top. It was perfect pyramid.

When the overseas liberating, destructing and hopefully constructing powers set their minds on introducing democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan we asked ourselves if the people were - socially, politically and emotionally - mature enough to distinguish between jackals and jackasses? Surprisingly the Tunisian and more recently the Egyptian experience has proved once again that you can fool some people all of the time, all people some of the time but not all people all of the time - yes even after shackling them for decades.

Walter Lipmann in A Preface to Politics observes: ‘No amount of charters, direct primaries, or short ballots will make a democracy out of an illiterate people.’ If one is suspect of this remark then let us see another: ‘Democracy means government by the uneducated, while aristocracy means government by badly educated.’ Or shall we trust yet another American, Arthur Miller, who said, ‘When blind lead blind, it’s the democratic way’?

Tracing our steps back to the rough road – to Kabul, to Baghdad to Tunis, to Cairo and many other capitals – and the ongoing adventure and misadventure one might approach this ‘window of opportunity’ with great caution. The road to democracy – be it Cairo or Khartoum – is a long and arduous one. Institutions need to be created, people need to be educated in the principles of democracy and an environment of ‘government of the people, for the people and by the people’ needs to be nurtured and developed.

In Britain, general and local elections are held regularly but apart from the newspapers, television, billboards’ advertisements and promotional junk mail of prospective candidates, there is nothing much on show. Unlike the Third World countries streets are quiet, walls are as ‘silent’ as before and voters and politicians are at ease with each other. Labour labour hard, the Conservatives work in their conventional way and the free-thinking Liberals remain smug as the alternative choice. This is because the leaders dare not take the masses for a ride.

Democracy is not a divine system; it has its shortcomings. But honest people who would carry the can - in Egypt and elsewhere - and have the interest of their country close to their heart are hard to come by. Lack of such people can weaken even the best of concepts and the most efficient of the system.

Syed Neaz Ahmad is a London-based academic, writer and critic. Comments:


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