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Thursday, 13 December 2018

Democracy as destination

While the Arabs watched the US mid-term elections with interest, no Arab country can boast a similarly democratic system as the United States

Hussein Haridy , Monday 26 Nov 2018
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The last two months have witnessed two contrasting scenes, diametrically-opposed as a way of governance. One scene took place in the Middle East.

The other one happened across the Atlantic Ocean. The former in the East and the latter in the New World.

Let me start in the New World, which stands in this article for the present-day United States. On 6 November, the mid-term elections took place across America.

American voters went to the polls to choose 435 members to the US House of Representatives — that is, the entire House — and to elect a third of the Senate. In addition, to elect governors and thousands of members to State houses.

From the day President Donald Trump was sworn into office in January 2017, official Washington was Republican red.

The White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives were in the hands of the Republican Party. On 7 November, things changed in Washington DC and throughout the United States.

There is a new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives with fresh and young representatives carrying new ideals and fresh ideas to official Washington.

There will be the first two American ladies who are Muslims, one of them is veiled, a first on Capitol Hill from the early days of the American Republic.

If you want to prove that the essence of any democratic system of governance is respecting diversity, then this is undeniable proof — a veiled Muslim American woman.

The Senate majority has remained unchanged with a modest increase in the number of seats for Republicans.

Effective January 2019, President Trump will have to share power with the Democrats. Gone are the days of undisputed Republican control of the federal government.

Democrats have made it clear that they are going to investigate everything, from the personal tax returns of President Trump to any possible conflict of interests concerning the family business, let alone the conclusions of the Mueller investigation. If the first two years in office for President Trump were smooth sailing, the remaining two will be a little bit different.

Effective in January, presidential power in Washington will be checked and balanced by the Democratic majority in the House. Reflecting the new political realities, the Republicans and Democrats expressed their willingness to work together and with the president to pass legislation that would benefit all Americans.

President Trump, while defending the performance of Republican candidates in the mid-terms, made it clear that he is willing to cooperate with the new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives and to reach compromises on major legislation.

The midterms and their results have shown the Arab world a democracy in action. These mid-term elections had been followed closely by public opinion across the Arab world to see how its outcome would impact on major Arab questions and concerns.

But, most importantly of all, how American democracy would function and whether it could become a model for a similar system of government in Arab countries.

In our part of the world, the gap between democratic aspirations and political realities on the grounds is still great. Watching the midterms and their results makes the dream of a democratic system of government in Arab countries more realisable.

In the Arab world, democracy remains a cherished goal for many, including the toiling masses, but so far they have failed to chart the proper path. It is true that there are some forms of a democracy in some parts of the Arab world, like in Lebanon for example, or Kuwait; however, they don’t get an A in practice.

While the United States was bracing itself for the mid-terms, the Arab world was jolted like never before by the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey.

In the first half of the 21st century, the Arab political system has failed in dealing with a single dissident voice, which makes you wonder how would it deal with minorities, religious or political, which have basic human and political rights to be respected and fulfilled.

If this particular Saudi journalist was assassinated, Arab prisons are full of political dissidents and prominent figures from the political opposition whose proper place should be in their countries’ legislative bodies, sharing power with freely-elected officials in the context of a constitutional and democratic form of government.

To muzzle political opposition is no longer sustainable in our globalised world, with the Internet linking the four corners of the Earth in a split second.

The relationship between a democratic form of government and human progress is still absent in the minds of the ruling elites in the Arab world.

Economic and social development will not achieve its goals without the rule of law and a democratic system where all citizens, regardless of race, gender, religion or sect, enjoy the same rights without any form of discrimination.

All are equal before the law. And no one shall be incarcerated or physically eliminated because of his political views, nor for his religious or ethnic background.

To have functioning democracies we definitely need democrats — people who genuinely believe in the rule of law and the basic principles of good governance.

On top of that, we need statesmen who will lead Arab countries on the tortuous road of democracy, which remains the only viable alternative before the Arabs if they really want to make up for time lost in catching the bandwagon of human progress. We are still waiting for their emergence.

The contrast between the two scenes described in the first paragraph of this article is quite striking and it shows forcefully the wide gulf between good governance and despotism. Thumbs up for the former and an F grade for the latter.

* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 November, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Democracy as destination

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