Can there be democracy with religion-based inequality?

Emad Gad , Wednesday 5 Jan 2011

Can a democratic system develop in a society where democratic principles are rejected?

The nature of the relationship between democracy and economic development has been repeatedly debated, giving rise to questions about the possibility of having a democracy in a poor society and the likelihood of democracy being achieved as a result of a country's economic development.

Dozens if not hundreds of researchers and academics have voiced their opinions on the matter: some have argued that there is no link between democracy and development, while others state that one is a prerequisite for the other. Some claim that with democracy, economic development will follow, because democracy leads to a wiser form of rule, transparency, accountability, rotation of political power and other pillars of a democratic system – all propelling economic development.

Others have championed an opposite theory, stating that there is no room for democracy in poor societies and that democracy compounds poverty further. They cite India as an example of a country where democracy did not improve the lot of its poor, while pointing to undemocratic countries – even dictatorships – that have made immense economic strides. China, according to this argument, exemplifies the paradigm: under its one-party system the country has maintained annual development rates at greater than 10 per cent, with no improvement to its democracy. Others, who also subscribe to this opposite theory of development and democracy, go one step further, claiming that reaching advanced economic development will gradually bring about democracy.

While this debate over linkages remains unresolved, a more pressing issue must be addressed: the relationship between the type of political system and the nature of the society in which it exists. Can democracy be achieved in an undemocratic society? Namely, can a democratic system be created and develop in a society where the principles of democracy are rejected?

Democracy is a legacy, a joint heritage developed by consecutive generations and civilizations. Each society adds, removes or limits some of its components, depending on which stage of development it is going through.

A perfect example of this is South Africa and its democratic trajectory after the Apartheid regime was toppled and the country was at the brink of disintegration due to tribal conflicts. In an effort to find a solution to its deep divides, a new article was introduced to the constitution, giving any party which wins more than five per cent of the votes the right to participate in government, and not only have seats in parliament. The percentage which allows a party to take a seat in parliament varies from one country to another, from one half of a per cent to ten per cent.

There are specific, of course, fixed requisites for democracy, including a multi-party system, one vote for each citizen, electoral cycles and the peaceful rotation of power. But democracy also requires that citizens firmly believe in a set of human values, such as equality regardless of ethnicity, language, gender and religion. Also, it requires the separation of religion and politics, which means that clerics do not play a role in the political arena. This does not mean religion is to be removed from society, but, rather, only from politics and state.

Looking at Egyptian society today, we will find many signs which indicate that the notion of progress has been overtaken by rejection of the principle of equality; the deep identification with limited religious community overrides the concept of state and country.

The majority of Egyptian society does not believe in equality between the country's citizens – based on a variety of factors such as gender and religion – with a general drive to force religion into the public domain. Egyptian officials representing the state require a fatwa (religious edict) to show their decisions are religiously permissible. Consequently, they have repeatedly opted to not make important and necessary decisions out of fear of backlash from religious circles.

Egyptian society is now in limbo, being neither religious nor civic; we are neither a religious state, because the First Article of the Constitution affirms our co-citizenry, and nor are we a secular state, because the Second Article states that Islamic Shari'a is the main source of legislation. Accordingly, there is an overlap between what is civic and what is religious. In line with this confused high wire walk, we have a group calling for a religious state, and, although it is officially banned, it exists on the street and has representatives in parliament.

The danger facing Egypt now is that it has no clear vision or direction, creating a grey area for anyone to manoeuvre in and manipulate. This makes for a precarious situation by all accounts. The responsibility lies with the state, which used its immense sources to nurture Egyptian society into what it is today. The education system and media are pushing society towards extremism and fundamentalism, forcing the culture of equality and freedom out of the way.

Accordingly, the value of citizenry for the sake of the nation is regressing, strengthening the bonds between an Egyptian Muslim and a Malaysian Muslim at the expense of their bonds with Christian, Bahaie or Jewish Egyptians.

Consequently, it can be deduced that the majority of Egyptian society does not currently believe in the value of democracy and other human principles, such as equality and freedom, and other associated values such as freedom of opinion and religion. Hence, any democracy in Egypt cannot move forward beyond a "controlled democracy."

Democracy in Egypt today begins and ends with elections – the only venue where we discuss said values. Varying degrees of free elections do not make a democratic regime, but going through the motions of a democratic process could perhaps be caused by outside pressure or temporary benefits. A sincere march towards democracy is an intrinsic process rooted in the values and the makeup of a nation.

The culture of democracy evolves along the principles of equality, freedom and plurality. It develops and interacts so that democracy can be conceived deep within the local domain, and is born a fully developed doctrine which reflects the reality of society and is compatible with it. This is unlike what takes place in Arab states, where democracy is born deformed and is dealt with erratically and by piecemeal.

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