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Labour pains of democracy

Democracy is the answer to the freedom we have gained, and is both easiest and most difficult answer

Abdel-Moneim Said , Tuesday 10 Jul 2012

It is a mistake to think that democracy is the solution for all our problems. When Winston Churchill said that democracy was the worst political systems but there is no better system, he meant that what democracy gives us is nothing more than a peaceful way to resolve problems but the solutions themselves depend on people’s innovation, consensus and agreement. More so, achieving democracy itself is a path of pain and more wounds.

Perhaps conditions in Libya before, after and during the election of the National Council demonstrated the difficulties of the entire process, and examples throughout history also show us that we are no exception to the general rule.

No democracy was ever born effortlessly, and when it first arrived in modern history in the US the American people did not comprehend the entire concept, and when they rushed out to elect George Washington as president they thought they were electing a new king; what was certain is that the slaves and even free Blacks would not have the right to vote. Even after the Civil War and the emancipation of slaves, the disparity in education and economic standards made political participation inaccessible. The process of gaining “democratic rights” occurred each time through a surgical operation, whether a civil war or a conflict over civil rights.

A key change occurred over the past 18 months since the outbreak of the Arab Spring, namely that Arab citizens would no longer tolerate tyranny and the rule of security agencies, and running the affairs of state through permission, prevention or monopolising power, including national media and wealth. This combination of tools of control are no longer acceptable; not only are they rejected but there are those who are willing to sacrifice their lives for this.

A foreign friend told me that the most important feature of the Arab Spring is that the Arabs gained the respect of the world because now they have their share of “freedom”. We used to believe that “freedom” only meant liberation from a foreign occupier, but as Israel continues to occupy Arab land it seemed that we would never be free. This led us to ignore the bitter facts about domestic occupation that practiced oppression, aggression, torture and sectarianism even worse than foreign occupiers. At last, freedom has become a broad concept at home and abroad.

Does the agony end here? I don’t think so. Within the context of Arab revolutions, it appears to be the beginning of new forms of suffering because we are finding out that toppling a despotic regime is nothing but the beginning, followed by the illusive question: what should we do with the freedom we have gained? This is the exact question that arose after the struggle for independence; we didn’t know what to do with it after blood was spilt and martyrs killed for sake of independence. The result was handing over the country to those who led the mission, which only created another state similar to occupation.

Decades have passed and here we are again at the same point, and once again the price was high. The freedom that came soon raised many questions and the democracy answer was at once the easiest and most difficult. It was the easiest because we can look at other countries and copy their models of elections and constitutions, the rule of the majority, transfer of power, and other features of the democracies that preceded us.

Our democracy, however, not only brings into question such fundamental issues as the integrity of elections, but also puts us to the test in the current dispute in Egypt, for example, when writing the constitution on what is known as Article 2. Whether it is possible to govern by the principles of Islamic Shari’a, or by the provisions of Shari’a, or suffice to only say according to the principles of Shari’a?

Everyone knows that the first option is the only one that guarantees the broadest interpretation that makes legislation the essence of policies; while the last choice would only create a competition of fatwas (religious edicts) although it is difficult to issue an edict on sensitive issues, making the entire issue even more complicated when it comes to the religion and beliefs of the minority. There was never a problem in allowing those who follow religions “from heaven” (People of the Book) to apply their own laws in personal status issues, but what about Baha’is? And are Shiites part of Islam or do they have special status and would be allowed “marriage for pleasure”, for example? The issue is further complicated when liberated Egyptians come to realise now that despite their broad homogeneity, there are groups among them who have specific distinctiveness, such as the Nubians, Sinai natives, and the tribes in the Western Desert.

The same issue is very relevant to Libya, which lacks the homogenous nature of Egypt, among the three main regions. Will the people of Libya be able to survive the labour pains of transformation from a simple central state into a complex federal state without suspicion and fear of partition? It began with forming the National Council and the Constituent Assembly; the danger lies in the fact that a multitude of choices is being made while everyone is carrying arms. The state became submerged while the militias have taken the lead, but surely democracy can only be established in a state? Can it be established in a country that never experienced traditions of democracy or elections in a long time?

It was possible in Morocco, for example, because the tradition of elections and pluralism was in place throughout. In fact, Moroccan provinces became familiar with pluralism, independence and self-development without continuously relying on the central government. When constitutional reform was applied the foundation was in place, and therefore the suffering was bearable.

Syria’s labour pains, however, continue. Nonetheless, one can predict that Syria will not return to the rule of Assad and the Baath Party. The pains of transition already seem not about widespread differences among political forces, but among the liberated themselves and whether they are willing to accept the Alawite minority once again on an equal footing. And whether this would also apply to the Kurds and Turkmens?

While revolutions and liberties are harrowing, they force states to look at themselves in the mirror and see the ugly truth. What is pleasing, however, is that toppling tyranny eliminates false images and bureaucracies promoting atypical centralised conditions that speak of a different citizenry that is unlike the one everyone actually is familiar with in reality. The worst agony here is to face this reality now and with great courage, otherwise the price will be too high; the pain will be terrible and the cost steep.

Everyone knows that Iraq woke up to the bitter agony of Saddam Hussein’s regime, which is what the people of Syria are now doing. This is also occurred in Sudan and resulted in its partition and the secession of the South, while the dictator remained in power awaiting his fate in the coming Spring.

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