The democracy-autocracy contest

Abdel-Moneim Said
Tuesday 7 Dec 2021

Abdel-Moneim Said comments on the Biden administration’s latest initiative

The two-day Summit for Democracy that President Joe Biden is hosting on 9-10 December – set to launch a new global race between democracy and authoritarianism – depends on a purely American categorisation. The world can not really be divided in such a black-and-white manner, for no country has a pure form of either system. What exists is considerable diversity across a spectrum between two imaginary points, and where a given country falls on that spectrum depends on a range of factors, from historical and political circumstances to the elites that chose the system of government commensurate to their qualifications and capacities. 

One is struck by the occurrence of this summit after frequent acknowledgements of the “end of ideology,” which is to say that the world has become far too complex a place for an idea system based on a world view that claims to have all the answers about the world and how to run it. That the relationship between technology and government has changed so much in recent years best illustrates this point. One of the main topics of interest that arose at the beginning of this century was how modern technologies and social media “empowered” people. Opinion pundits rejoiced at how every citizen is now in a position to express their views on public affairs. People no longer had to rely for their information on state media that disseminated a single point of view on everything. When the Arab Spring uprisings occurred, they were quickly hailed as “democratic” revolutions born of Facebook, where the masses went to drink from the font of diversity, plurality, tolerance and peacefulness. Then all that went awry when the fascist Muslim Brotherhood took over and civil warfare erupted. Yet amazingly, this did not trigger a reassessment of what happened. No attention was paid to the fact that, instead of turning to the ballot box, the revolutionary groups staked their turf in the political streets, held their ground there for a while as factions with no political programme of note, and then were largely heard of no more.

Later when the opposite occurred and, instead of angry masses, individuals of notoriety such as US president Trump began his infatuation with Twitter, the thinking shifted. Now modern technology had become an asset in the hands of authoritarian leaders who were elected by dint of their populist manipulation of social media with its capacity to reach millions in no time. Trump was only one example cited. Others were Brexit and the elections in Hungary, Poland, India, Ukraine, Brazil and dozens of other countries. Technological advances gave new scope to populist phenomena that applied fascist, racist and sometimes sectarian practices, as was the case in Egypt, Gaza, Tunisia and other Islamic countries where the Muslim Brotherhood prevailed for a while.

In 2020, the integrity of the American elections were questioned for the first time, after which there were unprecedented doubts that the president who lost in November 2020 would leave the White House peacefully. For the first time in the US, armed groups also stormed and occupied the Capitol Building while groups on the other side called for the police to be defunded. Meanwhile, in Tunisia, Iraq and other countries, the question of the sustainability of the state acquired urgency  because of the difficulties in forming a government or the rapidity with which parliament would withdraw its confidence if one was formed. In Israel, it took four elections in order to produce a government based on a power sharing formula, a battle not yet over.

Think tanks that once celebrated the role of technology in supporting the emergence of democratic states have come to identify technology as a cause of the decline in the number of democratic states. They have therefore changed the orientation of their studies with an eye to reversing the trend. This is the backdrop to the Democracy Summit intended to launch a new contest. Otherwise the event would have been shaped by a framework based on region, principles or some other sort of shared interest. Instead, we have a conference about an ideology that attempts to fuse a vague notion of liberalism (as defined by such general qualities as equality, tolerance and justice) with democratic procedures such as the rotation of authority based on the principle of majority rule. What is missing in the equation is, firstly, the principles of efficacy and the ability to compete successfully in the economic and social marketplace and, secondly, a degree of equilibrium in the social and ethnic bases of a governing system so as to ensure that majority rule does not turn into the tyranny of the majority. 

Such equilibrium does not exist in most countries in the world. Most have inherited social, political and demographic imbalances which often meant they required other means in order to attain progress. The solution may have been an individual leader, a political party, an armed forces or an alluring national goal espoused by an influential and enlightened vanguard. The eastern and southeastern Asia developmental experiences offer many different instances of national coalitions or projects for change that rested on broad-based political support. Often technocratic structures rather than political ones provided the necessary impetus for change, not from party to party but from a state of underdevelopment to one of progress. Indeed, when some countries in that region transitioned to democracy they kept the same political alliances or backing that brought the national project to fruition. 

The Democracy Summit clearly has the purpose of creating an ideological instrument to be wielded against China, one that will turn Beijing into a pariah among a large portion of the world community. This attempt to impose a moral blockade ignores the fact that China offers an alternative to the Western model for development which is currently facing more challenges from within democratic countries than from abroad. Branding Beijing as authoritarian, autocratic or dictatorial cannot explain the progress that has brought it to superpower status. A mere name does not change the fact that, in a country of over 1.4 billion people who live in an area the size of the US and divided into 33 autonomous regions and thousands of autonomously governed cities, it is impossible to mobilise resources on the scale that China has through an authoritarian system. At the same time, China does not push the same type of ideologic brew as the US. China no longer depends on the United States to combat terrorism in Afghanistan. It is now working with Pakistan, Russia and Iran in order to keep Afghanistan from being a host country for terrorism. Beyond that, the shape of government in Kabul is of little importance to Beijing. China is not interested in spreading democracy to Afghanistan. Nation-building continues to be its strategic goal, and its global movement is development oriented, especially along the routes of the Belt and Road.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

Short link: