Is democracy a means or an end? We have to decide, writes Galal Nassar
Has 9/11 sounded the death knell for democracy just as the end of the Cold War was supposed to herald the end of history? Six years ago the Bush administration announced an ambitious plan to spread democracy as part of its anti-terror campaign. Now this commitment to spreading democracy is all but forgotten. Sectarian violence has escalated in Iraq, threatening to undermine the fabric of the state. The "elected" government in Afghanistan is struggling to survive. And when the Palestinians had a shot at democracy they ended up with Hamas in power.
The quest for democratisation in the Middle East has produced the exact opposite of what the Americans wanted. No wonder that some people are giving up on democracy and keep harping about the trade-off between democracy and stability. Things like freedom and dignity seldom enter their calculations.
We need to consider whether democracy is a strategy or a tactic. If democracy is a strategy, then we have to pursue it and live with the consequences. If it is a tactic, something that we need in order to fight terror, for example, then we should think again. Democracy is either expedient and incidental or accumulative and long-term. It cannot be both. And let us not forget that democracy is inextricably linked with civil rights in general. There is an inherent contradiction between democracy on the one hand and corruption and the lack of accountability on the other.
Is democracy a means to an end or an end in itself? Democracy seems to me to be a continual process. Whether it is Afghanistan, Iraq or Ukraine that we are talking about, we have to look beyond immediate measures. We have to think of what the future holds and whether what we are doing will lead to freedom, prosperity and equality.
Then there is the question of capacity building. For democracy to flourish awareness must exist. Habits must be developed. Democracy cannot be imported, nor can it take root overnight. It has to answer crucial and urgent needs that society as a whole endorses. Unless the urge for democratisation is there, obstacles -- domestic and foreign -- will keep cropping up. It is naïve to think that democracy will emerge simply because elections are held or a new constitution is written. No amount of constitutional guarantees will safeguard democracy. You can talk about freedom of expression and pluralism all you want but until the nation is ready democracy will remain a distant dream.
Democracy cannot co-exist with political sectarianism. It cannot thrive when security is lacking, when the state is on the defensive or when militiamen are toting guns in the streets. Democracy needs a civil state, modernity, education, women's rights, minority rights, freedom of expression and belief, and the freedom to establish parties and syndicates. Terror and fundamentalism -- whether Islamic, Christian, or Jewish -- are the antithesis of democracy.
Following 9/11, the Bush administration promised to expand the boundaries of freedom and spread democracy across the world. What happened was completely different. The US tried its hand at global domination and Western countries acted as if freedom and civil rights were things of the past. Arabs and Muslims became particularly vulnerable to discrimination and persecution. Hundreds of them were provoked, detained and deported without due recourse to the law. Several Middle East governments saw this as a chance to step up repression, all in the name of fighting terror.
Following the collapse of totalitarian regimes in East Europe, a new crop of elected leaders emerged. This was definitely a step in the right direction. But democracy requires more time and effort. Democracy is not the political equivalent of a market economy. It is a historical process involving cultural and institutional variables. It is an accumulative process involving the peaceful rotation of power, sovereignty of the law, accountability for senior officials, the integration of minorities and respect for the opinions of others.
Democracy doesn't emerge through a change of regime but through altering the nature of the state. So we have to distinguish between democracy as a set of principles and democracy as a set of measures -- the latter can change from one country to another. Democracy can only evolve to the extent to which society evolves.
Democracy may seem a game of numbers but we must not forget that it is the individual who is the building block of democracy. The state has to be committed to protecting the individual. This is why peace and stability are democratic prerequisites.
The attacks of 9/11 put democracy to the test, even in a country with as great a democratic tradition as the US. The tragic attacks, which violated every single norm of morality and religion, shook long standing practices of freedom, brought the whole legacy of human rights into question and put democracy on the defensive.
Following 9/11, the US took measures that bordered on a state of siege. It then went to war on the pretext of fighting terror. UN Security Council 1373, passed on 28 September 2001, was a blow to justice for it undermined the right of individuals to a fair trial. From then on things got worse. President Bush took a decision to hold secret military trials with no right of appeal. US legal experts rightly considered the move a breach of domestic and international law. The rest is history. From Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib and beyond, to the undisclosed number of secret detention centres across the world, democracy was the victim.
Some even claim the Bush administration has staged a coup against the US constitution, and Professor Francis Anthony Boyle, from the University of Illinois, points out that the powers the US president has assumed are in breach of the 1949 Geneva Conventions.
In Egypt and the rest of the Arab world democratisation is still touch and go. We are talking here about countries that do not enjoy the democratic legacy of the US or its traditions of freedom. No wonder then that 9/11, which shook the roots of democracy in the US, has had such a devastating effect in this region.
Where are we heading now? Is 9/11 going to go down in history as the event that ended democracy, or will we be able to pick up the pieces?