Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1268, (29 October - 4 November 2015)
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1268, (29 October - 4 November 2015)

Ahram Weekly

The Hillary hearings

Democracy is not only about voting, but also information — something, relative to government, that Arab nations largely lack, writes Abdel-Moneim Said


Al-Ahram Weekly

Churchill’s famous dictum, “Democracy is the worst system of government, except for all the others,” reflects such flaws as division, possible “tyranny of the majority”, public pressure in favour of irrational and emotively laden options, and occasional standoffs between diverse interest groups that can lead to paralysis.

The saying also reflects the dynamism of democratic systems, the degree of available freedom that is conducive to innovation and invention and, more importantly, the power of accountability. Accountability in democracies takes many forms: voting in various elections, political accountability through the organs of public opinion and the people’s elected representatives, and even criminal accountability that could lead to prison.

A large network of education and training is needed in order to strike a balance between the abovementioned flaws and virtues. It is a process that begins at an early age and that places heavy emphasis on the systems and practices of local government in the municipalities, counties and states, and simultaneously inculcates an awareness of laws and constitutions, what they permit and prohibit, and provide for.

The educational process is ongoing and assumes many forms. During my time in the US, I was struck by the fact that the textbook of government is, to a large extent, open-ended. Not only is there a constant stream of memorandums and articles that continually examine and re-examine every decision taken by the state.

There are the plethora of films, plays and television series and other programmes that continually explain the law and how the law works, the legislature and how the legislative process works, and lobbies and how rival interests interact.

The drama, sensationalism and general negativity of “House of Cards” aside, the television serial is very instructive on how a large and complex institution such as the White House works when dealing with crises at home and abroad.

A more recent TV series to come to my attention is “Madam Secretary.” Its plot and dramatic elements aside, the programme essentially brings viewers closer to the American foreign policy management process in the face of wars, conflicts and crises and the drive to expand the US’s realm of influence or defend its interests.

Most of its episodes revolve, in one way or another, around the experiences of Hillary Clinton and, perhaps, Condoleezza Rice in dealing with a world in turmoil when they served as secretaries of state. At another important level, the serial drives home the fact that a woman can perform jobs that were historically monopolised by men and for which it was once commonly believed that women were unsuited.

Democracy is a constantly unfolding process in which boundaries are transcended and ancient barriers, be they ethnic, religious, racist or sexist, are tossed onto history’s garbage heap. Suddenly, however, the barrier between imagination and reality seems to have dropped by the wayside, revealing a profound link between the two.

The “fictional” protagonist of “Madam Secretary” has become a nominee for the American presidency and the US, as a whole, now faces the test as to whether it can cross the gender barrier to that country’s highest office, after having crossed the colour barrier with the election of President Barack Obama.

Nevertheless, the test and the desire to pass it do not exempt Hillary Clinton from the need to demonstrate that she merits the post. After all, the principle of merit lies at the very heart of the democratic concept. If that meshes with the elimination of barriers associated with historical or social circumstances, so much the better.

In this framework, Hillary Clinton is the subject of an ongoing trial, or tough accountability process, in accordance with democratic traditions. She clearly has some major qualifications as a practiced lawyer, a first lady for eight years, a two-term senator from New York and secretary of state for four years. But the presidency requires other, tougher and stronger, qualifications, in view of the extra heavy burdens that come with that office.

Currently, Clinton faces two types of trial. One is as a presidential nominee. As the front-runner in public opinion polls on the Democratic candidate side, she is coming under particularly intense scrutiny from her rivals in the Democratic primaries and from Republican hopefuls and their supporters.

They have their sights set on the electoral battle that will begin next summer, after the Republican primaries produce their candidate. All are probing her for weaknesses, flaws or a scandal to expose and call her to account. The second test is that her whole career is being laid out for public viewing, whether with respect to how she managed her emails or how she failed to handle foreign affairs crises when she served as secretary of state.

On Thursday, 22 October, I stood amazed at a phenomenon the likes of which has never occurred in our countries, but nor has it ever occurred in other democratic countries. I refer to the trial of Hillary Clinton over her role, when she served as secretary of state, in events surrounding the killing of US Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three of his colleagues in a terrorist attack by the Ansar Al-Sharia group on 11 September 2012.

The incident has been investigated before by the State Department and other relevant agencies. It had also been the subject of hearings by a joint congressional committee. All the investigations exculpated the then-secretary of state and laid on two State Department employees.

Even so, the Republican-dominated House of Representatives decided to form a special committee to reopen the case of the terrorist assault on the US Consulate in Benghazi. That committee organised a grand hearing to which it summoned the former secretary of state to grill her on events that took place three years ago.

For 11 hours, Hillary Clinton related the smallest details of those events, explained her actions and generally defended her ability to take the right decisions. The whole story, or most of it, was on full public display. Undoubtedly, the hearing was not all about the search for “the truth.” The political motives were obvious.

Nevertheless, each side was well prepared and equipped with facts and information, analyses, charts and “infographics”. The American public was being given an intensive course on decision-making processes. At the same time, it was demanding that public officials meet the highest possible standards for posts in which they are required to make very tough decisions under enormous psychological strain and intense pressure.

In our countries, no one is aware of the responsibilities of ministers or even the president, or of the strains they endure when faced with dilemmas and the need to make difficult choices. Such matters are always regarded as state secrets or questions of national security.

Curiously, during the so-called Arab Spring the trials of Arab officials never sought to bring them to account for decisions they had taken. It was all about whether or not they were corrupt. In the Egyptian case, after all the trials and terms in prison, apart from a single exception, none of the defendants was found guilty of the charges brought against him.

But those charges never concerned a decision, a policy or a position that had bad consequences. No one was prosecuted for actions that caused national setbacks, defeats or loss of status. There was not even a search for those responsible for the people who died or were killed. This is part of what is known as the “democratic deficiency” in our countries. Perhaps one day not so far off we will fill that gap.

The writer is chairman of the board, CEO, and director of the Regionaln Centre for Strategic Studies.

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