Egypt: Democracy =/= Voting for People

The other night I watched Newsnight. The topic was Egypt in the broader context of democracy in the Middle East. Paxman opened by saying “The first democratically elected government in the largest state in the Middle East has been shouldered aside by the army”.

The following discussion was uninformed, selective, patronising and racist. Paxman launched the discussion into whether middle eastern countries were “fit for democracy.” Before that they had an analyst called Mark Urban. It was creepy to watch such overt rationalisation of explicit imperialism into terms divorced of any remorse or even acknowledgement of reality. They talked about the Arab Spring being “encouraged by the West”. They talked about our interaction with the Middle East only in terms of “supporting democracy”. Urban gave his analysis of many states in the region after being asked “why has the Arab Spring gone so badly wrong do you think?” He opened by referencing “legitimacy” and that “elections only seem to play an incidental role”.

“What are the options for the West?” [2], Paxman wondered. Urban talked about the “journeys [western countries] have been on”. Journeys? From where to where, exactly? They talked about the invasion of Iraq, and implicitly about other similar actions, as attempts to “install model democracies”. “They went into Iraq, after having done so for all sorts of reasons…”, a polite way of externalising atrocities and tyranny as if it’s unbecoming or unsophisticated to talk about such things, not where the real analysis lies. He explained that the attempts to “install a model democracy in the heart of the middle east” allowed “political amateurs” and “sectarians” to extend their power. As if to say our heart was in the right place… if anything we were too kind. He talked about American pressure to hold elections in Lebanon, though all the examples of America resisting elections, or turning on democratically formed governments, like Hamas, when it suits them, were ignored skillfully.  Paxman said “it’s possible that these countries simply aren’t suitable for democracy.” Later he even posed that question (actually he phrased it with the words “fit for democracy”instead,  if I remember correctly) to an Egyptian woman. I was hoping she would take offense and just storm off, but she was too calm.

There is a myth about the nature of people. A myth that even well educated people buy into. Even those that understand that humans are all almost identical, many believe that for some reason that there is a group of human apes in the West that are all capable of forming peaceful civilise states, that there is a group of human apes in the Middle East that can’t form civilised states unless we periodically bomb and murder them, that there is a group of human apes in Eastern Asia that can’t form peaceful and civilised societies unless we give them iPods to build and trainers to sow, that there is a group of human apes in Sub-Saharan Africa that can’t form peaceful societies unless we run them for them. This view is quantitatively no different to the type of racism that was acceptable not long ago, just dressed in fancier language. This is the type of racism I sensed in the Newsnight programme. On top of that all this sits in an overarching feeling of patronizing self privileged. That the affairs of the Middle East are, by the very definition nature, ours to interfere with and second guess and judge. Ours to worry about. That they have to be considered only in the duality of our self interests and the delusion of our own faultless over-benevolence.

I have since seen many articles online about how what’s happening in Egypt is a failure of democracy.  This article argues that the Arab Spring was never about democracy and that westerners are deluded to think so. You can only laugh at the irony: “Those who thronged Tahrir Square [in Cairo] in 2011 were not after democracy but a government that would be accountable and get things done” [1]. People getting together in tens or hundreds of thousands, even millions, to effect a change in the government sounds like a perfect example of democracy to me.

This all seems to show exactly how much our idea of democracy has been warped. Put simply, democracy is not voting for things. It isn’t running an election every few years to choose someone to run the country. In a real democracy people don’t choose people, they choose policies. In a real democracy politicians are just project managers hired to implement agreed-upon policies. In a real democracy there is a concept of recall: he moment an official deviates from the agreed policies they should me instantly removed from power.

When Morsi came to power he immediately deviated radically from democratic principals in order to secure and extend his powers as a dictator. He even did the same to give powers to the military (that is the military that may well be staging an opportunistic power grab). This is all public knowledge.

I think that far from this being a failure of democracy that we should pass judgement on. We should be taking notes.

[1] Apparently this writer’s readership is informed enough to have an opinion about the spread of democracy in the Middle East that is to be corrected but uninformed enough to need to be told where Tahrir Square is.

[2] Apparently ‘the West’ is one big united and happy family when we talk about the Middle East.


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