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April 14, 2011

Egypt: Tahrir Square style of democracy

Dr. Mohammed Shokr

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After the terrorist attacks hit the U.S. on September 11, 2001, the U.S. administration discovered the need to introduce democracy to the Arab world.

They thought it would be a better alternative to what the radicals were offering.  However, their approach did not lead to any genuine democratic transformation.  It failed because it was rather subtle, indirect and based on wrong assumptions.

While democracy is the ultimate form for engaging people, the U.S. decided not to engage with the Arab population on this question and, instead, limit their dealings to be with their favourite corrupt rulers. 

They advised them to encourage political opening in their societies and give space for some democratic mobilization yet with careful calculations to ensure that democracy will not bring major deviation from what the U.S. dictates.

This subtle approach, which ignores the people’s aspiration, was based on an ill assumption: Arabs are not democratic by nature or at least they are not ready for democracy.

This assumption was laid by renowned scholars.  In an interview published in The Jerusalem Post, February 25, 2011, the historian Bernard Lewis said that Arabs want democracy but the concept has no roots in their world.  Therefore, they are not ready for free and fair elections.

Supported by this and similar assumptions about Islam’s incompetence for democracy, a group of neo conservative advisors to the Bush administration (Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and the like) managed to construct the U.S. policy towards the Arab world.  It featured wars, occupation, and resources exploitation; all wrapped in sweet promises of introducing democracy with administered doses to suit the “lagging” Arab societies.

Then the Arab revolutions erupted, revealing aspirations that have challenged those assumptions.

I witnessed the gathering of the millions of Egyptians in Tahrir Square in Cairo, demanding the ousting of their dictator (Mr. Mubarak) then celebrating their victory and proceeding with more demands for democratic reform.  The demonstrators expressed their aspiration for freedom, human dignity and social justice.  They proved that Arabs are no different than the rest of the world in that sense.

While it is too early to confirm that this aspiration will lead to free and fair elections, the scene of the revolution in Tahrir Square has provided us with new facts that challenge existing assumptions about Arabs.

First: Egyptians from every walk of life gathered in Tahrir Square; men and women, young and elders, religious and non-religious, rich and poor and educated and less-educated.  They all shouted with one voice demanding freedom, which is the complementary side for democracy.  Egyptians could not exercise democracy by casting their votes in flawed elections but their collective demand for freedom in Tahrir Square was a statement of their longing for democracy.

  1. Democracy was absent simply because of the gross oppression of the political regime.   

This should have another bearing on any future approach of dealing with Arabs.  Money, provided through a variety of funding programs, will not be the prime incentive to restore their love for Uncle Sam.  Respect and persuasion of justice will have more impact.

Fourthly: Egyptians have certainly shed the fear of the security apparatus of the outgoing police state.  They turned out to protest in the streets with huge numbers, defying the widespread brutal “security” forces that killed them with guns and crushed them with trucks.  The most modern equipment and techniques to combat demonstrators did not scare or prevent them from continuing their struggle.  So, the lesson for whoever wants to help is now clear: it is better to support a platform for freedom than provide apparatus to combat seekers of freedom.

Finally, aside from those need-to-be-revised assumptions, the “Tahrir Square style” of democracy signifies another issue that must be taken into consideration.

The former U.S. Secretary of State, Madeline Albright, once commented on the initiative of Bush administration towards democracy in the Arab Middle East by saying "if we push too hard, we may add to the perception that we are trying to impose our will. If we fail to push hard enough, we may contribute to the view that America supports freedom for everyone except Arabs."

Tahrir Square tells something different: no need for complicated calculations.  When people make their own future they push as hard as they can and they do not care about the perception of the outsiders.  The outsiders have to adjust their perception to the achievement of the people, not the other way around.

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