The crowds screaming for the downfall of dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, etc. all shout out the same magical mantra: We want Democracy.
And the United States has been pushing — since the time of John F. Kennedy and before — to support similar aspirations for democracy — in Western Europe and Japan after World War II; in the failed but well-intentioned efforts to block communism from South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos; in foreign aid to the former Socialist bloc after the collapse of communism; and in scores of Third World (Developing) countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Some of our democracy aid has worked well but some has failed.
In the Ukraine after 2000, U.S. aid programs brought Ukrainian journalists, judges, and young civil society leaders to visit America’s imperfect but still growing democracy or receive training at home. Then, when the old communist rulers tried to steal an election, independent pollsters named the real winner. TV journalists reported on the fraud, the Supreme Court declared the election invalid and thousands came to shiver in democracy protests in the Orange Revolution.
But U.S. democracy aid to Egypt has for years failed to put a dent in the authoritarian rule of the ruling National Democratic Party and its chief, Hosni Mubarak. Democracy aid to many African countries has also failed to change the way things are run — the corruption, the authoritarian rule, the managed press.
But when you say that the local culture may determine the success or failure of democracy aid, then you risk being called a racist. Isn’t democracy for everyone?
Maybe not. And maybe democracy will take a different character in different countries.
Thailand is a peaceful, freedom-loving, easy-going country but if you question the monarchy or its control over vast wealth, you risk prosecution. And even a relatively free press in other issues did not prevent the military coup of 2006 and the populist riots by poor country people against the urban wealthy.
Now while Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh all struggle to create some form of democracy, no one today would say they have achieved an end to corruption, created equal opportunity for minorities and disadvantaged groups or installed governments that aim to create the maximum benefits to the maximum number of their citizens.
One has to also recognize that few countries in Africa have escaped from authoritarian and corrupt rule. Latin America made a big leap from decades of rule by the caudillos to elected governments in the 1990s. But with little real change in the non-egalitarian economic system, new, leftist caudillos such as Hugo Chavez have seized power.
So when I see the uprisings in the Middle East, I wonder if they all mean the same thing by democracy as we do in America and Europe. Many protestors do, as they have been to that magic mountain and studied in Paris or London or America. They’ve seen ordinary people deciding in the ballot box the future of their countries. They have seen cops and prosecutors and judges hold more power than presidents such as Richard Nixon and Jacques Chirac of France who were prosecuted by the independent justice systems of their countries.
When I taught seminars for journalists in Senegal some years ago, one young reporter told me: “Of course you can criticize government policies in America. But you cannot actually call the president a liar in the newspaper, can you?.”
I then told them that every U.S. president has been called a liar in the press going back to the founding of the country. If that reporter is still working at his craft he could see in the American press that people question today whether President Barack Obama was born in Hawaii as he claims or in Kenya or elsewhere.
Somehow I find it hard to believe that in the Middle East, where direct face-to-face confrontation is avoided as it rapidly escalates into violence, reporters and political leaders of tomorrow will be able to call each other liars and get away with it. Now insults are not what democracy is made of. But a democracy that punishes people for insults is not worth the paper its constitution is printed on.
What we need to do if we want the Middle East to move towards democracy that is more than a slogan is to work with the existing (surviving) military and economic elites, as well as with the young activists, to pass on the practical tips that move a democratic ideal into the messy realm of the street.
The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups already know how to enforce rigid control over their members, to simplify all political choices — such as the recent vote in Egypt on constitutional amendments — into a demand that you “vote for Islam.” These Brotherhood ward captains do not value the core democratic principle of independent thought. And if they win power they will likely be sure that no one ever again questions Islam — as they see Islam. The blasphemy laws of Pakistan could spread across the Middle East if they win power.
So U.S. support for democracy means more training for: journalists, editors, publishers, teachers, civil society, judges, police, non-government organizations, and mid-level political and administrative leaders.
We are rolling a great stone uphill and there is no certainty that it will ever overcome the gravitational pull of the history, the culture and the greedy seeking to retain control over policy, wealth and power.
But so long as we do not pull back and keep offering in all humility a roadmap to the democracy developed over 800 years in Europe and America, then this grand experiment may succeed.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Ben Barber has written about the developing world since 1980 for Newsday, the London Observer, the Christian Science Monitor, Salon.com, Foreign Affairs, the Washington Times and USA TODAY. From 2003 to August, 2010, he was senior writer at the U.S. foreign aid agency. His photojournalism book — GROUNDTRUTH: The Third World at Work at play and at war — is to be published in 2011 by de-MO.org. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.