Sunday, June 05, 2005

Western Democracy? Why Not?

Dr. Khaled Batarfi,

When Egyptian judiciary described US President George Bush’s call for international monitoring of Egypt’s referendum on the new presidential law as an outrageous intervention in their country’s internal affairs, I knew better. When governments protest international pressure to democratize and reform, because “reform must come from within” I know better. When state-run media call every criticism of some Arab leaders or governments a Zionist conspiracy, I know better. When some opposition groups and protesters are accused of being “fifth column,” stooges of foreign powers, I know better.
How is it that I always know better? Because I am an Arab citizen who understand something about how leadership works and am conversant with their political vocabulary. I could tell you before any question arise what the response would be ... exactly.
People’s demands are also predictable and simple. They want a say in how they are governed, in decisions affecting their lives, more freedom for the press, more openness and transparency and tighter accounting of public money and resources.
They need explanations, too. Why certain people are leaders for life? Why certain sects and ethnic groups are the chosen ones, even if they are in a minority? Why a great percentage of the population can’t have good education, decent jobs and accommodation, a social security net, or even a proper neighborhood?
Women are almost tired of asking questions about their voting rights, their participation in national affairs, and right to divorce, work, study, travel and trade.
Religious and ethnic minorities in some countries wonder if and when they would be treated as full citizens with equal rights.
They want equal treatment in schools, courts and workplace. They need protection, freedom of expression, and respect. They want to serve their country in the military, political and diplomatic services under the same rules and standards applied to the rest of us. They want to practice their religion, express their culture, speak their language and teach their kids their own history and culture. Why not, they wonder, why not?
On the “other side” (literally) are some governments and leaders who are too used to running people’s lives without anyone complaining or protesting, let alone demanding a part in decision-making and wealth sharing. They are used to reducing parliaments into puppets and playing with fake electoral system.
They get away with theft, corruption and murder. Some leaders put their relatives, friends and allies in every position they fancy, and distribute the nation’s wealth among themselves. They get away with rigging elections, running the media, controlling the religious authority and faking democracy.
Some governments put thousands of people in prison without trial, because they “talk politics.” And those are the lucky ones. Most are tortured, forced to humiliate themselves in public by incriminating themselves, given long terms, and when they leave they are denied work and left to rotten, with their families, in poverty, isolation and shame.
So is it any surprise that such elitist species would hate to have any other kind of real people share power with them, hold them accountable to their actions, and try and judge them if found guilty? Is it surprising that they would resist any international pressure to open up, shape up, and implement real reforms?
That is why I would accept the risk of being called a Western stooge when I agree with Western demands for Arabs to change and improve. No one is telling us how to do it. Arab governments could do it the way they like as long as they adhere to globally agreed standards. We could design the voting system that better suit us. We are free to customize our democracy and write our constitution to fit our culture and special case, as long as the people can accept or reject it in a referendum. And laws and regulations can be written the way we see fit, as long as elected representatives do it.
Then there is the cliché that “democracy is home made.” It is based on the incorrect assumption that the West wants us to apply their version of democracy as it is. Even if that is the case, we could always answer with our own, correct version. The world is changing, History is moving down the road of democracy and human rights. Those who deny and refuse to comply will be overtaken and overwhelmed by the flood, sooner or later, one way or another, by the international community or by their own people. Mark my words.

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