Saturday, October 15, 2005

‘Tribalizing’ Democracy!

Democracy is such a magic word! Politicians love to pretend it, intellectuals to explore it, people to demand it, media to measure it, and a bunch of organizations to watch it. Few, however, really understand what it is and where they stand on it — especially in the Arab world.

Lately, I read many scholarly and news reports about fake democracy in the Arab world. Almost nobody is rejecting democratic reforms these days for fear of looking bad before world public opinion. More importantly, it is politically dangerous to do so, since Uncle Sam may put you on his list of “failed regimes.” Depending on how much oil or terrorism you may have, or how inconvenient you are to Israeli and US interests (in this order), you could be erased, modified or seriously talked to.

Most governments either pretend to be more democratic than America, on their way to be, or don’t need to. When put under pressure and scrutiny to hurry reform measures and be more transparent about them, they play the “injured dignity,” you-hurt-my-feeling card. (How dare you instruct ancient civilizations on governing art?)

Others lecture you on how democracy must be homegrown, not imported, fit-for-all takeaway; and how we need time to grow our own. That “time break” means ages. By the time we reach there, they won’t be there, you won’t be there, or you won’t be interested anymore — an effective stalling technique.

The funny ones try to sell you the claim that we already have democracy. Look how the people adore their rulers, they say. Note how our leaders come from humble origins, visit with the roots and interact with the common man. People and destiny have chosen them. This is ultimate democracy.

The frustrating ones are smarter. They play the game as it should be played. “You wanna democracy? No problema! We give you one.” Then they give you a big show. Constitutions get changed, candidates run, media criticize, analyze and cover events, and the whole country party-celebrate! It is Elections Time! But the whole game is designed to re-elect the same aging rulers and preserve the same oldie regimes. The only difference is: It is now legitimate illegitimacy. Go figure.

One of those fakers gave me a lecture the other day. He went on and on about the history of democracy and its “rotten” application today. “Did you know that the original Athenian concept was democracy for free men only, as was the case in the first American version? Women, slaves and the poor were excluded,” he argued. “Western democracy is custom-made for the white man. The West is based on individualistic system, we are based on consensus. With tribal societies, like ours, we already have our own version of democracy. Leaders are ‘accepted’ by the people, and led by consensus. They have their ways of seeking, building and enforcing such consensus. At the end of the day, the whole nation — not just those who voted ‘yes’ — is on board in any project.”

I say to him and to all those like him, if you are so sure about what your people want, let them say so. Put in the scientifically proven mechanisms to measure their sentiments. Give every runner an equal chance and provide a level-playing ground. Allow the media to play its role as the people watchdog. Let all vote for whoever wishes to run and let the world scrutinize the vote and see that you won fair and square.

Once empowered with such mandate, you can implement your agenda with powerful authorization and public support. The civilized world may disagree, but they would have to respect the people’s choice.

Does this sound science fiction or foreign play? That is because nobody reads history.

History showed that only those who win people’s hearts by democratic means stay in power or leave peacefully. Democratic systems develop in time. Autocratic regimes do not evolve peacefully; they come with a revolution ... and end with one.

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