What is Democracy?: The Egyptian Impact

Written by Michael Lewan

Photo by Sosialistisk Ungdom – SU

“Are the peoples of the Middle East somehow beyond the reach of liberty? Are millions of men and women and children condemned by history or culture to live in despotism? Are they alone never to know freedom and never even to have a choice in the matter?” -George W. Bush, November 2003

As millions march in protest of Hosni Murbarak, with demonstrations and revolts occurring simultaneously around Northern Africa and the Middle East, a culture of change seems to be sweeping through the region that has the potential to bring the former president’s “freedom agenda” of democratization to the region. In recent days President Obama and his administration have seemingly followed his predecessor’s vision, albeit with less idealistic rhetoric, calling for an immediate transition towards democracy by encouraging Murbarak and his relatives to vacate their positions of power and to establish a temporary government that will enable Egyptians to have the freedom and the choice come next September’s elections.

Idealistically this sounds promising; finally the grand democratic vision can deliver its hopes, peace and prosperity to the Egyptian who have been denied their liberties. A diplomatic success for the White House and an important steppingstone towards Middle Eastern stability.

Realistically, one should first take pause and consider this fundamental diplomatic question: What does democracy entail? What does it mean?

Now before you laugh and say “I learned about democracy in 3rd grade….and have a poly sci degree!” Really think about defining the concept. It’s not as neatly tangible as some history teachers, politicians and pundits might want us to believe. In fact, one could argue that it is inherently undefinable and at its core unique to each individual or population.

To some democracy might be the ability to speak freely without fear. To some it might be the free access to clean water. And to others it might be the patriotic pageantry of an F16 flyover after the Star-Spangled Banner at the Super Bowl. The State Department’s Democracy Video Challenge might best demonstrate the complexity and diversity of what democracy actually means.

So while it is exciting that the Egyptians might finally have a choice to be free and prosper, let’s not assume that an American “defined” democracy will be established. Rather let’s realize the fact that the Egyptians, like all truly successful democratic regimes, will have to foster their own system of governance and establish their own Egyptian democracy defined by their interests and addressing their concerns. While attempting to quell the violence and chaos, the Obama administration must be prepared for a system that is out of sync with American interests. For as much promise a free election presents, it also opens up the opportunity for the extreme, vocal fringes to overcome the silent majority. Such a scenario would put the Obama diplomatic vision in a perilous, potentially crippling situation.

President Obama and his administration must continue to encourage the Egyptians, and others, to exercise their individual rights and end the crippling violence and protests. But they must remember that if liberty reaches Egypt, it does not guarantee the hopes and promises America might have envisioned.

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