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When Democracy Gets Messy


When Democracy Gets Messy

The Arab Spring and its aftermath show the complications of building a free society



Freedom. One word suggesting a more just, humane society. Freedom lets us pick our religion, friends, and political leaders without fear of retribution. Freedom allows us to move within and across national borders and to express ourselves freely. Freedom is largely considered the cornerstone for building a successful democratic nation-state.

Today, the question of “freedom” is ever more relevant and multifaceted when seeking to understand the pro-democracy movements in North Africa, a place where I have nurtured a longtime research interest.

My big question: Is democracy the panacea for peoples in this region, whose citizens have been living under autocratic rule for so many years? Or more simply: Does democracy lead to a better situation?

Consider the present situation in Tunisia and Egypt, the cradles of the Arab Spring. In early 2011, citizens bravely confronted and ousted their dictators — Tunisian President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali in January and Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak just one month later.

Such events surprised longtime elder activists, who had come to accept that such change would never happen during their lifetime. The spontaneous uprisings had no particular leader or specific agenda. Nonetheless, a contagious democratic fervor rapidly spread across cities and borders, fueled by discontented youth who mobilized their outrage through a skillful use of social media. Hoping for better economic and social conditions amid repressive rule, and passionately connected through technology, these “accidental” revolutionaries became the unexpected catalyst for democratic change.

Today, the euphoria of the Arab Spring is giving way to uncertainty. Unity has been replaced by heated political discourse, violence, and a weakening commitment to equal participation for all citizens. This situation may continue for months and perhaps years to come.

One reason is religious extremism, such as that practiced by the Salafi factions in Egypt. For many Arab Spring participants, the leaders of this impassioned religiosity threaten to hijack the democratic ideals that had underpinned the “Revolution for Dignity and Freedom.” Their zealotry repels longtime secularists. Women’s-rights activists view their social conservatism as a threat to women’s equality. The more moderate-leaning Islamists appear caught in the middle, criticized for being too slow to condemn any kind of violence in word or deed, thereby perpetuating the extremists’ agenda and undermining chances for democratic reforms.

So has democracy failed before it actually took off? Not really. Tunisia successfully held national elections in October 2011, and in January 2012 Egyptians elected a Constituent Assembly, both charged with writing new constitutions. To be sure, certain citizen groups were disappointed and surprised by the results that gave the religiously based parties, Ennahdha and the Muslim Brotherhood, the majority. But the fact remains that free and democratic elections took place, and Tunisians and Egyptians voted for their leader for first time in more than 50 years.

As outsiders and citizens of the free world, we can be tempted to interpret this ongoing situation as a shunning of democracy. But are we too quick to judge?

The road to democracy is not the same for all countries; culture and values are interwoven throughout the process, which also takes into account the socio-economic and regional political conditions. We only need to look at countries in South America and the former Eastern Bloc to see how complicated the road to democracy can be.

As a result, how and when democracy flourishes can vary. Sure, I am fearful Tunisians and Egyptians, who have broken the yoke of dictatorship, may find themselves thrust back into greater repression. But does that mean that democracy has failed? Or, are the factors of culture, time, and lack of leadership at the moment of transition, more powerful determinants?

Democracy can innately be a messy business. It tries to manage diverse views from opposing groups. It can require long periods of self-reflection that follow spasms of disruptive and destructive acts. We see that now in Egypt. Following Interim President Morsi’s declaration of near-dictatorial powers for himself, citizens groups—the young revolutionaries and the old-guard Mubarak supporters — joined forces to deny him, demonstrating that these unlikely comrades in action can join forces for the greater good of the nation.

I cannot be certain that Tunisia or Egypt will end up in a better place any time soon. The brutal silencing of religious extremists under Ben Ali and Mubarak has served to strengthen the extremists’ resolve. They are tough and resolute. Their skill in influencing the national agenda and affecting proposals in the new constituent assemblies are extremely worrisome.

But I am counting on the will and fortitude of those young citizens who were at the forefront of the Arab Spring. Their immediate and uninterrupted connection to the “free” world and each other through social media will fuel their determination to enjoy true freedom, however long it takes.

For live news from Tunisia and Egypt in English:

Jane D. Tchaïcha is associate professor and chair of the Modern Languages Department at Bentley University. 


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