Pondering Democracy

One of the most astonishing phenomena of recent history is the rapidity with which former communist countries forsook communism to flock to democracy.  If success can be measured by popularity, democracy has been the most successful. According to Freedom House, 118 out of 195 countries are electoral democracies–the highest percentage since 1989[i]. From Africa to Asia to Latin America and beyond, the clamor for democracy is the raging, roaring cry of our time and there is hardly any country where this cry is not heard.   The democracy craze has clearly waned as the new century dawned and there have been some reversals but overall, democracy continues to be the dominant theme in today’s geo-political discourse.

Why is the world gravitating toward democracy?  Is this another fad that will thrust its hour upon the stage to be heard no more as Shakespeare would put it or is this man’s final destiny or “end of history” as Fukuyama[ii] posited? Is liberal democracy basking in glory in its historical niche waiting for the fascination to wear off or for previously undetected deficiencies to be uncovered as was the fate of communism or are we dealing here with something more durable and long-lasting? What is all the fuss about democracy anyway?  Why is it necessary? 

There are two overarching concepts I believe that make democracy a worthy goal and a recurring motif in human history.First is the concept of equality.Second is the fact of human diversity.Belief that all humans are inherently equal necessitates a corresponding belief that they should have equal rights (not in absolute terms but in terms of opportunity). And if we believe that all humans deserve equal rights and opportunities, the question then devolves to: what is the most equitable way of managing those differences or conflicting interests? 

At the most fundamental level, there are only two ways of resolving conflicts: consensual and non-consensual.The first is what democracies are all about; the second defines dictatorship.Nothing is cast in stone of course and problems abound even in democracies as we shall see but it can nonetheless be asserted that the democratic model is the most consensual form of governance to date. 

Democracy seeks to arrive at such equilibrium via a number of intertwined supporting structures, institutions, processes, checks, and balances.A satisfied public is then expected to work for the common good leading to prosperity and peace for the nation at large.In theory, all this is simple and straightforward; in practice, it can be a much laborious (sometimes nightmarish) process of seemingly endless negotiations and compromises. 

Many therefore prefer to duke it out.Let the strongest prevail or in the language of Darwinism, let the fittest survive!It is within such frame of thinking that dictatorships are minted or born. In contrast to democracies that must painstakingly trudge through a series of drawn-out debates hoping for negotiated handshakes at the end, dictators go for knockouts from the outset.In terms of effectiveness and speed of conflict resolution, dictatorships often outstrip democracies; and the stronger the dictatorship, the faster the resolution.Blood will flow; innocents will die but conflicts will end decisively and quickly (for the time being).   

For obvious reasons, the powerful prefer such a method of handling disagreements. Throughout human history therefore many conflicts were resolved in precisely such manner and still are in many places including in our country but in recent times, the most dramatic example has been that of Egypt. 

== Note: I will sidetrack here a little from the general topic to consider in some detail the specific case of Egypt because of its proximity to Eritrea and its contemporary relevance as an ongoing drama that is still unfolding.  

Egyptian revolution was a victim of multifarious conspiracies and betrayals in my view. Despite the theatrics, it was never for once fully in the hands of the Egyptian people.  Throughout the uprising, two major entities were pulling the strings: The military with both feet firmly on Egyptian soil and the US remotely.[iii] The US clearly favored the military.  That is why it wouldn’t even call it a coup for example and even went to the bizarre extent of asserting (through Kerry) that the military junta was restoring democracy! It is therefore likely that the US gave a green light to the Egyptian military and the latter performed its part very well cleverly exploiting the schism between the secularists and Islamists and played them both; at first appearing to befriend the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and later its opponents but in the end betraying them both!

So, what lessons can we draw from Egypt’s aborted democracy?The first lesson we can draw I think is to never fully trust the military. The Egyptian case revealed how vulnerable a nascent democracy can be when it squares off against a powerful and entrenched military juggernaut.Kissinger once observed that power is the ultimate aphrodisiac. It is doubly so in the hands of the military. Though having the military on one’s side is always desirable and should even be sought, political power should never be in its hands (even temporarily!)

The second lesson we draw is the importance of patience and a spirit of tolerance.As we saw in Egypt, excessive hatred for MB led opponents to condone a brutal military coup and to callously cheer while unarmed citizens including women and children were being slaughtered in broad daylight.Democracy was killed and a new dictator is now in power.  Morsi opponents should have waited for the next election.Alternately, they could have started an impeachment process or called for an early election if there was sufficient ground to do so.Had they followed such a course, democracy would have survived in Egypt (however shakily) and all the killing and mayhem would have been avoided. 

There is also a lesson to be learned about the dynamics of a democratic movement. What happened in Egypt showed that once people’s sentiments about freedom, democracy, and human rights are fully aroused, there is no putting them back into the bottle. Widespread demonstrations brought down Mubarak; widespread demonstrations plus military deposed Morsi; and now widespread demonstrations are attempting to remove the military junta!   Democratic spirit is thus clearly visible all over Egypt (though terribly misguided in the 2nd instance).You do not remove a democratically elected official by mass protests or by brute force.  It is totally poisonous to democracy because it destroys public trust in the process (a crucial element in any democracy).

Another lesson we can draw from the Egyptian fiasco is the fickleness and unreliability of global democratic powers.What happened in Egypt exposed yet again the hypocrisy of global powers that unabashedly supported a brutal military dictatorship over a democratically elected party lending credibility to the oft-made claims of some Islamists that global powers don’t want them to win no matter how peacefully they struggle within the system making them feel damned if they do and damned if they don’t. All these raise an even bigger question:  Is there a global conspiracy against Muslims as some believe?

The answer is unquestionably no if by “global”, we literally mean that every government on earth and all (or even the majority) of non-Muslims are out to get Muslims.That is most certainly not the case. But if we define global as loosely as Bush did with his “global war on terror”, I would say yes there is definitely a concerted and massive effort to undermine not only political Islam but Islam, the religion itself.Those who deliberately and systematically vilify Islam and Muslims are very few (just like the terrorists) but are so highly influential, so heavily funded, and so sophisticated in their multi-pronged attacks on Islam and Muslims that they reach far and wide and have already succeeded in shaping world opinion against all Muslims and Islam.If you ever find yourself shuddering at the very mention of Sharia even if you know zilch about it, you have them to thank for. 

Of course such efforts do not succeed in changing anyone’s belief. What they succeed in doing is to make life difficult for all of us. Myopic intolerance on both sides is a great danger to us all. In an increasingly shrinking world, a genuinely globalized democratic thinking must emerge if worldwide peace and prosperity is to be realized.This means countries that claim to be democratic must sincerely support democratic forces without always sifting things through the prism of interest or national interest.

Finally and more importantly, a similar scenario in Eritrea cannot be ruled out.We have secular vs Islamic passions that could flare up at any time and we have a huge battle-hardened military complex that may be tempted to seize power.Some secular and non-Muslim Eritreans may be so averse to any Islamic party that they may be unwilling to negotiate in good faith and may even deliberately demonize such a party as was the case in Egypt.This may be followed by a call to ban all religiously based political parties thereby injecting a dictatorial element into a democratic process. We should keep in mind however that all exclusionary thinking and practices are the hallmark of dictatorships not of true democracies. For democracy to survive and thrive it must be true to itself and its core principles and being true to self means participation must be open to all.  No ifs and buts!


Let us go back now to the question we started with towards the beginning of this article.Is democracy a fad or a passing fancy that will flutter and die sooner or later? Like all projections into the future, it is impossible to envisage with certainty but what we can definitely state is that democracy and its central principles have been around in one form or another since antiquity[iv].The flawed Greek version is but one example.Some Eritreans had a simple system of decision making that was essentially democratic. There have been many others throughout history.

I therefore do not consider democracy a fad in that sense. I further believe that its appeal will never totally fade as long as the notion of human equality endures. Though humans may temporarily submit to tyranny due to fear or other weaknesses, the urge to freedom, equality, and liberty is too deeply embedded in human nature to be totally extinguished.As Maxim Gorky once put it, man is inherently “Majestic and free”.

If democracy is not a fad as currently practiced, is it the best that we can be or produce?  So buoyed was Fukuyama by the number of new democracies that suddenly kept cropping  up around the globe towards the end of last century that he wrote an entire book to announce the “End of History” and to theorize that humanity has finally reached the apex of its social evolution.In reaction to which, I cry “Oh Man, Proud Man![v]” This is reminiscent of communists who also used to proclaim that the advent of dictatorship of the proletariat would finally usher a classless society that will end history.It was even touted to be scientifically based. In the end, it was communism that died not history!It must be remembered however that in its heydays, communism was believed by its adherents as fervently as liberal democrats do today for democracy and liberalism. 

I personally do not believe that liberal democracy marks the end of our social evolution in any way.  “I know of no more encouraging fact” wrote the eminent philosopher Thoreau, “than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor”. If there is one thing that history teaches us about our species (Homo sapiens), it is our capacity to always come up with new ideas and new ways of doing things.That is why predictions that place a limit to human ingenuity and resourcefulness are often proven wrong.Liberal democracy in its current shape may seem fine in contrast to other political systems out there (as a one-eyed person would be among the blind) but if we measure it against our conceptions of democracy, equality, and fairness, we are likely to be disappointed.

If we take the US (the leader in the pack) for example and assess it against core underlying principles of democracy like rule by the majority and equal opportunity for all, it doesn’t do very well since it is raw money and lots of it that drives the entire democratic process in the US.Dollar power so overwhelmingly overshadows its vaunted democracy that at times we wonder if we can still regard it a full-fledged democracy. 

Take the case of the ordinary US citizen:it is true that he/she has the right to run for office and to vote freely but in hard-nosed practical terms, many do not and often cannot. The overwhelming majority of Americans could neither afford the colossal amount of money required to run for office nor can they elect freely whom they want but are forced to choose from a handful wealthy elites. In effect, the poor are excluded which leads us to ask: how is this different from Athenian democracy that excluded slaves and women?Only in details perhaps. In this sense, the US resembles a plutocracy more than a democracy.Similar issues are to be found in almost all established democracies and until such issues are resolved or seriously tackled, it is sophistry to claim that we have reached the pinnacle of our social evolution.As Adam Smith once warned “no society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the greater part of the members are poor and miserable.”

That is not all.The US has morphed into a huge empire.In a recent speech at the UN, Obama briefly attempted to defend US from critics that refer to it as an Empire but did so very poorly and understandably so. Why he even bothered to deny it, I will never know! The imperial nature of US is so glaringly transparent that it is laughable to deny it.Consider: The US is answerable to no one; has military bases that spans the globe; a military complex that can strike at will (as it did in Iraq and Afghanistan); drones (Cyber police) that can nip someone remotely; and has intelligence tentacles all over the world not even sparing its own allies and citizens (as we recently learned) and I am sure a lot more we know nothing about.

No empire in history ever had such a far reaching, all-encompassing, and mind-boggling hegemony! What else can we call such a gargantuan entity? It is an empire all right but one with a lot of goodness in it (freedom, education, pluralism etc…).In this, it differs somewhat from previous empires in history. Moreover, considering its power and reach, it has shown remarkable restraint because if it was to flex its muscles to their fullest extent, it could do a lot more. 

Let me pause here to point out that my article is not a positional statement.In other words, none of what I stated above should be construed to imply that I am anti-US or against democracy. Far from it!I have been and still am a staunch supporter of democracy and the US political system.In fact, I have publicly written many articles extolling US and defending democracy as some of you know. 

My article should be viewed rather as a pure intellectual foray into some troubling aspects of democracy in action. To fully comprehend any socio-political construct like democracy (or any abstract concept for that matter), we must first be willing to contemplate its merits and demerits. It is only when we do so–only when we ponder democracy as we did in this article that we begin to appreciate the wisdom behind Winston Churchill’s dictum that “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”. 

Needless to say, it is not enough to simply chant democracy.We must endeavor to understand its fundamental goals, strengths and weaknesses.As Eritreans, have we seriously reflected on what democracy is all about or are we embracing it simply because it is fashionable to do so as we did with communism all the way to its grave?Do we observe what is happening in places like Egypt and try to draw lessons or are we doomed to replicate them?  A post-Isaias era will soon be upon us and the sooner we ponder such issues, the better prepared we will be for any eventualities. As we have seen in the example of Egypt, democracy can be put out as easily as it can be ignited.Even long established democracies are not totally immune to reversals. 

Fad or not, one thing is certain.Democracy is better than its alternatives as many thinkers have argued but liberal democracy as currently practiced is riddled with too many problems to merit the honor to be the acme of man’s social evolution or the “end of the history”.In fact, if these grave issues are allowed to fester the day may not be far when the pendulum will swing again to dethrone democracy and usher a new era of dictatorships. 


[ii] Fukyama is the author of “End of History and the Last man” where he asserts: “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the cold war, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

[iii] There were also the Saudis and the Gulf states that poured money into the military but they were not the central players in changing the status quo.

[iv] These direct democracies are called tribal or primitive democracies by historians.

[v] Quote from William Shakespeare in Measure for Measure


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