With a rapidity that would have been unimaginable only a month ago, oppression in the Middle East ― Tunisia, Egypt and now, hopefully, Libya ― is on the run. Whatever the short-term challenges, what emerges will probably be better than the old dictatorial regimes.
That’s different than proclaiming that democracy and freedom have arrived. Creating a representative political system of self-rule in these countries, most of which have little tradition or supporting institutions, will be an arduous task.
There are examples to emulate. While new to the Middle East, with the exception of Israel, democracy has been on the march around the world in the last quarter century, in scores of countries, from Indonesia to Eastern Europe to Latin America.
America’s ability to shape these events is limited, the track record not always admirable. President Barack Obama’s eloquent speech in Cairo two years ago is oft-cited; less noted are his administration’s plans to cut funding for the private nonprofit National Endowment for Democracy, a global beacon for promoting democratic values, by 12 percent.
President George W. Bush’s administration toppled Saddam Hussein, and botched the aftermath by trying to impose its political will in Iraq. As documented in “Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone” by the Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran, the administration was more concerned with political patronage and ideology than in creating a functioning democracy; Foreign Service and military professionals were replaced with young flat-tax and anti-abortion advocates; the White House even dispatched the former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, currently serving a prison term, to train Iraqi law enforcement personnel.
America today can offer some needed resources; more important may be expertise. The National Endowment for Democracy, created under President Ronald Reagan more than a quarter century ago, gives money to four nongovernmental organizations to promote democracy abroad: the politically affiliated National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute, the union-affiliated American Center for International Labor Solidarity and the business-oriented Center for International Private Enterprise. There are serious people, knowledgeable about democracy, intimately involved.
In conversations, those affiliated with the groups are excited and guardedly optimistic about what’s occurring in the region, especially Egypt. They also offer instructive counsel for democracy-builders.
No one model
― Every country has to devise a different system, tailored to its situation. “It’s impossible to have one model,” says Kenneth Wollack, president of the National Democratic Institute. “Chile is different than the Philippines, which is different than Indonesia.”
Whether a country picks a president or prime minister, and what type parliamentary system is adopted ― a bicameral or unicameral legislature, proportional representation or winner-take-all ― aren’t easy choices. Israel, one of the most robust democracies in the world, has an electoral system that borders on dysfunctional.
― Creating a democratic government can’t be done easily or quickly. “There’s no such thing as instant democracy,” says former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who chairs the National Democratic Institute.
Some experts are especially worried that Egypt might rush to satisfy the understandable demand for quick elections. Currently, a ballot is scheduled for September.
‘Push too fast’
“If you push too fast,” says Steve McInerney, executive director of the Washington-based Project on Middle East Democracy, “the danger is the elections will be dominated by remnants of the old ruling party that show up under a different name and the Muslim Brotherhood.”
― The sine qua non for any new system is a codified constitution. “It’s more than a one-man, one vote at one time,” says Norm Coleman, a former Republican senator from Minnesota who serves on the board of directors of the National Endowment for Democracy. “You need the scaffolding that holds up the democracy.” This includes protections like freedom of the press and collective bargaining, he notes. Ironic, perhaps, since some U.S. governors are trying to take away the latter right for public-employee unions.
Bernard Aronson, a diplomat during the Reagan administration and now a board member of the National Democratic Institute, says it’s essential to create “checks and balances, and separation of powers are very important. Nobody should have too much power.”
― Political parties are indispensable. Founding father George Washington warned his countrymen to avoid what he called the “baneful effects” of parties; they ignored this advice, creating political parties, which have been central to two centuries of stability.
“Americans love to hate political parties,” says Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman from Minnesota and past chairman of the National Endowment for Democracy, “but they’re essential to promoting democracy.”
Often change or revolution is generated by movements ― Solidarity in Poland, the social media phenomenon in the Middle East ― but it takes institutions like political parties to build on that. Also crucial is the role played by the armed forces, Weber says, with a good model provided by Turkey, where a strong military defers to civilian rule.
― It’s helpful in times of traumatic change to have a galvanizing or unifying leader. That occurred in the Philippines, Ukraine and especially South Africa; it’s also relatively rare. Nelson Mandela “was a unifying leader,” Wollack says. “I doubt there is a unifying candidate in Egypt.”
― Backsliding is always a danger. A decade ago, Venezuela was held up as a model of democratic change, but President Hugo Chavez moved the country back to authoritarian rule, censoring the media and arresting opposition politicians. Five years ago, a promising democratic movement in Lebanon was crushed by Hezbollah.
“Democracy,” Albright says, “is an ongoing process.”
New democracies invariably struggle to develop their own terms and definitions as well as models. They would do well to follow the advice Abraham Lincoln provided a century and a half ago: “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” The runner-up might be Winston Churchill, who proclaimed, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those others that have been tried.”
Egypt, Tunisia and other Muslim countries for too long have experienced the worst of these others.
By Albert Hunt
Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. ― Ed.