Beginning with the self-immolation of Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi, and ending in many cases with uprising and revolution, the question on the lips of every spectator of the Arab Spring now is: What next?
At present, commentators are largely preoccupied with the notion of the recent and upcoming elections, while all debates ultimately seem to centre on whether or not the likes of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia will be able to turn into fully-fledged democracies.
Many spectators have in fact been surprisingly quick in announcing that the Arab Spring has turned out to be a democratic dud. Regarding Libya, for instance, the mention of the Islamic Sharia as the foundation of a future Libyan society was met with disparaging sighs in the West, while the news that religious parties gained widespread support in the Tunisian and Egyptian elections has been met with much disapproval in Western media.
This reaction resembles that of Israel’s and the West’s to the Palestinian election in 2006, in which Hamas’ victory provoked Western outrage and Israel’s subsequent siege of Gaza. Some, such as Noam Chomsky, suggested that the logic of this response was to “punish the miscreants for voting the wrong way in a free election”. The same paradoxical sentiments seem to have permeated the debates on the North African elections; the commission of democratic elections is celebrated initially but support is retracted if the public freely chooses the ‘wrong party’. All of a sudden, the entire process is considered ‘undemocratic’.
The reason for this tendency could be that we are asking the wrong questions. Indeed, before assessing the democratic credentials of these newly liberated countries, we must ask what constitutes democracy.
One particularly salient issue within this debate is the place of religion. After all, a common assumption in western commentary on the Arab Spring appears that Islamism is intrinsically incompatible with democracy. Indeed, the separation of church and state has arguably been an indispensable cornerstone of liberal democracy for several centuries.
A quick glance at Western democracies, however, renders simplistic assertions about religion and democracy problematic. Many Western democratic systems appear to be fundamentally informed by religious convictions, and moreover, many continue to respect their monarchic foundations. One could even contend that the very constitutions of Western democracies, and the liberties and laws they protect, are inextricable from the Judeo-Christian contexts in which they were formed.
Religion, however, also plays a great part in everyday political life in a far more straightforward manner. At this year’s Thanksgiving, for example, large swathes of the American public were incensed with their President not mentioning the word “God” in his televised speech, many Americans are similarly outraged that the White House Christmas card does not explicitly contain the word ‘Christmas’, and it seems virtually unthinkable that a presidential candidate who did not proclaim his devout Christianity could be a genuine contender.
Admittedly, America is but one example of a democratic system in which religion is a major political factor, and religion arguably plays a smaller role in many other Western democracies. Nevertheless, the unabashed ease with which religion’s influence on politics can be both praised in some instances and condemned elsewhere problematises the role of religion in democracy and points to the variety of ways in which these two institutions can interact and co-exist, albeit in many cases to the detriment of one or the other.
But if it comes in many forms, then what ultimately constitutes democracy? Theorists have for centuries debated the make-up of democracy. Schumpeter, for example, proposed a minimalist definition of democracy that essentially stripped away implicit notions of the common good and consensus and reduced democracy to mere periodic elections, seeing democracy as by the people but not necessarily for the people. On the other hand, the notion of voting is completely alien to Chinese Confucian conceptions of democracy which instead define democracy as the pursuit of the common good by a benign ruler acting on behalf of the people – this version of democracy is thus necessarily for the people, but not by the people.
What the Arab Spring highlights so effectively, however, is that narrow definitions are insufficient in the contemporary world. Democracy worth protecting cannot be reduced to mere procedures or simple definable outcomes. Jürgen Habermas proposes a form of ‘deliberative democracy’ whereby all relevant actors enter into “communicative actions” on an open and level footing regardless of their status and power, setting aside self-interest and even their identities to reach consensus. As Arendt suggests, democracy may ultimately be "the freedom to call something into being which did not exist before, which was not given… and which therefore, strictly speaking, could not be known”.
In this light, the Arab Spring appears as democracy par excellence. Through voicing concerns about present regimes, criticising the condition of their countries and the political rules and processes, the North African movements created and opened critical debate where there previously was not. Marches in the streets, assemblies in Tahrir Square, expressions of opinion, shared and globalised through facebook, twitter and youtube, and the millions of private decisions made to participate actively in the public reformation of society were democratic actions.
The toppling of leaders was a truly democratic message, proclaiming that the power is with the public, and promising that the mass accumulation of dissatisfaction of peoples will, over time, lead to change. In Egypt and Tunisia, large parts of the public laid down their own immediate interests and assumed the identity of popular movements with one goal: change, change without a predetermined goal but change that brought into being a new situation as driven by popular, collective action.
The ensuing elections are but one step in a democratic process, and an important one. Elections can serve to carve the concerns carrying the movements into the foundation of the society to come, but they are not the sole indicator of democracy. It is not for us to wait and see whether or not the North African movements will turn into democracies – the Arab Spring is democracy.
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