Tuesday, February 15, 2011

How does democracy cope with non-democratic parties?

Mohmoud Salem is a most excellent blogger writing as @sandmonkey on Twitter.

He has been tweeting from the front line throughout the Egyptian Revolution.

Yesterday he kicked off a debate with a thought-provoking series of tweets, which I have copied and  pasted here below. He puts his finger on a real dilemma:

How does democracy  cope with parties that could become undemocratic, 
or have undemocratic features?

He is thinking about the Muslim Brotherhood.

Here are his thoughts:


Ok, Sandmonkey prediction: 

If we end up getting democracy through the military, we will end up with the Turkey Model. 

Wanna Take bets? 

They will set up a constitution that won't allow Muslim Brotherhood specifically to come to power & will give themselves coup powers if that [happens].

And that's what the US is probably negotiating with them about. How to be the firm-handed daddy caretaker of democracy 

It's a very attractive balance for them: 
Provide democracy, maintain their hold on power when they deem necessary, & no Islamists.
And it would be acceptable to the majority of the people who are fearful of sharia-based* government taking over for a war on Israel. So u will have a system that's secular, that will advance the rights of women & Christians, but will not provide equal treatment to Islamists
So, the question is, if we are democrats, would that be fair? 
Would we take away some rights from some of us for "the greater good"?  It's conflicting for me, because on one hand I am very much pro individual rights & liberties on very absolutist terms without compromise.
But on the same time, I can see a significant majority of the Egyptian people wanting it this way. It will make many people comfortable.
Which brings us to the question: [does] supporting democracy mean supporting what the majority always want? Or... is it supporting the democratic process instead, even if the majority is against it? 
Let's flip it: if an Islamist government reached power through democratic process pledging to end democarcy, should the army stop it?
Not to mention the bigger problem: what kind of democracy allows a non-democratic entity the power to revoke democracy as they please? 
And what if they look at this is a compromise first-step, letting the system exist & then amending it later like Turkey is doing?
And this is where my mind comes and goes. I know what I believe in, equal rights for all, until some try to take the rights of others. All I know is: if we were put in this situation, what we choose will forever define us as people. It's a huge test
An intense discussion followed, which you can find by going here  and scrolling back to Feb 14.
So this is the problem: how does democracy cope with its non-democratic or anti-democratic constituents?   

We have a Western example here: Hitler's Nazis were voted into parliament, but then took over the state by the Enabling Act of 1933 which allowed him to exercise dictatorial power. 

One defence against this is a good constitution that forbids that kind of thing. However, a Constitution can be overthrown (the Egypt Revolution is having to do that). But a well-designed democratic constitution does draw a line in the sand.

Funnily enough, the USA Constitution, with its separation of Church and State, and separation of powers between the Legistature, Executive and Judiciary, is a good model for anyone flexing their fingers in front of a blank screen entitled EGYPT CONSTITUTION. 
Benjamin Franklin did not expect the USA to last as long as it did. The neo-cons have undermined the Constitution with their accursed Patriot Act, and the nation is so infested with fundamentalists, of both free market and Bible varieties, and so brainwashed by Murdoch's Fox News, that it is clearly going down the pan.
However, back to Sandmonkey's question. 
First, the price of freedom, and democracy, is continual vigilance. Democracy is something that exists in the doing, not in the theorising.

Second, Democracy is not a Thing that Exists anywhere. It is just the assertion that the power of any state resides ultimately with the people. The Egypt Revolution has just demonstrated that to perfection. When enough people say No to the state, the state has to back down.

Failed revolutions, as in Iran after the elections, and in Burma in 2007, fail because not enough people take to the streets, whether out of fear or because they have not yet suffered enough. As a general rule, it takes a generation to pass before people say "enough".

Having said that, the manifestations of democracy are variable. In the UK we have a clapped out voting system a feeble Parliament, a sclerotic Civil Service and an out of touch Government. But we do have the ability to kick one set of idiots out and let in a different set of idiots.

The virtue of this Box and Cox arrangement is that at least the Prime Minister gets changed. Being in power for too long damages the brain. The leader gets used to being surrounded by sycophants. The amygdala of the brain probably becomes overactive. That's why the Pharaohs and many other rulers became "gods", and why triumphant Roman Generals has a slave whispering "Remember Caesar that thou art mortal" to them.

So the number one virtue of any vaguely functioning democracy lies in the ability to truncate the term in office of the resident. That is why no US President is allowed to serve more than 8 years. We should have the same rule in the UK. But then, we do not have a written Constitution.

Addressing the Egyptian problem, if they go for a more truly democratic system of voting, Proportional Representation, the Muslim Brotherhood is unlikely to form a Government outright.

If they use the crap FPTP system, they could do so.

The trade off is that under PR, the MB is likely to form part of many Governments.

Here I should say that the Muslim Brotherhood is more like a Muslim Bogeyman to be used as such by the US right. Their speaker comes across as a cuddly teddy bear, and he is continually distancing himself from extremists. We can accept that, but have also to accept that it could change in future. I have been debating with a US Navy doctor, right-wing as they come, and a fundamentalist Christian. His position is that a Muslim country cannot be entrusted with democracy, in case it comes up with an Islamist Government, as in Gaza. There are two problems with an MB dominated Egypt: one is that they could terrorise women, gays &c. The other is that the loonies in the State Department will be itching to bomb the country back to the stone age.

The power of the MB is likely to be greater if Egypt generates a shed-load of secular political parties, which will split the secular vote, and let the MB walk through. The best outcome in my view is to form an umbrella group from the activists of Tahrir Square, to fight the coming election on the basis of addressing unemployment. This national unity group would outnumber the MB.

In a second Parliament, it is likely that the umbrella group will split naturally into a few major political parties.

So the approach to the democracy puzzle set out by @sandmonkey is firstly pragmatic: Just do it. Do your best, use all your passion and intelligence to persuade the people that a democracy with separation of religion from the state is the best way forward. Then, when in, revolutionise the economy to address unemployment, poverty and the real ecological issues in the country, especially water and food.

Go for unity and pragmatism, not ideological purity and perfection.

Finally in addressing the riddle of democracy: what to do if the people vote for anti-democratic forces?

The Constitution is one defence.

Debate is the second defence.

Which requires a forum for clear public debate, that is, a truly free press and broadcasting system, that is open to all comers, including the non- or anti-democratic forces.

In the end, the question is an antinomy - a contradiction between two statements that seem equally reasonable. There is no intellectual resolution to the question. The only resolution is in practical political action.

* However there is evidence that a majority in Egypt would welcome Sharia punishments (for others, obvs). I file that with the fact that a big chunk of Brits would bring back hanging and flogging. Put it down to poor education.


Zendette said...

Thanks for this post which is what I was looking for in @Sandmonkey's tweets. I've followed his blog for years and greatly respect much of what he's done and written. Personally, I think Egypt could do worse than to follow in the steps of Turkey. Hmmm, I haven't seen any mention of demonstrations in Turkey after all that has happened. Makes you go "hmmm?"

DocRichard said...

I feel optimistic about the Egyptian Army. Clearly there is a spectrum of opinion and ethics in the army, but I think their aim is to shepherd in a democracy and then step back.

And I feel hopeful that the new balance of power will get Israel negotiating in good faith, in place of the unyielding attitude that Wikileaks has revealed.

As well as the high level negotiations, we need people to people initiatives of cooperation. There are many examples of this. My favourite is Friends of the Earth Middle East.

thanks of commenting ,Zendette.