Democracy is never perfect

Democracy is never perfect
Saudi Gazette Newspaper, Sunday, April 07, 2013

By Ray Hanania 

Excess is not just a word in the Arab world, it is a popular location in the mentality of the Arab mind. Arabs fuel “excess” with emotion, which is more abundant in the Arab world than oil.

Arabs don’t just criticize, we sometimes take criticism to the extreme of being destructive. We need to learn how to stop and recognize criticism for what it should be, just one important societal component of democracy.

Democracy is having a tough time in the Middle East. It is being tested to the limits and probably will be tested even more. It hasn’t worked in Palestine or Egypt, yet, and it doesn’t work properly in Israel, which is often touted falsely and politically as “the only democracy in the Middle East.”

Democracy is not an end result. It is a process, a road forward that continues to improve but is never perfect. Democracy needs time to work. In the Middle East, where emotion defines policy and strategy is just a theoretical work of academic dissertation, democracy hasn’t had enough time.

Democracy is not perfect and never has been. The system of democracy has flaws. But, it is better than not having democracy. The people who most forget that democracy is flawed are the Americans, who sit in an ivory tower of moral indignation directed at others. Arabs should keep that in mind when listening to American criticism.

Americans are not better than anyone else. They are just more likely to lecture others and rarely do they practice what they preach. Democracy empowers that arrogance, sometimes. Ever since Egypt held its first real democratic elections, there has been a never-ending campaign of criticism against democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi. Morsi is not perfect, but he is far “better than” what Egyptians had in the past.

That is all that democracy offers to people, a relative relationship of being “better than.” Democracy will continue to get better, if given the chance, but it might not achieve the promise that drives its popularity among victims of oppression.

Morsi is a typical politician in the democratic sense. He is thinned-skinned. He is intolerant of criticism because he doesn’t understand that criticism is important in achieving democracy. Like all Arabs, Morsi is used to criticism in the old context of the world of dictatorships practiced by his predecessors Hosni Mubarak, and failed peacemaker Anwar Sadat and failed Arab nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser.

In democracy, criticism is essential. In a dictatorship, it is a provocation that fuels rebellion and revolution and threaten dictators. In dictatorships, criticism is suppressed. In real democracies, it is not.
Criticism of Mubarak brought down his dictatorship. But criticizing Morsi should only result in public debate and dialogue, which can be passioned and filled with emotion. But emotion still must be controlled. Too often, criticism by activists goes far beyond reasoned discussion and is intended to be destructive. That kind of criticism crosses the line and extremists who advocate the overthrow of democracy should be constrained through legal means.

A good leader in a democracy accepts legitimate criticism, not as a libel or defamation but as the exercise of democracy’s most important feature: “free speech.”

What the Middle East really needs is “free speech” before it needs democracy. If people don’t have free speech, they will never have a true democracy, as we witness in Egypt where authorities have dragged in TV commentator Bassem Youssef to explain his criticism of the new president. If Morsi were experienced in democracy and free speech, he would have ignored Youssef’s opinions, because that is all they are. Opinions. Disgruntled opinions.

But by not ignoring Youssef, Morsi has only empowered Youssef’s critical voice and given it weight. It has fueled Egypt’s political instability and empowered Morsi’s critics who frankly are a greater threat to democracy than the Muslim Brotherhood which is Morsi’s political base.

The truth is that Morsi’s critics are criticizing him because they have the mindset of people in an environment of a dictatorship. They are acting as if they are fighting a dictator because that is all they know. They don’t have the experience of freedom or even of free speech. They are consumed with emotion and lighting the fires of emotion is all they understand about political activism and empowerment.

Morsi’s critics really seek to undo what democracy has started. They want freedom based on their own interests, rather than on the interests of Egyptian society as a whole. Democracy is flawed, which means not everything will work perfectly. Injustices will continue to exist and so will crimes. Hypocrisy will flourish, as it does in America, which casts itself as the “poster child” of democratic nations.

American democracy is flawed and free speech still isn’t fully free. But American democracy has a 237-year head start on Egypt and the Arab Spring. But instead of recognizing that America was even worse 237 years ago than Egypt is today, Americans love to pontificate and lecture from self-righteousness.

Americans believe they are better than everyone, especially Muslims. But the truth is that even in American democracy, some of the worst acts of racism, political corruption and censorship have occurred. The oppression of women was brutal in early American democracy and only in recent generations has the door been pushed open to equality.

Give democracy a chance. Democracy will only become a true democracy in Egypt and the Middle East when the people have had multiple opportunities to elect or re-elect leaders in several more elections.

And as for President Morsi, a true leader is someone who tolerates criticism, even when it comes from the most intolerant critics.

— Ray Hanania is an award winning columnist. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @rayhanania

Categories: Middle East Topics

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