Magazine article New Internationalist

Getting a Grip on Democracy

Magazine article New Internationalist

Getting a Grip on Democracy

Article excerpt

Slippery devil, this democracy.

What the hell is it anyway? For some it means individual rights and liberty; for others, collective self-determination. For many it's simply a question of periodic votes for this or that politician. For a few it's a principle that should inform all aspects of political and economic life. For the advocates of corporate globalization, there are no doubts: democracy equals market freedom; their language is expansive and inviting - freemarket globalization opens societies, erodes bureaucratic prerogatives and expands democratic possibilities as surely as it fattens wallets. Others are not so sure.

Take Egypt, for example. The most important country in the Middle East, measured by population (more than 80 million) and strategic position, it has since the 1980s maintained open door' policies for corporate globalization. The National Democratic Party state has, despite its name, been a virtual dictatorship since it grew out of the military regime that had been in power since the early 1950s. Anwar Sadat, who replaced Gamal Abdel Nasser as President in 1970, felt that the nationalist regime needed a civilian face: thus the National Democratic Party.

There is little that is democratic about it. Critics of Egypt's current regime see a long history of autocracy rooted in Pharaonic traditions and running on through centralized monarchy to colonial domination by England and France. Democratic activists are still faced with an authoritarian state buttressed by a fearful security apparatus and supported by Western allies who ask very few questions. So they have little in the way of a democratic political tradition to fall back on, and can have quite different faces.

One face

Mohammed Adel is barely into his twenties. He's a key activist with the April 6th Movement. In 2008 it sprang up among the discontented young, in support of a wave of strikes by 25,000 textile workers in the Nile Delta town of El Mahalla. The demands of the workers in the Abul Sabae textile plant - the largest in the Middle East - for a living wage and independent trade unions plainly struck a chord with many Egyptians. A combination of e-activism (the Movement website has 73,000 members) and street demonstrations took the autocratic regime of President Hosni Mubarak by unpleasant surprise.

The April 6th Movement is in some respects reminiscent of the colours' revolutions that swept across the former Soviet Union. The idea is to create a broad front, from the Muslim Brothers (a strain of religious opposition dating back to the 1930s) to the restive - and sometimes quite secular - young. Getting rid of the regime is the focal point, then establishing conventional democratic arrangements and letting the cards fall where they may. A difficulty here is that the West that cheered on the 'colours' revolutions in the former Soviet Union is complicit with the Mubarak regime in Egypt.

Would more democracy in Egypt simply open the floodgates for Islamic extremism and sweep away the rights of minorities, as the West seems to fear? While there are no guarantees, a strong democratic opening could equally well lead to a flowering of many currents of opinion - socialist, liberal, various shades of Islamic, Coptic Christian - that lie beneath the surface. The Mubarak regime keeps intolerance alive by playing on fear: the West's fear of political Islam; the Islamic fear of secularism; minority fears of intolerance; everyone's fear of the police. Keeping the lid screwed down tight promotes intolerance much more effectively than letting the multiplicity of voices at least talk to each other. Even if they sometimes yell.

The broad front strategy of the April 6th Movement remains agnostic on questions of economic globalization. The kind of romanticizing of the market that occurred in the former USSR is unlikely in a country that is all too familiar with the costs of privatization and cutbacks in social provision. …

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