A few days ago, Mohamed Morsi was deposed as president of Egypt by the military following many days of mass protests. Mr Morsi had won the popular vote but was accused of promoting an Islamist agenda and stifling secular voices. So the Egyptian experiment in democracy has lasted barely one year.
That is a little longer than what the Palestinians experienced in 2006 when Hamas won in the legislative elections of the Palestinian Authority. United States President George W Bush refused to recognise Hamas’ victory. Hamas was accused of being a terrorist organisation.
But even that was a little better than the annulled victory of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS by its French acronym) in Algeria in December 1991. The FIS had won 188 seats out of 231. The army cancelled the elections in January 1992 and banned the FIS. Civil war ensued and lasted several years and killed thousands of ordinary Algerians. The FIS, although popular among ordinary Algerians, especially the poor, small traders and business people and rural communities, was outlawed allegedly because of pursuing an Islamist cause.
In Libya, the much anticipated democracy following the fall of Muammar Gaddafi is as distant as it has ever been. Libya remains a faction-ridden, militia ruled, largely lawless country.
Even Iraq where billions of US dollars have been poured and thousands of American troops died reportedly to remove a dictator and install a democratically elected government remains torn by sectarian violence. True, elections have been held, but along old factional lines. No real democracy exists there despite George Bush’s avowed aim of promoting democracy in the Middle East.
Many people are now asking questions. What is wrong with democracy in Arab countries? Is the much-touted Arab Spring being scorched in the Sahara and Arabian deserts in the summer?
The Western promoters of democracy face a huge dilemma (or do they?). Can they recognise and therefore endorse a democratic process in which the winners are their sworn enemies? Or are they prepared to reject a clear people’s mandate and call into question the very principle of free choice on which democracy is founded?
In the end, the dilemma is not that big, or at any rate Western democracies are not shy about preaching one thing and practicing another. They don’t mind about the contradictions.
In the ongoing Egyptian case, there is a great deal of ambivalence. No outright condemnation of the military has been heard, except from Senator John McCain. The US government has made vague noises. So has the European Union. Ironically the loudest voice has come from the African Union which has suspended Egypt from the organisation.
Instead there have been attempts to explain and rationalise the removal of Morsi from power. Tony Blair penned a piece in the London Observer titled “Democracy on its own doesn’t mean effective government” in which he tried to justify the course of events in Egypt and the West’s actions in the wider Arab world. It’s a brilliant piece. I only wish his analysis was universally applicable.
When Algerians were being killed in their thousands in the crackdown on the FIS, no western voice was raised in defence of the democratic choice of the people. None will ever be heard condemning the US government for refusing to recognise Hamas’ victory in Palestine.
All of which confirm western doublespeak where democracy is concerned. The people’s will doesn’t count when it does not serve their purpose.
Arab countries have not helped their cause either. Some of the political groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and FIS and so on, have failed to make a distinction between religion and the state. There is an understandable difficulty. The western concept of religion does not quite fit Islam. For Muslims, Islam is not simply a set of religious beliefs and rituals for worship, but an entire social, political, economic and judicial system.
The trouble is, there is no agreement among Muslims about the extent to which Islam and the modern state should relate, and more particularly, the role of religious leaders in state organisation. Equally contentious is the place for people of secular or different religious beliefs in an Islamic country. Until all these issues are sorted out, there will always be problems of democracy in the Arab world.
Also, until democratic standards are applied universally and not selectively, the world will continue to experience fits and starts in establishing enduring democratic societies.
The democratic experiment in Egypt is not dead. It is going through a process of definition and refinement and hopefully will come out with a system that is able to accommodate divergent views and harness their power for effective government. That way Tony Blair will not have to labour to explain the difference between democracy and effective government.