Dima El Hassan
Democracy is not what we are witnessing today. It is not just a right to be exercised every few years. It is a whole cultural process in which all the people are engaged daily in the building and developing of their whole nation.
Going back to its root definition, true democracy means that the government works “of the people,” “by the people” and “for the people.” Here we have to be fully aware of the concept and its implications. It’s a type of government whereby people of a community or state make the legislative decisions affecting and shaping their way of living. It’s putting power in the hands of the people who determine the way they will live together.
It should be organic and a continuously evolving process as to meet the ever-changing needs of the people and the society. A democratic society has respect for human rights, civil rights, diversity, equality before the law, and the rule of law to guarantee and protect these rights. It relies on transparency, accountability, unity and above all humility.
There are a lot of democratic systems, from plain direct ones to aristocratic republic ones. Today “representative democracy” is the dominant form of democracies whereby people of a certain state choose through free elections political elites who ultimately rule on their behalf.
Democracy was the most successful political idea of the 20th century mainly due to the process of decolonization of many countries in Africa and Asia creating more democratic regimes. However, the progress witnessed in the late 20th century has slowed down in the 21st. Between 1980 and 2000 the cause of democracy experienced few setbacks, and since 2000 there have been many as it encounters major bad practices putting its success as a perfect model for ruling into question.
Democracy is now in deep crisis as it’s being abused by the rulers. Distrust in the political elites and the democratic institutions is growing further as power has been widely exploited to the benefit of those few elites, leading to more injustice and its many dreadful implications. Furthermore, people are participating in elections less and less. Political parties are also losing their members, streets all over the world are boiling with uprisings and manifestations against brutal inequitable policies, as people realize that their elected representatives are not actually representing them. Once they “get there” they either exploit power to their own benefits at the expense of the mass, or bend to what money and politics and their powerful lobbies dictate to them, from big financial institutions to multinational corporations to the political leaders and conglomerates of the world’s most powerful nations.
The Arab Spring and its post era, Ukraine’s Orange Revolution a decade ago, the financial crisis of 2008, the rise of extremist parties in many developed and developing countries, among other drastic events of the decade all reveal the weakness and/or fakeness of the so-far democratic political systems.
We don’t have real democracy, we don’t have real choice. We may change political elites ruling us but we don’t have the right or ability yet to change radically the way we are living within our society. And that is related to our lack of awareness of the culture of democracy to begin with.
Democracy is more than a political or social system. It’s a state of mind, a philosophy of life. We can never have a democratic government if we don’t have the willingness and ability to be a democratic society. And as long as society is split between the governed and the governing, the government that is supposed to be for the people, by the people and of the people will remain the government of the governing class. It will limit its existential meaning to be a government by the class and for the class, unless each individual treats the other as their equal and is willing to give them the same liberty and freedom as themselves. This should be a human drive by default and not an aspiration or a human goal yet to be achieved as is the case in most of our countries today unfortunately.
What we are witnessing and practicing and living through is not and never was democracy. We used to think that we once had it but lost it on the way. The fact is that we’ve never experienced a comprehensive real democracy. We’ve never had rule of law.
It’s time to have a rational change toward having a real state while monitoring the process all the way and at all levels. The challenge is not on the choice of one system over the other but rather on establishing a “culture of democracy” whereby the rule of law is the fundamental principle, but also the know-how of how it works and the trust that it will work are the engines of its success.
At the end, as Alexis de Tocqueville said in “Democracy in America”: “Nothing is more wonderful than the art of being free, but nothing is harder to learn how to use than freedom.”
Dima El Hassan is director of programs at the Hariri Foundation for Sustainable Human Development. Email her at email@example.com.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 23, 2017, on page 3.