What is Democracy?


Egypt Polls (AP)This essay is directed to many friends who always use the argument that “voting is democracy” to justify the creation of a different type of tyranny. What is democracy?
Some may think this is theoretical and irrelevant; I believe this is how things work, even if it takes a while.

Any society has diversity. Diversity of religious beliefs and values; income levels (rich and poor); where people live (urban, rural, nomad); etc. With diversity comes conflict: difference in opinion on how to run the country’s social, economic and security interests. Social interests relating to how people practice their lives in public and express their identity; how they marry, eat, dress, or conduct themselves in public; what to say and not to say; who to criticize and how to do so.  Economic interest relating to ownership of property, taxing the rich, supporting the poor, budget priorities (e.g., education vs. security). Basically, how much private money should go to the state, and how should the state spend this money. Security interests relating to keeping the society safe domestically (how harsh should punishments be), and keeping it safe globally: who are our allies and who are our enemies? when to fight them and for what reasons? These are the main differences that societies face.

These decisions are collective decisions, not individual decisions. Why? Because each decision affects “my” life, whether I support it or not, and whether I was consulted or not. Raising taxes affects everyone (the payers and receivers of the money). Going to war affects everyone. Limiting public speech or behavior affects everyone (whether you support it or oppose it). The fact that we all live together means that our collective decisions affects all of us, regardless.

So who has the right and authority to make these decisions on behalf of a whole nation? Governments assume that role. What gives them the legitimacy to make these decisions on my behalf and your behalf? This is the basic concept of legitimacy: a nation accepting the decisions of their government. Where does that legitimacy come from? People either “accept” your legitimacy as a government, or you can force them to accept it.  For any government to be stable, its legitimacy has to be accepted by the vast majority of its citizens, even when they disagree with the government decision. A government can only coerce a tiny percent of a population. No government in history managed to survive over the long run without the acceptance of the majority of its people. Even if they maintain a brutal security device to oppress their people, eventually, they fall. This is becoming a stronger truth in today’s open and global society.

Historically, most rulers gained legitimacy from traditional sources. Fighting a battle against an external enemy that is threatening a nation provides legitimacy. That’s why many dictators love to go to war to strengthen their reign (Saddam is a perfect example). Appeasing specific powerful sectors of the society that help them oppress the rest of the people is another tactic (Alawi’s in syria, Sunni in Saddam’s Iraq). Appealing to religion is another popular tactic (Iran, Saudi Arabia). Every regime has a clear narrative that it uses to maintain its legitimacy in the eyes of the people and gain their acquiescence; and for the remaining rebels, there is the oppressive machine that often goes with any regime.

Modern states moved away from these traditional sources of legitimacy for a simple reason: they are no longer effective in today’s modern world.  A traditional feudal regime or theocracy no longer work once people reach a certain level of education, wealth, and access to information. Democracy offered a viable alternative. It offers regimes a path to gaining legitimacy by getting people’s consent to govern. It is not an idealistic choice, but rather a pragmatic choice. It also gives special interests a legitimate way to influence people’s vote, and defend their interests.

So how does this democracy work?  First: division of power among different institutions. “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” – that is something we all know. So the answer is creating several institutions, each doing a specific part of “governing” and each checking and balancing the others. This is why we separate the executive from the legislative from the judiciary branches of government. We also want to make sure that the economy is  competitive, and break monopolies. So we divide political and economic powers to avoid too much concentration of power in one hand (person or party).

Second, we create institutions to ensure transparency and accountability: media, watch dogs, civil society rights organizations, etc. People need to know what’s happening, and they need to have specific watch dogs overseeing those in government.

Third, you create a mechanism to choose (and remove) those in government and hold them accountable periodically. This is the elections process. Elections guarantee that whoever is in power can be removed if people desire to do so, and also gives them some legitimacy to act as a representative to the whole nation and make choices on behalf of everyone, including those who oppose them.

Forth, and probably most important, you need to establish the boundaries of what a government can do. If we elect a communist government tomorrow by 51%, can they confiscate all my personal property? If we elect a government from religious group A can they prevent me (religious group B) from practicing my religion? The powers of an elected government is not absolute. They are limited by the “constitution”. The constitution is a basic document that supersedes laws, and decides on the framework for the state. It sets the boundaries for each of the institutions of the state (executive, legislative, judiciary), and identifies the basic rights that they can not breach. This constitution is a pre-condition for a government gaining any type of legitimacy, because it protects the rights of the minority against the majority (actually, of each individual, regardless of who they are). This constitution sets the ”rules of the game” that enables the elections and voting to take place. It is a document that should gain broad support.

What happens if the constitution is set by one side or a political party (which is the case today in Egypt)? This constitution will likely reflect the points of view of that side, and will present a threat to the other side (and their social, economic or security interests). By doing so, it sets the ground for confrontation and escalation of conflict, rather than being a source of stability and comfort for everyone. Constitutions that are single sided are often followed by actions to assert the powers of the winning side, which, in turn, are followed by strong resistance from the other side. Depending on what’s at stake, that resistance may take different levels of vigor or even violence.

Democracy takes place only when these institutions are established: a widely accepted constitution that protects individual rights; independent judiciary; freely elected legislative; strong and competent executive; free media to ensure accountability; and a vibrant civil society. Absent any of these institutions, you can not call a system of government a democracy. The widely accepted name for such regimes is “semi-authoritarian regimes”. These are regimes that maintain some of the democratic practices, but lacks the essence of democracy. Mubarak’s regime was a semi authoritarian regime. The new regime that the Muslim Brothers are trying to establish is likely to end up being  a semi authoritarian regime, if not a clear theocracy.

So what does this tell us about the situation in Egypt today? First, a constitution passing by a slim majority, forcing its will over the rest does not provide legitimacy to a regime. Second, a semi-authoritarian regime like this will not maintain stability or trigger prosperity; but is likely to create more instability and economic turbulence. Third, this is not a stable regime, and is likely to collapse, simply because it lacks legitimacy.

Amin Elmasry.

16 December 2012.

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