Friday, July 1, 2011

What does democracy need

The Arab Spring has spawned some discussion on the foundations of democracy.

Rashid Khalidid,Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies on whether democracy needs leaders:

I can’t talk to a journalist, American or Arab, without being asked, “Where are the leaders?” The activist and journalist Nawara Negm, a wonderful young woman who is one of the organizers in Egypt, as far as one knows, was asked about this. She said, “The age of zaims is over.” Zaim means “strongman.”

The Middle East had that. There was the shah in Iran, Abdel Nasser in Egypt, Hussein in Iraq. That model decisively failed. Mubarak is the last in the line of such zaims. At least we hope he was the last. I don’t think that the kind of society that’s thrown up this movement is going to tolerate another zaim, and I think this society has moved beyond that, at least in the case of Egypt. That doesn’t mean that such a system may not be imposed, but that is a recipe for instability and it wouldn’t last.

The Egyptians have shaken off a lot. They have not yet succeeded in finally and fundamentally making a lot of changes, but one of the things that they have changed is the sense that you need a supreme leader.

I’m a historian; I’m never happy predicting the future. I don’t see the Ataturk model. But if you say to me the Turkish model, with a military that eventually ceases to intervene in public life; with an evolution of a secular system, which can incorporate religious parties; with a greater and greater degree of democracy, which is what the Turkish model so far represents, that I can see. That has a lot of appeal in the Arab world, partly because Turkey is a little bit like the Arab societies, partly because it is so successful. It is a model in multiple spheres, not least of which is the constitutional and political, but also the economic and the cultural. At the same time, Turkey is a modern society. And it’s rich. There is humongous Turkish investment in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, and North Africa.

Timur Kuran:

A stronger civil society alone will not bring about democracy. After all, private organizations can promote illiberal and despotic agendas, as Islamist organizations that denounce political pluralism and personal freedoms demonstrate. But without a strong civil society, dictators will never yield power, except in the face of foreign intervention.

Independent and well-financed private organizations are thus essential to the success of democratic transitions. They are also critical to maintaining democracies, once they have emerged. Indeed, without strong private players willing and able to resist undemocratic forces, nascent Arab democracies could easily slip back into authoritarianism.

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