“Demo” is people and “cracy” is rule or power. Therefore, democracy happens when people have, and use, the power to rule the country to which they are citizens through choosing a person or a group of people that they see as fit for the job. Yet, the formula is never as simple as it might seem to be and not every country that bestows upon its people the “prerogative” of choosing who represents them in parliament or who heads their state for a given period of time can really be labeled democratic. There are so many levels to democracy and I don’t believe that it is really possible for a country to reach the highest of them and be fully democratic except maybe in very rare cases, but I also believe there is a minimum a country should achieve in order to at least steer away from the stigma of being what I like to call a “crippled democracy.”
In this region of ours it is easy to detect two different examples of that type. In Lebanon, a confessional system of government makes religious/sectarian affiliations determine who is eligible for candidacy so the president has to be a Maronite Christian and the parliament that elects him has to be half Muslim, half Christian. In Iran, presidential and parliamentary candidates have to be approved by the Supreme Leader. In both cases, there is a prior arrangement in which the people are not involved and those people, who are the reason why a democracy was called as such, only come at a later stage to choose from an already filtered lot that might not, after all, be the best on offer. A democracy, therefore, becomes crippled when the conditions candidates are required to meet impose restrictions on people’s choices in a way that makes the role they play in determining what kind of a government they want almost secondary. It was only the absence of such restrictions that brought to the predominantly-white United States its first African-American president, to staunchly secular Turkey its first Islamist prime minister, and to macho Latin America an extraordinary tide of female heads of state.
If we want to define a crippled democracy in more general terms we can say that it is the system of government where people are not given full power and this takes a variety of shapes in addition to that of custom-made candidates. For example, people who are not aware of the meaning of democracy are by default clueless about the powers it entitles them to so they end up wavering those powers before trying to use them or even before realizing that they exist. This condition can be the outcome of deeply-rooted ignorance, abject poverty, or years-long repression. Each of the three can be lethal enough to ruin any country’s prospects of democracy, yet in most cases the three are closely related and are actually found combined and Egypt serves as a perfect example.
It is in any authoritarian regime’s best interest to deprive its people of the environment in which the need for democracy thrives and there is no better way than keeping them impoverished and denying them access to education. By the first I mean what we commonly refer to in Egypt as living “under poverty line” and by the second I means reading and writing and by people, who fall under those two categories, I mean 35-40 percent of the Egyptian population. There is of course no need to mention that the bigger the percentage of the poor and the illiterate the lesser the chance of rebellion and need for democracy. If I can’t secure a loaf of bread to keep me going for the day, I am not going to crave sushi and if I have never heard of sushi in the first place, I will never feel I am missing anything if I die without trying it and no one is to blame me for either.
When your life revolves around struggling to make ends meet and fretting over possible ways of securing a meal, democracy becomes a luxury and not only will you not think of it as important, but you are also likely to develop some form of resentment against those “sissy” activists who have nothing better to worry about. It is not that different when it comes to education, for learning anything in addition to the basic tactics of survival becomes the pastime of the well-to-do and deciphering newspaper headlines is by no means expected to alleviate your fear of starvation. Every skill you are likely to develop is consequently nipped in the bud and you end up totally apathetic to whatever is happening around you and sometimes you are not even aware what is happening.
This is the legacy of decades of dictatorship and it is this same legacy that we took with us to the polling station and it is because of this legacy that many of us knew, even if on the unconscious level, that we were actually voting for a crippled democracy.
I can’t deny that I was taken aback by the results of the first round of the first post-revolution elections and the sweeping victory of the Islamists, including fundamentalists, is of course bound to alarm the likes of me who advocate a civil state and a separation between religion and politics. My shock, however, did not last for long and I actually realized that I was stupid to be shocked in the first place for when I reflected on the reasons for my shock I found out that there is no shock at all. I was shocked because people opted for replacing a dictatorship with a theocracy … because they chose those who have not taken part in the revolution and who kept speaking against until they realized they can hijack it to represent them instead of those who genuinely loved the country and risked their lives to liberate it… because they preferred big words to real action. It was only when I realized that they neither “opted” nor “chose” nor “preferred” nor were involved in any sort of action that implies free will that I was able to see the situation for what it really is.
How I realized that? Pretty simple! A discourse that presents a religious government as the only way of “returning to God” and “defending Islam” and guaranteeing “a place in heaven” accompanied with truckloads of food, clothes, and blankets together with a value-for-money price per vote sound like the perfect recipe for a parliamentary majority. A little less than half the population goes to bed every night with empty stomachs and despondent souls, so fill the first and comfort the second and get as many seats as you want.
I am by no means trying to overlook the fact that a substantial sum of educated, middle class Egyptians voted for Islamist parties, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, because they really subscribe to their ideologies and/or genuinely believe they are capable to effecting some change or another and that those were neither bribed nor brainwashed, but they alone would not have yielded such results. Very few of those, I believe, would vote for extremist parties who would lock women up, ban literature and music, and label anyone who opposes them “atheist.”
We would be fooling ourselves if we think that elections this time, and maybe several times to come, will be fully democratic. We have of course always had undemocratic elections but in a different way. We are no longer up against boxes filled before they reach the polling stations with ballot papers in which only one name is ticked, for now what’s on paper is what the voter actually marked but not necessarily what he or she willingly selected. It’s a different, and harder to prove and much harder to address, type of rigging where people technically choose but as a matter of fact don’t have any choice, where people exercise a power they don’t really possess.
The result: a parliament that will represent the actual will of Egyptian voters if you cross out half its seats.
Never the end of the world! If you are miraculously resuscitated after decades of clinical death and right before the plug was about to be pulled on you, you would seem so ungrateful if you kept whining because you found yourself on a wheel chair. Soon enough, crutches will carry you along as your feet grope for a solid ground. Shortly after, you will be gladly limping with more confident strides and it won’t be long till you give free rein to your sturdy legs as they dash with the speed of light.
When this happens, I promise to happily and genuinely embrace whatever choice the people make even if we end up with a Ku Klux Klan majority!
(Sonia Farid, Ph.D., of Al Arabiya also teaches English Literature at Cairo University. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org)