Parodies of democracy 499

President Bush tried to democratize the Arab Middle East. It was an effort worth making. But did he understand what he was up against?

In his World Economic Forum Address, delivered at Sharm el Sheikh International Congress Center, Egypt, on May 18, 2008, he said:

“Democracies do not take the same shape; they develop at different speeds and in different ways, and they reflect the unique cultures and traditions of their people.”

This is typical waffle of Western statesmen trying to accommodate multicultural “values” when speaking of dysfunctional polities.

There is some variety among national democracies, differences in types of representation and electoral process – administrative differences – which may reflect local mores and preferences, but these are superficial. True democracies, the ones which allow for change of government and limits upon government, do not reflect the “unique cultures and traditions” of their people: they reflect a core Western (British) cultural development, a tradition of limiting absolute power constitutionally. This political principle – like the zero in mathematics – may have originated within one culture, but it is of benefit to all mankind in the establishment of national political institutions. It is through these institutions that we know freedom (civil rights, the freedoms of speech, assembly, religion, the individual protected from the predations of power). Democracy is a superior idea, and the West should continue to offer it – insist on it – to nations which have inferior arrangements. Diluting the idea by allowing for local versions of power-sharing to substitute for it is foolish. For example, I do not count the loya jirga, the traditional tribal forum for dispute arbitration, as a cultural equivalent of democratic government, nor can I see how it could form the institutional basis for a national democracy as it enshrines tribal power. Societies which borrow the trappings of democracy – elections – without the civil institutions that sustain the core principle are parodies of democracy (one-party communist states, kleptocracies, oligarchies, autocracies, theocracies). There is a distinct element of parody in setting up national arrangements which submit to local traditions by enshrining sectarian power, by having individuals of different sects take up different political offices (as in Lebanon).

When the West allows parodies of democracy to be installed because this shape of democracy “reflects the unique culture and tradition of [a] people”, it is relegating the people to more of the (not so unique) culture and tradition of absolute power: dynastic, tribal, sectarian, ideological powers asserting themselves and oppressing their rivals for as long as they have strength of arms and/or superior numbers (not to be confused with a democratic majority).

Allowing the Muslim Brotherhood power, or Shia equivalents, or communists for that matter, in Egypt would not be an expression of freedom, nor an example of democracy in action. These are not political parties, they are absolute powers waiting to seize office. The West has long established that one may not sell oneself into slavery. That idea is incorporated into the idea of democracy: an electorate may not vote itself out of sovereignty.

Obama is making a very grave error – as have administrations before him – in allowing totalitarians opportunities to take power at all, but to do so under the pretense that their elected accession to power reflects “democratic self-determination” or some collective expression of “freedom” is an appalling betrayal of democratic principles. The Nobel peace prizewinner is guaranteeing that there will be blood …

C.Gee   February 2, 2011