Giving Democracy a Chance

Not many countries have broken from the shackles of dictatorship as peacefully as Egypt. After only 18 days of protests, the people of Egypt have overcome years of oppression and now wait hopefully for the establishment of democracy. Last Friday, Hosni Mubarak’s regime, in place since the assassination of then-President Anwar Sadat in 1981, finally collapsed. Since 1967, Egypt had been nearly perpetually ruled under the Emergency Law, a law which curtails basic human rights like freedom of speech. Under the Emergency Law, the Egyptians’ protests were illegal.

In December 2010, the winds of change began to blow eastward toward Egypt from Tunisia, where a public uprising had shaken the core of the Tunisian government. After nearly a month of protests and riots, in January 2011, Ben Ali, the dictatorial President of Tunisia, fled to Saudi Arabia, ending his 23-year-rule. Inspired by the Tunisians, the already dissatisfied people of Egypt took to social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook to express their hope for political change. The movement gradually grew, led by the masses of Egyptian youth (50 percent of the Egyptian population is under 25 years of age) and the educated elite.

On Jan. 28, hundreds of thousands of protestors flocked to Tahrir Square in the heart of Cairo. Despite fears that Tahrir Square would become the modern day Tiananmen and the absence of leaders like Mandela or Gandhi, from the protests a new Egypt was born. On Feb. 11, Vice President Omar Suleiman announced that President Mubarak had stepped down and handed over his powers to the military.

Yet the question lingers: what happens now? 18 days are not enough to right the damage done over the last 30 years of oppression. The military officers in Egypt have laid out a six-month plan for the transfer of power to a democratically elected government. But the problems are far from over. How can Egyptians be sure that the military will actually transfer its power to a new government? It would hardly be a surprise if the military performed a coup d’état and took the reins of government for good. Even if a democracy were to be established, it may not be very strong. The new government will be constrained by economic fluctuations; high unemployment (especially among the youth population), a volatile stock exchange, and fewer tourism revenues. Early political decisions will be difficult. Political and bureaucratic issues will also inevitably arise. Newly elected leaders may be corrupt, and administrative errors are expected of inexperienced governments.

Western countries like the U.S. have historically assumed a moral high ground for being democracies. Hypocritically, the U.S. has favored dictatorial stability in the Middle East as opposed to (chaotic) democracy. (In the 1980s, Saddam Hussein was an ally of the US). The lack of stable democracies in the Middle East is duly noted, but the current state of democracy in non-Middle Eastern countries is a mixed picture: democracy has been a failure in countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh, but effective if imperfect in countries like South Korea and Malaysia. Western promotion of dictatorial stability may not be entirely unjustified, but the alternative—a developing democracy—is just as effective.

In some ways, the situation parallels India’s path to democracy. In 1947, when India gained independence from Britain and was partitioned from Pakistan, there seemed to be little hope for the country. India was teeming with millions of impoverished people and, at best, a third-world economy. The regional differences, the several minor kingdoms within the country and the nation’s vast geography only pointed in one direction: civil strife and eventual disintegration. Though economically and politically crawling and crippled with corruption and poverty, the country nevertheless moved forward, the democratic spirit stayed alive. Barring a two year Emergency Law in the 1970s, India has been the world’s largest democracy since 1947 and has emerged as a strong global economic power.

Thus, to all critics and pessimists, I say that, yes, there will be corruption and crime, there will be unemployment and dissent. The recent looting of the Egyptian Museum would not have been possible under Mubarak’s regime or a mature democratic government. The people of Egypt have opted for self-governance and hopefully, they will fight the long battle of establishing a strong democracy. With every election, the electorate will grow wiser and the government more mature. Just as they have been blessed by the strength to rebel, I pray that the Egyptians be blessed by patience and emerge as an example to both Western and non-Western nations of what a true Arab, Middle Eastern democracy looks like.

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