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A poster of deposed Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi lies burning on the ground after security forces clear a protest camp of his supporters in Cairo August 14, 2013. (Reuters)

Should we have democracy on demand?

In Egypt, protesters who have been in the streets for weeks trying to reverse the outcome of June 30 have been dispersed by bulldozers and bullets, and the future of democracy is no more secure than when they first set up camp.

But not only Egypt – Spain, Turkey, Brazil, and others, too, have experienced forms of democracy on demand. What other country might be next to feel the wrath of people power? In the past few years, TV news cameras have gone from capital to capital to film the anger of people demanding change from their governments. Europeans have taken to the streets to oppose economic austerity policies demanded by the IMF and eurozone powerhouses in exchange for sorely needed money to shore up public finances.

In Turkey, an urban planning issue turned a small green space into a national crisis for a third-term president who was viewed as a populist leader. In Brazil, people poured into the streets to tell their democratically elected president that policy priorities should be transportation, solving inequities, and better education – not flashy international games.

And most recently, Egyptians went into the streets to sanction and endorse a military coup, launched to restore order over a failing economy and undignified presidency. Those who opposed the coup then rallied against it en masse, staking out squares that are now being targeted by security forces. Getting millions into the streets to call for change can be as easy as having a tweet go viral – ‘meet in the square’ in 140 characters or less. And just one day of unrest, if the conditions are right, can be all that it takes to get a democratically elected government to listen to your demands.

“Here’s the inherent challenge: how do you measure street protests as an indication of majoritarian will?” – Bessma Momani, University of Waterloo

Is this a crisis for democratic rule or a new liberating way to achieve accountability from governments during elected tenures? I’m afraid it’s the former. Before there were Facebook pages for everything, democracy was built on the bargaining of ideas at political party conventions. The exchange of ideas involved lengthy philosophical debates in town halls; political representatives needed to knock on doors to explain their ideological views and answer tough and complex policy questions. Political leaders had to sweat out national debates to prove they were the right person for the top job. Social movements needed to agree on ideological platforms to create political parties.

Protesters chant anti-government slogans during demonstrations at Tahrir Square in Cairo February 6, 2011. (Reuters)

Protesters chant anti-government slogans during demonstrations at Tahrir Square in Cairo February 6, 2011. (Reuters)

There are no perfect democracies, and yes there can be elitism, classism, racism, ageism, and sexism that give an advantage to some over others. But there is a reason democracy was built in a way that allowed for a slow and healthy exchange of ideas. Political bargaining was not horse-trading favors as pictured on popular TV dramas. It was about finding compromise on tough issues like “how much control should government have in cultural products and services?” “Should government be a primary investor in public infrastructure?” “Should foreign investment be encouraged?”

A vibrant and healthy democracy was one that created broad-based policies supported by some political consensus, which took hard work and compromise to achieve. Some might argue that people power in the streets of Rio de Janeiro or Cairo is simply a form of populist veto power on a government’s mandate. Why should a nation wait for the completion of an elected leader’s term to demand change? Aren’t these protests just a quasi-referendum on a government’s performance?

Here’s the inherent challenge: how do you measure street protests as an indication of majoritarian will? How do we know that the millions in the streets of Madrid, protesting their government’s spending cuts, represent the view of Spain’s mainstream? The same can be asked of the millions who gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. More importantly, are those gathered in protest in agreement on the same alternative policy to that proposed by their government?

A protester holds a Turkish flag as he sits in front of riot police at Taksim Square in Istanbul June 22, 2013. (Reuters)

A protester holds a Turkish flag as he sits in front of riot police at Taksim Square in Istanbul June 22, 2013. (Reuters)

The truth is, we don’t know. This is why there’s a process of political bargaining and a ballot box. Elections are the only true measure of faith in a government and its policy ideas. Why are these mass protests new? It is because we – the people – live in a hyper-connected reality with information and communication on demand. It is not merely impatience with government, but a quest for immediate accountability that drives these mass demonstrations.

These are inherently good intentions to improve democracy – and they urgently point to the need for a conversation on how to make this system of governance more accountable and responsive to the needs of the people. But this critical discussion can’t and won’t take place in the streets and squares of a capital near you. It is time to realize that there is simply no app for democracy.

A version of this post was originally published in the Toronto Star.

The views expressed in this Insight are the author’s own and are not endorsed by Middle East Voices or Voice of America. If you’d like to share your opinion on this post, you may use our democratic commenting system below. If you are a Middle East expert or analyst associated with an established academic institution, think tank or non-governmental organization, we invite you to contribute your perspectives on events and issues about or relevant to the region. Please email us through our Contact page with a short proposal for an Insight post or send us a link to an existing post already published on your institutional blog.

Bessma Momani

Dr. Bessma Momani is an associate professor at the University of Waterloo’s Balsillie School of International Affairs, a senior fellow at the Center for International Governance and Innovation in Waterloo, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. On Twitter, she can be followed at @b_momani.

14 Comments

  1. Jesse Bernal

    August 25, 2013

    The Muslim Brotherhood is the godfather of them all. Enjoy your American freedom.

    Reply
  2. Jesse Bernal

    August 25, 2013

  3. Ali Baba

    August 25, 2013

    you are ignorance fanatic. are you going to tell me that Muslim brotherhood believe in democracy .Muslim brotherhood has been kicked from Egypt because all people including Muslim are tired and sick from them. the best place for Muslim brotherhood is a mental institution because all Muslim brotherhood need professional help

    Reply
  4. Hasbara

    August 23, 2013

    What is democracy what is not?

    Simple, If Israel/AIPAC doesn’t like it its not democracy doesn’t matter if the party wins at all levels.

    On the other hand if Israel likes it even a coup/dictatorship can be democratic.

    Its the same in Egypt its the same in US…ever wonder why the US prez has to go shine the boots of AIPAC before being taken as a candidate. I mean no one has to go to any other lobby …a Chineese lobby who are 1 Billion out of 7 billion of total world pop. nor the Muslim lobby who constitute 26% of total world pop or any other. The zionists got you by the balls and you love them for it because of course how could you hate them after all they suffered the persecution in 1940s at the hand of Nazis like so many other in Poland, Holland, and other countries did.

    Reply
  5. Charlie

    August 20, 2013

    Bessma Momani you write: “Elections are the only true measure of faith in a government and its policy ideas.” Really?

    Would you have made the same argument in Germany in 1933?

    Dr. Bessma Momani as an associate professor at University of Waterloo you delete comments which argue forcefully and coherently against naive suppositions? What happened to the free exchange of ideas which the Brookings Institution and Waterloo University advocate? How many comments besides mine have you deleted? I truly find your suppression of academic freedom reprehensible and disgusting.

    I re-posted my original comment again with some of the bite removed. But as an educator you should learn to take your lumps when it comes to criticism of your immature ideals. Readers can draw their own conclusions as to your utter lack of understanding of history, but when you write “Why are these mass protests new? It is because we – the people – live in a hyper-connected reality with information and communication on demand” you expose your ignorance. There is nothing new about street protests, indeed the First Amendment of the US Constitution enshrines Freedom of Assembly as a fundamental right in the USA.

    I’ve also taken the liberty to forward this comment to Dean Terrence Levesque at the University of Waterloo, Lee Hamilton and Bruce Maclaury at the Brookings Institution. Delete my posts again if you must. Or engage in a free exchange of ideas and try to refute my criticism, which obviously you are unable to do.

    Reply
  6. Charlie

    August 20, 2013

    Arguing in favor of the status quo in Egypt until the next election cycle when the Muslim Brotherhood would have warped election laws to the point where they could never be voted out seems a little naive. Throughout history how many demonic regimes started with an election only to never allow a fair election to ever occur again? The Soviet Union, now again in modern Russia, Cuba, Cambodia, Venezuela, Iran, North Korea and too many African countries to name. The repressive Islamist Muslim Brotherhood could have easily passed legislation to ensure that a balanced election never took place again in Egypt. Waiting for the next election cycle would have been suicide for free Egypt.

    Islamist extremists are the embodiment of evil. Uneducated extremists who advocate spousal violence against women, who deny women education and the right to vote, who KILL muslims who convert to another religion, who deny non-muslims the freedom of religion, who burn down Christian houses, who ‘circumcise’ young females: Islamists live by terror and should die by terror.

    The most ironic thing is that in many parts of the middle east as a woman you could not practice the freedoms that you enjoy everyday as an American. Yet you want the entire population of Egypt to suffer years of injustice because a dishonest Islamist political party lied during their election campaign and used intimidation to win an election that turned into nothing but a lie?

    The notion that somehow all of this is happening because of the Internet is also misguided. Throughout history people have taken to the streets when they have been upset with government. Beijing in 1989, Hungary in 1956, Austria and Italy in in 1848. Throughout history ‘mob rule’ has been an important part of government. Demonstrations which take place in the streets and squares are precisely the events which force critical discussion within the walls of government. They are just as important as elections and they always will be.

    Reply
  7. Ibrahim Siddiqui

    August 20, 2013

    If you want disregard you will find more groups the Army will be against than the MB.

    Reply
  8. Ibrahim Siddiqui

    August 20, 2013

    I can't tell which is more obvious, your bias or your ignorance. I think your bias is a shade ahead

    Reply
  9. You_No

    August 19, 2013

    As a North American observer, I am horrified by the daily violence and saddened by the inability to reach an agreement that allows all involved peace.

    I am reminded that even in my home, the US, we had regular street fights for elections, even for a large number of decades after the US was founded. Unpopular parties, religious sects, and outsiders were regularly beaten, tar-and-feathered, and run out of town.

    Democratic ideas doesn’t automatically imply that the people are willing to be peaceful if they lose the vote, that takes a conscious willingness and calm leadership.

    In the US, at least in the general population, we have a different set of traditions and practices which require peace so long as it is in our hands to offer, and we take them for granted.

    Indeed, the Europeans who came to the states, by in large, were believers in an individualized, personal knowledge of the universe. Such fits, perhaps naturally, with the idea of working under a popular vote, so that government might work so that the most get the greatest benefit possible, and that all might be protected. The preference to allowing outsiders their own practices is the cultural gifting of peace from our hands, so long as it is up to us that also came from technology.

    Over the last 300 years information availability in these States increased steadily and progressively, as we literally invented new ways of passing information and set up many of the first networks to do so. Pushed into a modern world, we find that the faster our information comes, the less we worry that the outsider will be aiming to harm us with their nasty lies.

    We can verify facts, question orders, and call to friends in steadily increasing speeds, so that now, help is almost always at hand in time of trouble. So we don’t now need to worry about beating the other guys after the poll goes the wrong way, to be sure they won’t lie to us, or try to harm us when we are outnumbered,

    I am not convinced that the traditions of the Caliphs are capable of such requirement to peace when in our hands, especially when faced with the idea that all people have a knowledge worth recognizing. I am not convinced that Egypt had this same time to develop information.

    It seems, and I may be wrong, that much of the Caliph tradition requires that the layperson subvert their own knowledge for the leader’s. Perhaps, this was a grand idea when the majority of that world lived days away from everyone else, in scattered groups and in far-flung worlds. Keeping the people safe required the acceptance of information and orders at face value, and outsiders must be kept away lest we risk them harming us for or with their strange values.

    However, in a day where information and the personal universe is capable of passing itself across the globe in an instant, the top-down of the Caliph’s struggles to keep structure. Information is easily questioned for verification, and complaints with orders easily passed. The finding of error in either also easily passes embarrassment and a loss of political authority.

    So, those who gain or find comfort in from such top-down understandings, might naturally fight against those ideas from those who find benefit in the individual’s view. That could be understood. Perhaps unnecessarily, but understandable.

    Thus, I think we have a compatibility issue. Democracy asks for individuals, the Caliphate requires subjection. Democracy, and the western ideas come from different histories than Egypt’s, and it cannot be a cut-pasted fit.

    Prayers for all involved in the name of Jesus my Salvation.

    Reply
  10. You No

    August 19, 2013

    As a North American observer, I am horrified by the daily violence and saddened by the inability to reach an agreement that allows all involved peace.

    I am reminded that even in my home, the US, we had regular street fights for elections, even for a large number of decades after the US was founded. Unpopular parties, religious sects, and outsiders were regularly beaten, tar-and-feathered, and run out of town.

    Democratic ideas doesn't automatically imply that the people are willing to be peaceful if they lose the vote, that takes a conscious willingness and calm leadership.

    In the US, at least in the general population, we have a different set of traditions and practices which require peace so long as it is in our hands to offer, and we take them for granted.

    Indeed, the Europeans who came to the states, by in large, were believers in an individualized, personal knowledge of the universe. Such fits, perhaps naturally, with the idea of working under a popular vote, so that government might work so that the most get the greatest benefit possible, and that all might be protected. The preference to allowing outsiders their own practices is the cultural gifting of peace from our hands, so long as it is up to us that also came from technology.

    Over the last 300 years information availability in these States increased steadily and progressively, as we literally invented new ways of passing information and set up many of the first networks to do so. Pushed into a modern world, we find that the faster our information comes, the less we worry that the outsider will be aiming to harm us with their nasty lies.

    We can verify facts, question orders, and call to friends in steadily increasing speeds, so that now, help is almost always at hand in time of trouble. So we don't now need to worry about beating the other guys after the poll goes the wrong way, to be sure they won't lie to us, or try to harm us when we are outnumbered,

    I am not convinced that the traditions of the Caliphs are capable of such requirement to peace when in our hands, especially when faced with the idea that all people have a knowledge worth recognizing. I am not convinced that Egypt had this same time to develop information.

    It seems, and I may be wrong, that much of the Caliph tradition requires that the layperson subvert their own knowledge for the leader's. Perhaps, this was a grand idea when the majority of that world lived days away from everyone else, in scattered groups and in far-flung worlds. Keeping the people safe required the acceptance of information and orders at face value, and outsiders must be kept away lest we risk them harming us for or with their strange values.

    However, in a day where information and the personal universe is capable of passing itself across the globe in an instant, the top-down of the Caliph's struggles to keep structure. Information is easily questioned for verification, and complaints with orders easily passed. The finding of error in either also easily passes embarrassment and a loss of political authority.

    So, those who gain or find comfort in from such top-down understandings, might naturally fight against those ideas from those who find benefit in the individual's view. That could be understood. Perhaps unnecessarily, but understandable.

    Thus, I think we have a compatibility issue. Democracy asks for individuals, the Caliphate requires subjection. Democracy, and the western ideas come from different histories than Egypt's, and it cannot be a cut-pasted fit.

    Prayers for all involved in the name of Jesus my Salvation.

    Reply
  11. David Gaon

    August 19, 2013

    Democracy, shemocracy is the "rule of the people" – and what is happening in Egypt is precisely that.
    Dr. Momani shows acute sense of myopia of the recent history in Egypt..
    The Brotherhood won the ballot not because of ideology but because they paid and bribed poor trusting people to vote for them – and it did not take long for the wool to fall off their eyes and see the reality behing the Brotherhood ideology.
    I am really surprised to see an educated PhD fall for all the slogans about democracy and consider it only a ballot exercise.

    Reply
  12. Charlie

    August 19, 2013

    Bessma Momani you write: “Elections are the only true measure of faith in a government and its policy ideas.” Really?

    For you to argue in favor of the status quo until the next election cycle in Egypt when the Muslim Brotherhood will have warped election laws to the point where they will never be voted out. Your naivety betrays your lack of education and your ignorance of history. How many demonic regimes started with an election only to never allow a fair election to ever occur again? The Soviet Union, again in modern Russia, Cuba, Cambodia, Venezuela, Iran, North Korea and too many countries in Africa to name. It would have been very easy for a repressive Islamist government to ensure that a balanced election never took place again in Egypt. Waiting for the next election cycle would have been suicide for free Egypt.

    Islamist extremists are by definition evil. Uneducated extremists who advocate spousal violence against women, who deny women education and the right to vote, who KILL muslims who convert to another religion, who deny non-muslims the freedom of religion, who burn down Christian houses, who ‘circumcise’ young females: Islamists live by terror and should die by terror.

    The most ironic hypocritical thing is that in many parts of the middle east you could not practice the freedoms that you enjoy everyday as an American. Yet you want the entire population of Egypt to suffer years of injustice because a dishonest Islamist political party lied during their election campaign and used intimidation to win an election that turned into nothing but a lie. Disgusting, immoral and naive.

    The notion that somehow all of this is happening because of the Internet is ludicrous and again betrays your poor education. Throughout history people have taken to the streets when they have been upset with government. Beijing in 1989, Hungary in 1956, Austria and Italy in in 1848. Throughout history ‘mob rule’ has been an important part of government. Demonstrations which take place in the streets and squares are precisely the events which force critical discussion within the walls of government. They are just as important as elections and they always will be.

    What worthless university gave you a PhD?

    Reply
  13. rasheri

    August 16, 2013

    Ali in a more subtle way we are going down the same road.

    Reply
  14. Ali Baba

    August 16, 2013

    Democracy is a word that it is misused and abused. the fact democracy does not match with Islam.Islam is total Ian religion that does not accept other view. all the country that choose Islam as means to form a Gov. has long history of human right abuse. The experience in Egypt is remarkable. and media was witness fanatic attacked other people in front television camera just they have different point view. The Islamic Gov. disregard the other spectrum of other people and impose stupid law called sharia law.then they give people a lecture about democracy. democracy means to them that each fanatic will be prosecutor and executor to kill, to beat, to kidnapped.all with the name of Allah.

    Reply

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