Democracy is no panacea

It will be harder for the people of the Arab world to uproot a corrupt economic regime than to topple a dictator.

democracy is no panacea
Democracy does not necessarily resolve problems related to poverty and economic inequality [GALLO/GETTY]

The Egyptian people have every reason to be proud. They have provided the world with a shining example of how to overthrow a dictator within three weeks with hardly any violence – their message of freedom, unity and solidarity will remain for years in the collective memory of the Middle East and the entire world.

The road to democracy is still long, of course, but given the political wisdom shown hitherto by the Egyptian demonstrators, there is good reason to believe that they will overcome the difficult obstacles expected for their country in the near future.

However, I would like to warn the democratic activists in Egypt and even more so their would-be followers in the Middle East that democracy is not the solution to all problems. Democracy does not necessarily solve problems related to poverty and economic inequality, nor does it resolve cultural conflicts related to the common identity of the nation’s citizens.

A Western formula

The basic reason for democracy’s lack of solutions to such problems is that its principles have been formulated in industrialised capitalist societies characterised by considerable cultural homogeneity and relatively small economic gaps.

Democracy is a set of formal principles developed in Western Europe with the aim of facilitating the representation and articulation of the middle and working classes and designed to contain peacefully the conflicts between them and the upper class.

In the absence of a balance of power between classes, and a consensual unifying national identity, the automatic installation of formal democratic principles might only make matters worse.

In order to prevent such developments, it is necessary to comprehend the peculiar social and economic conditions of each country and install not only formal democratic principles, but also additional constitutional, institutional and policy elements.

The dangers of democratisation

I will briefly suggest here the dangers of democratisation that must be faced in advance.

When there is a systematic link between cultural identity and economic status, democracy becomes a problem, rather than a solution. It exacerbates cultural conflicts to the point of violence, because it provides a formal opportunity for the majority to force their will on the minority.

Political sociologist Michael Mann has shown that in these cases democracy only serves to intensify conflicts among racial and ethnic groups, to which I would add, in the Middle Eastern context, the conflict between confessional groups and between the religious and the secular.

The most recent example of this has been the democratisation of Yugoslavia, which led to 10 years of war and the division of the country into seven states, accompanied by genocide and ethnic cleansing.

The oldest case, mind you, is the US – the cradle of the democratic constitution which announced a “government of the people” and began the massacre of the American indigenous people because they were not considered part of “we, the people” of America.

This warning is probably irrelevant to Egypt, with its exceptional national heritage, cultural homogeneity and tradition of tolerance towards religious minorities such as the Christian Copts and Jews, as well as mutual tolerance between the devout and the non-devout.

However, the adoption of the Egyptian model in other Middle Eastern countries such as Iran, Bahrain and Libya already suggests other possibilities, and this is what we can also expect should a similar process begin in Jordan – with conflicts between its Bedouin and Palestinian populations – as well as in Syria – between the Sunni and Alawi – and this is also the background for ongoing social tensions in the formally democratic Iraq and Lebanon.

In Israel, the violent repression of the Al-Aqsa Intifada proves that the ruling ethnic group will not give up its political control or its material assets, neither by democratisation nor by granting independence, unless the powers of both sides are more evenly balanced, as in the Sudanese case.

In search of political consensus

Whoever wants democracy under these conditions must first come up with a creative and consensual formula, according to which each cultural group would be free to live its unique cultural life without attempting to force its identity and customs on the entire citizen body.

In other words, demonstrating for democracy is not enough. What the countries of the Middle East require is political consensus on mutual recognition of rights and coexistence, guaranteed by a constitution and institutionalised by electoral procedures and representative institutions.

Egypt does have to worry, however, about economic inequality and the severe daily hardships suffered by most of its population. Without providing solutions to these problems, even the most democratic regime can be toppled by massive protests, possibly leading to new forms of dictatorship. A good example of such a failure of democracy was December 2001 in Argentina, when the masses flooded the streets calling for “all politicians to go home” and toppling five presidents in a row.

This happened only two years after democratic elections swept a broad leftwing front to power, which had promised to bring the country out of its deep economic crisis, but failed. The elected government pursued the policy dictated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which protected the interests of foreign investors against those of the local middle and salaried class. The crisis caused all holders of local bank deposits to lose 70 per cent of their money, with the blessing of the IMF.

Therefore, Egypt must realise that although democracy is essential, any formal constitution or system of government will not solve its economic problems. Immediately after the elections, Egypt’s new policymakers will have to switch from the formal liberal discourse of democracy to face and discuss the fundamental questions of Egypt’s economic structure. In the process, they are liable to discover that it is far more difficult to uproot a corrupt economic regime than to topple a single dictator.

Lev Grinberg is a professor of Political Economy and Sociology at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and author of Politics and Violence in Israel/Palestine: Democracy vs. Military Rule (Routledge, 2010).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.