If 2011 brought the promise of democracy to the Arab world, in 2012 democratic change appeared to founder on political reality. In Egypt, democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi has tried to gather into his own hands powers far greater that that held previously by Hosni Mubarak, and is railroading through a constitution that many fear will undermine the gains of the revolution.  In Libya and Tunisia Islamist-influenced  governments are promoting laws restricting rights, constraining speech, and maintaining social inequality. In Bahrain a movement for democratic change has been brutally suppressed by the government. In Syria, the struggle for democracy has degenerated into a bloodbath, and one to which there appears to be no end.

From the beginnings of the so-called Arab Spring many people worried that democratic change would bring about the ‘wrong’ kind of governments to power, and would create social instability and entrench political reaction, fears that in many ways have materialized. So, how do those who advocate democracy respond?


Clearly we need to challenge those who, like Mohamed Morsi, seek to use the democratic process to undermine democracy. We need to challenge, too, Islamist organizations and the attempts to impose illiberal, divisive laws and constitutions.  But what should not be questioned is the idea of democracy itself simply because it does not bring about the ‘right’ result. The whole point of democracy is that it is unpredictable. If democracy could always ensure the ‘right’ kind of government, it would not be democracy at all. After all, the reason we need democracy is that the idea of what is a ‘right’ government is often fiercely contested.

The trouble with today’s debate about democracy is that too many people, including those who view themselves as advocates of democracy, have lost the sense of democracy as a good in itself. On all sides of the debate there is a growing tendency to take an instrumental view, to accept democracy as a good only if it brings about the right outcome; otherwise, runs the argument, democracy needs to be constrained to protect society, avoid conflict or prevent extremists or reactionaries from achieving power. So, while Mohamed Morsi wants to eviscerate democracy to guard social stability and Islamic tradition, many of his critics suggest that the very election of Morsi reveals the problems of democracy unconstrained.

These arguments are not new. Western powers, while often being the loudest voices in proclaiming the virtues of a democracy, have always taken an instrumental view of its desirability.  Dictators that worked to the West’s interests have often been seen as preferable to democrats who challenged those interests. This has been apparent throughout the Arab insurrections. Where democratic movements have challenged governments that Western powers oppose, such as in Libya or Syria, support the movements. But where those movements have challenged government deemed useful to the West, London and Washington, Paris and Berlin, have been far more ambivalent in their attitudes. At the start of the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, Washington made it clear that it regarded Mubarak as an important strategic asset that it would be loathe to lose. Shortly before the Egyptian people finally ousted the dictator, Barack Obama described Mubarak as  ‘a stalwart ally’ and  ‘a force for stability and good in the region’ while Tony Blair praised him as ‘immensely courageous and a force for good’. He might be a dictator but at least he is our dictator seemed to be the attitude.

Bahrain protest

The ambivalence of the West towards democracy is seen most clearly in its policy towards Bahrain, a state that has, with considerable bloodshed, and not a little help from neighbouring Saudi Arabia, viciously suppressed the local movement for democratic change. Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are important Western allies, particularly in the ‘war on terror’. The US Sixth Fleet is based in Bahrain. So an opposition movement, whose aims are little different to those of similar groups in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya or Syria, has been largely ignored by Western leaders, while a regime, as dictatorial as that of Mubarak or Assad, continues to be showered with Western favours. It is an attitude that echoes that of Russia towards its ally Syria.

The current turmoil in Egypt, and the setbacks to the Arab revolutions, should not blind us to the reality of democracy as a good in itself. But it should also open our eyes to the fact that democracy is not just about placing a cross on a ballot paper. Democracy is fundamentally about the contestation of power. From the army to the capitalist class, from religious institutions to foreign powers, many players seek to constrain, restrain and influence the democratic process, to diminish the voice of the masses. To envision democracy merely as filling in a ballot paper is to envision a quiescent polity in which class interests, institutional players and entrenched social forces mould the democratic process.  We might vote as individuals in the privacy of the polling booth, but we can only defend democracy by acting collectively. This requires the creation of a robust public sphere, of a democracy that is contested as much in the streets and the workplace as in the polling station. The right to vote is a crucial aspect of democracy. But so, too, is the right to free speech, the right to protest, march and assemble, and the right to strike. Without these other rights the right to vote becomes hollowed out.

Democratic revolutions, like all revolutions, are messy, convoluted and complex affairs. One cannot just wish upon a liberal democratic society. More than two years after Tunisian street vendor Tarek al-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi immolated himself in protest at the confiscation of his wares and the harassment he faced from municipal officials, and become the catalyst for protests and insurrections throughout much of the Arab world, the struggle for democracy and liberties has barely begun.  The social turmoil in Egypt today is an expression of the attempt by various powers, from Islamist organizations to foreign states, to hijack the democratic movement, to limit its aspirations and to exploit it for their own purposes. It is also an expression of the willingness of the people to stand up to the government, and other institutions, in their attempts to strangle democracy.

The Arab revolutions are raising profound questions about what we mean by democracy, and the reasons for which we should value it. The answers clearly have immense implications for the Arab world. But not just for the Arab world.


  1. JeremyR

    Isn’t this the litmus test that helps answer the question of what we mean by democracy: can those with governmental power be thrown out (at the latest by the end of a defined period, and directly as the result of free and fair elections with universal suffrage)?

    The ability to achieve a peaceful and complete change of government is surely the essential feature of a true democracy. Applying that test, Egypt is not fully democratic because a lot of power is retained by the military, who are unelected.

  2. Are you confusing democracy simple with liberal democracy? The first is rule of the people (but not necessarily by the people) – which seems compatible with Morsi (and also Putin, Chavez, etc). The second is the Enlightenment invention that includes limits on majoritarian power.

    Remarks like “what should not be questioned is the idea of democracy itself” and “the sense of democracy as a good in itself” do not sit well with liberal democracy, which is founded on questioning the scope and legitimacy of democracy simple.

    • The idea that majoritarianism needs to be constrained is not an Enlightenment concept – it has a long history, going back at least as far as the Greeks, and probably beyond. Nor is it necessarily a liberal viewpoint. The question that is raised by your argument is, as I pointed in my debate with Jacques Berlinerblau, who decides what should or should not be placed beyond the democratic will? And what if the majority disagrees with your answer?

  3. Does the so called Arab Spring really consists of what you call “democratic revolutions”? Or did we just witness outrage on the back of large scale unemployment?

    I find it a bit difficult to make the argument that people want to live in a democratic society and, maybe more importantly, would like to see the question raised to what extend democracy is really compatible with a capitalistic free market economy where companies possess huge power within the ‘democratic society’. Aren’t companies the most undemocratic entities imaginable in that they are extremely hierarchical with no real participation or decision power for the employees or workers?

    In Europe, we believe we live in a democracy, the highest achievable moral political system, and are able to hold our leaders accountable, vote them out. But we can’t really choose for another system, that’s never on the ballot paper. So I believe democracy has given us the illusion of political freedom in return for economic serfdom or a society of huge wealth inequalities. No wonder then that more and more questions and debates about democracy itself arise.

    If mankind really aims for a society and political and economic system in which no further questions are asked about the true nature of those it will need to invent them. And that’s something that can’t be done through the ballot paper

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