Restoring Democracy’s Lustre

On Aug. 14, Canadians and the rest of the world woke up to the news that hundreds of Egyptians had died when security forces stormed two encampments where supporters of ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi had been holed up to protest his overthrow by Egypt’s military. The scenes on television of hundreds of dead Egyptians, many of them young teenagers, were appalling. Yet the bloodshed that day was simply the beginning of an escalating pattern of violence that has engulfed the Arab world’s most populous country. Marking a return to the repressive rule of Egypt’s former dictator, Hosni Mubarak, the government declared a state of emergency, giving Egypt’s security forces the licence to use whatever means they deemed necessary to crack down on the Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamic allies.
Egypt’s military coup, which no one wanted to call a coup, but was a coup just the same in everything but name, marks the end of the Arab Spring. We are now witnessing the whirlwind.
When the movement first began, many in the West saw it through the prism of the American Revolution and as being motivated by liberal values and a desire to establish a new political order based on human dignity, justice, equality, representative democracy and the rule of law. But, as we have now seen, there were other motivations clearly at play. The pent-up desire to get rid of bad leaders and quasi-military authoritarianism that had lost legitimacy transformed power abruptly, but precariously, to the next best organized force in Egypt — militant Islam in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood. The counter-clash in the name of secularism gave the veneer of pluralism bolstered by the iron fist of military might.
Egypt, like the rest of the Arab world, may turn in one of several directions. It may return to military rule if the generals maintain their grip on power. There could be reconciliation if the Muslim Brotherhood abandons its call for civil disobedience and protest and Egypt’s military, in return, allows for a return to politics and free elections. In the worst-case scenario, there could be civil war if the military crackdown fails and the Brotherhood and other Islamic groups acquire the means and wider political support to challenge military rule.
Whatever the outcome, there is another narrative at play that has broader implications for the West and its support for democracy and nation-building, not just in the Arab world, but throughout the developing world.
The first implication is that democracy is not the automatic outcome of the “great awakening” of the newly politically mobilized populations of the developing world who are throwing off the yoke of years of tyranny and repression. There are other political values and models out there in the world that rival democracy for their affections, in part because western democracies have sullied their copybook through clumsy, inconclusive military interventions in the developing world and through the mismanagement of their own economic affairs as evidenced by the United States and Europe in the run-up to the financial crisis and recession of 2008-09 and its aftermath.
Secondly, if western countries, including Canada, are serious about promoting pluralism and democracy in the world, they will need a new strategy that relies on concerted diplomacy and much greater levels of co-operation among themselves to promote stability and to advance democratic values of pluralism, above all, in the world’s trouble spots.
As John Stuart Mill argued, democracy is not for everyone. Although he believed that democracy is the best form of government because it allows individuals to pursue their self-interests and maximize their own happiness or welfare, he worried openly about the tyranny of majoritarian rule and “the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices and rule of conduct on those who dissent from them.” According to Mill, the unleashing of majoritarian rule in societies where there is no tradition of democracy — as in the case of France under the rule of Maximilien Robespierre and the Jacobins and their brief “reign of terror” in the late 18th Century or, for that matter, Egypt today — poses just as much a threat to personal liberty as authoritarian rule. Mill was not alone in expressing this concern. Alexis de Tocqueville expressed similar reservations about majoritarian rule, as did James Madison and Alexander Hamilton in The Federalist Papers.
Today, we must heed Mill’s warning that efforts to transplant democracy to societies and cultures that have no real history or experience with this form of government make for a problematic enterprise. There is every risk that the outcome will be tyranny or mob rule (or some alternating combination of the two) — what CNN’s Fareed Zakaria has referred to as “illiberal democracy.”
Democratization is a process of cultural, social and political development that does not simply revolve around the exercise of the franchise and the holding of free elections. It also involves the establishment of a civic culture in which citizens learn to become active and intelligent participants in society and the political life of their country. And it involves development of “habits of negotiation” whereby, as in the case of apartheid South Africa, key social and economic groups such as businesses, labour unions and even elements of the government learn to deal with one another before there is political change and free and open elections.
Critically, democracy can likewise only develop in societies with a strong, well-functioning administrative state apparatus that is generally responsive to the needs and welfare of the public.
In recent years, many of Canada’s development assistance policies have focused on public-sector outputs and the requirements of good governance, such as improving systems of public finance in developing countries, providing budgetary support, strengthening systems of accountability, ending corruption and promoting democracy, human rights (especially gender equality) and the rule of law.
This emphasis is well placed and we have generally delivered well on these policies. But what many countries, especially those of the Arab world, also need is external assistance to promote the principles of freedom of religion, tolerance and inclusion. Although there was much criticism when the government of Canada established an office of religious freedom in the Department of Foreign Affairs, International Trade and Development in February 2013, the decision to do so was entirely consistent with Canada’s longstanding leadership in advancing human rights and taking “principled positions to promote Canadian values of pluralism and tolerance throughout the world.” The office’s mandate to “protect, and advocate on behalf of religious minorities under threat; oppose religious hatred and intolerance; and promote Canadian values of pluralism and tolerance abroad” is sound. In fact, a similar office exists in the U.S. Department of State where it has been operating for many years.
Canada has also been supportive of the Centre for Global Pluralism, established by the Aga Khan, which describes itself as “an independent, not-for-profit international research and education centre” located in Ottawa. In its own words, the Centre was “[i]nspired by the example of Canada’s inclusive approach to citizenship” and “works to advance respect for diversity worldwide, believing that openness and understanding toward the cultures, social structures, values and faiths of other peoples are essential to the survival of an interdependent world.”
Both of these instruments, along with others, can serve as important tools of Canadian foreign policy and our own efforts to promote and restore the allure of democratic, pluralist values. However, to be effective, Canada will have to work more closely with other countries that are also prepared to speak out against violations of freedom of religion and defend basic human rights.
That said, we also need to understand the limitations of such activity in the face of events bordering on civil war. Syria is an even more horrific example than Egypt of the failure of global diplomacy and of institutions such as the UN, which were intended primarily to maintain stability and peace in the world and to promote human rights. The U.S., despite massive military assistance to Egypt, has become little more than a bewildered, some say humbled, bystander in both countries. As for Egypt, benefactors with even deeper pockets, such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, have a greater stake in regional stability and will not shy away from helping those most likely to deliver stable outcomes. The seeds of pluralistic democracy will take years, not months, to take root.

This article is adapted from the authors’ forthcoming book, BRAVE NEW CANADA, which will be published by McGill-Queen’s University Press in early 2014.

Fen Osler Hampson is Distinguished Fellow and Director of Global Security at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) and Chancellor’s Professor at Carleton University. Derek H. Burney is senior strategic adviser for Norton Rose Fulbright, an international commercial law firm, and a Senior Research Fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute (CDFAI.)

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Category: Diplomatica

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Fen Osler Hampson is Distinguished Fellow and Director of Global Security at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) and Chancellor’s Professor at Carleton University. Derek H. Burney is senior strategic adviser for Norton Rose Fulbright, an international commercial law firm, and a Senior Research Fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute (CDFAI.)

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