Democracy Takes Time, Even in the Middle East

June 27, 2012 3:12 pm 7 comments

Three fingers dyed pink after voting in the Egyptian constitutional referendum in 2011. Photo: wiki commons.

Last week’s Wall Street Journal ran a sobering piece by Bret Stephens about the disappointing results of democratic elections in Egypt the previous weekend. It’s true that democracy’s defenders have lately been mugged by reality.

On the other hand, Stephens gives a nod toward the end of the piece to the long view: “The good news is that Egyptians may have a wider conception of freedom in 30 years or so, about the same amount of time it took Khomeinism to lose the masses in Iran. In 30 years, too, the Greeks may have a better appreciation of the notion of responsibility, both personal and political.”

At its heart, democracy is a system that requires optimism and faith in the ability of the masses of human beings to aspire and be responsible. To dismiss its superiority over that of, say, dictatorship, is to side with the lower elements of human nature over the higher ones.

Call me an idealist, but I believe in the big picture, to quote Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (who was quoting abolitionist Theodore Parker), “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.”

The moral advancement of the human race seems to move at a snail’s pace, with many glaring and dramatic setbacks. And yet, on the macro level, surely we have advanced from the days of commonplace child sacrifice and slavery and the days when women were universally regarded as lower in status and value than men, for instance.

To continue with an elaboration on Dr. King’s quotation by President Barack Obama (delivered in a speech in 2008): “It bends towards justice, but here is the thing: it does not bend on its own. It bends because each of us in our own ways put our hand on that arc and we bend it in the direction of justice….”

I think this insight can be applied to the global struggle toward democracy. For as policy-makers have learned, democracy building demands a great deal from the residents of any democracy itself. No matter how others are willing to sacrifice for a faraway people, those people themselves must take up democracy’s mantle with all the sacrifice, day-to-day work, education, and civic participation such a society requires. Democracies – whether in Egypt, in Greece, in Iraq, or here in the U.S. – will only be as healthy, vibrant, strong, and genuinely representative as the people who build and sustain them.

That said, we should be careful lest we jump from one erroneous conclusion (that democracies can be built quickly and ushered in primarily by outside forces) to another (that democracy is purely the province of the West and there is no hope for this system of government in any other part of the world, that no one in any place other than the U.S. or Europe wants, can handle, or will sacrifice for any kind of democracy).

As the shrewd Stephens is wise to note near the end of his piece, no one knows the future, and to conclude that the tumultuous events unfolding in places like Egypt and Greece presage the demise of democracy would be short-sighted. To that caveat I would add that I personally know numerous individuals within the Arab world who have taken huge risks and made harrowing sacrifices to try and build democracy in their countries. And let’s not forget that, whatever one’s views about the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and America’s Iraq policy, millions of Iraqi citizens risked their lives to vote in elections and put their lives on the line to join Iraq’s security forces. Reports of horrendous violence in present-day Iraq as well as of election fraud and corruption in Iraq’s present government should, while informing us about the tragic and deeply flawed situation that exists in the aftermath of the U.S. liberation, not cause us to forget that many people of great goodwill, courage, and idealism – both American and Iraqi – made enormous sacrifices to bring democracy to the region.

To the extent the results have been uneven or worse, it is not the fault of those who sacrificed. And it is not necessarily proof that democracy cannot exist and flourish in the region. It may just be an indicator that U.S. policymakers gravely underestimated the challenges – such as highly effective sabotage from many terrorist forces in the region, including the Iranian regime. And it also may suggest that any democracy not fueled and sparked primarily from within will likely face challenges even greater than those birth pains that seem to accompany any nation’s emergence.

To jump from the realization that the U.S. should carefully consider its role – and its stomach for real, long term commitment – before militarily intervening to promote democracy to the conclusion that the U.S. has no role whatsoever to play as a leader in promoting democracy or human rights around the world (including in supporting people within pre-democratic societies who are working to improve them) would only compound the tragic aspects of the Iraq policy.

For in so doing, we will be siding with those who would seize power – and subvert democracy – and against those who would make sacrifices and dedicate themselves to building a better, freer future for their children.

7 Comments

  • Congratulations on a well thought out analysis with a moral foundation. This is one of the most difficult problems facing the world today and you provide some excellent guide posts, especially patience, for us all.

  • what a wonderful view of circustances which can easily be seen as totally negative.But, no you have been able to sort through the quagmire and draw realist positive conclusions which we can all do well to keep in focus.

  • The world is going abroad, saying broad is the way, having a broad view (Matthew 7:13). Art is Esau worldly, the Lord tell us who is sent by him Satan (Jeremiah 14:14). Who wants to be even with Jesus Christ, his equal? (Ezekiel 33:20) *Luke 19:32 And they that were sent went their way and found even as he had said unto them. (Mark 11:4)

  • Martin Luther King Jr stated in March 1968: “If you are antiZionist then you are antisemetic”….Trying shouting that in Tahir Square and living more than a few seconds… I don’t think so…Democracy? Are you kissing? This is Germany in January 1933…and we all know how that story ends….

  • Marylin Pitz

    A thoughtful and well-stated analysis of a difficult set of circumstances. I agree that the yearning for freedom is basic, human and thus universal. Culture plays a role in attitude formation, as well. People prioritize, and values are learned. We must hope that the introduction to the idea of freedom is heady enough to be absorbed.
    Thank you for the very fine article.

  • Marylin Pitz

    A thoughtful and well-stated analysis of a difficult set of circumstances. I agree that the yearning for freedom is basic, human and thus universal. Culture plays a role in attitude formation, as well. People prioritize, and values are learned. We must hope that the introduction to the idea of freedom is heady enough to be absorbed.
    Thank you for the very fine article.

  • Marylin Pitz

    A thoughtful and well-stated analysis of a difficult set of circumstances. I agree that the yearning for freedom is basic, human and thus universal. Culture plays a role in attitude formation, as well. People prioritize, and values are learned. We must hope that the introduction to the idea of freedom is heady enough to be absorbed.
    Thank you for the very fine article.

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Arts and Culture Middle East Hamas Commander Reportedly Urges Hezbollah to Join Forces Against Israel

    Hamas Commander Reportedly Urges Hezbollah to Join Forces Against Israel

    JNS.org – Five months after Israeli forces tried to assassinate Hamas military commander Mohammed Deif in Gaza, Deif appears to have signed a letter that the terrorist group claims he wrote in hiding. The letter, addressed to Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, expressed Deif’s condolences for the death of Hezbollah terrorists during Sunday’s reported Israeli airstrike in Syria. Deif is said to have survived multiple assassination attempts, but he has not been seen in public for years. According to the Hezbollah-linked Al-Manar [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Theater Shlomo Carlebach Musical Has the Soul to Heal Frayed Race Relations

    Shlomo Carlebach Musical Has the Soul to Heal Frayed Race Relations

    JNS.org – The cracks that had been simply painted over for so long began to show in Ferguson, Mo., in November 2014, but in truth they had begun to open wide much earlier—on Saturday, July 13, 2013. That is when a jury in Sanford, Fla., acquitted George Zimmerman of culpability for the death of a 17-year-old black man, Trayvon Martin. The cracks receded from view over time, as other news obscured them. Then came the evening of Aug. 9, 2014, [...]

    Read more →
  • Theater US & Canada ‘Homeland’ Season Finale Stirs Controversy After Comparing Menachem Begin to Taliban Leader

    ‘Homeland’ Season Finale Stirs Controversy After Comparing Menachem Begin to Taliban Leader

    A controversial scene in the season finale of Homeland sparked outrage by comparing former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to a fictional Taliban leader, the UK’s Daily Mail reported. In the season 4 finale episode, which aired on Dec. 21, CIA black ops director Dar Adal, played by F. Murray Abraham, justifies a deal he made with a Taliban leader by referencing Begin. He makes the remarks in a conversation with former CIA director Saul Berenson, a Jewish character played by Mandy [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Spirituality/Tradition Placing Matisyahu Back Within a Life of Observance

    Placing Matisyahu Back Within a Life of Observance

    Shining Light on Fiction During the North Korea-Sony saga, we learned two important lessons. The first is that there are two sides to this story, and neither of them are correct because ultimately we should have neither inappropriate movies nor dictators. The second is that we cannot remain entirely fixed on the religious world, but we also must see beyond the external, secular view of reality. It’s important to ground our Torah-based thoughts into real-life activism. To view our act [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Nine Decades of Moses at the Movies

    Nine Decades of Moses at the Movies

    JNS.org – Hollywood has had its share of big-budget biblical flops, but until now, the Exodus narrative has not been among them. Studios have brought Moses to the big screen sparingly, but in ways that defined the image and character of Moses for each generation of audiences. The first biblical epic In 1923, director Cecil B. DeMille left it to the American public to decide the subject of his next movie for Paramount. DeMille received a letter from a mechanic [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Exodus on Screen (REVIEW)

    Exodus on Screen (REVIEW)

    JNS.org – The story of the Exodus from Egypt is a tale as old as time itself, to borrow a turn of phrase. It’s retold every Passover, both at the seder table and whenever “The Ten Commandments” is aired on television. But the latest adaptation—Ridley Scott’s epic film, “Exodus: Gods and Kings”—fails to meet expectations. Scott’s “Exodus” alters the source material to service the story and ground the tale, but the attempt to reinvent the biblical narrative becomes laughable. Moses [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Lifestyle ‘Jewish Food Movement’ Comes of Age

    ‘Jewish Food Movement’ Comes of Age

    JNS.org - In December 2007, leaders of the Hazon nonprofit drafted seven-year goals for what they coined as the “Jewish Food Movement,” which has since been characterized by the increased prioritization of healthy eating, sustainable agriculture, and food-related activism in the Jewish community. What do the next seven years hold in store? “One thing I would like to see happen in the next seven years is [regarding] the issue of sugar, soda, and obesity, [seeing] what would it be like to rally the [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Education Seeds of ‘Start-Up Nation’ Cultivated by Israel Sci-Tech Schools

    Seeds of ‘Start-Up Nation’ Cultivated by Israel Sci-Tech Schools

    JNS.org – Forget the dioramas. How about working on an Israeli Air Force drone? That’s exactly the kind of beyond-their-years access enjoyed by students at the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) industrial vocational high school run by Israel Sci-Tech Schools, the largest education network in the Jewish state. More than 300 students (250 on the high school level and 68 at a two-year vocational academy) get hands-on training in the disciplines of aviation mechanics, electricity and energy control, and unmanned air [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.