Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.
Ever since an educated fruit seller from a small town in Tunisia set himself on fire in protest over unemployment, poverty and corruption, the embers of that singular act have fanned revolutionary flames of protest and civic action like no other time in our recent history. Tunisia, Egypt and now Algeria, Bahrain and Libya are feeling the popular heat and collective fervor for freedom, equality, the pursuit of opportunity and happiness, and the unequivocal demand for self-determination.
Amidst the jubilation and awe at the current shows of popular civic activism, there has been underlying cynicism and skepticism from the usual lineup of nay-saying suspects. These polemicists spout the same negativity that has been recited time and again to delay reform and democratic self-actualization. Only now, after years of oppression and mindless obedience, has the Arab population come to the realization that it is the individual that makes up the collective. And that it is through singular actions of individuals that movements and revolutions are made.
Recently, while stuck in traffic in a taxi in downtown Amman, Jordan, my driver turned around and asked me:
“Do you believe in democracy?”
I stopped for a minute, and then resoundingly answered, “Yes, I do.”
He then asked, “But doesn’t freedom have its limits? Doesn’t the West constantly try to implement its version of democracy on us? All they want is for us to be like them, to give women more rights so that they can start to rule and control us men”.
I stopped for a minute to absorb what he was saying, although every fiber of my being was screaming to throw his words back in his face with some well-worded Western-constructed argument about gender equality and human rights – courtesy of my years spent in schools and universities in the West. Instead, I looked at him and very calmly and with almost equal conviction replied:
“You know, you are right. You are absolutely right.”
What this outspoken taxi driver in downtown Amman made me realize, or rather confirm, is that yes, democracy is not the answer – at least not in its current mutated form. Democracy, as we have come to know and understand it, is a Western imposed system that spouts seemingly foreign and hypocritical concepts. There is no need to mention the scores of democratic elections that have taken place around the world, only to be made obsolete and void because of Western dissatisfaction with the people’s choice – insert here Hamas in Gaza 2006, Salvador Allende in Chile 1973, Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran 1953… The list goes on and on…
What my short taxi ride didn’t allow, however, was a chance for me to explain to this wise, cynical, yet understandably misguided old man, was that the democratic ideal has in fact been hijacked and held hostage by the West. It has been snatched away from the very constituency – us the people – that it is meant to protect, by those who purport to uphold it. What I didn’t have a chance to explain is that real and true democracy does not come from lands far away, from presidents and prime ministers who spew words of freedom on the one hand, and scheme and support local dictators on the other. Democracy is an action, a practice, something that you do rather than something that you are. Democracy is a mutable structure made up of smaller vital, popularly supported components: civic participation, civic action, open dialogue, informed choice, and equal opportunity… What I didn’t get a chance to tell the taxi driver was that democracy was in fact just practiced in the very taxi we were sitting in!
– Change in a Box