Francis Matthew

Democracy: Why Winner Should Not “Take All”

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Democracy is not just about elections, even if they are free and fair. Elections are simply a relatively cheap way of changing governments regularly, and so avoiding the twin horrors of either violent change with its attendant confusion and mayhem, or a sclerotic government that gets stuck in office for decades and loses its way.

Democracy is more about the spirit of inclusion, in which all members of society agree that others have a legitimate place in their nation’s proceedings. This means that opposition parties should be respected as having a right to be part of the political debate, even if they are not in power at the time. It means that the rights of the individual are supported by strong rule of law, in which all individuals have defined rights that they can enforce in court if they are restrained in some way by either individuals or even their government.

Democracy also means that the government of the day cannot be confused with the structure of the state. The government has to work within the system, and the head of government should not be able to run roughshod through the structure of the state, nor be able to treat the state as his or her personal possession. Achieving power does not give a new government a “winner-takes-all” right to loot the state. A government does not own a country, but holds it in trust for its successors and future generations to take over when their time comes.

The twin challenge facing many Arab states today are that they are defining new long-term constitutional structures for their states, and at the same time they are electing new governments. And these governments are coming to power with active social agendas and very high hopes after decades of repression, which is leading to a blurring of the distinction between the government of the day and the future long-term structure of the state.

In Tunisia, an Islamist government has won power but seems to have the support of the majority of its people as it has insisted that the future constitution should be more inclusive, with government thinkers quoting the example of Turkey’s more secular constitution supporting a popular Islamist government.

In Iraq, the process is a few years further down the road since Saddam was toppled in 2003. But a bitter civil war deepened the hatred and suspicions between the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, so the country has failed to arrive at a final constitution. This has opened a vacuum within which the present government has started to reinforce its Shiite position, to the alarm of others.

In Egypt, the new parliament is dominated by a majority of Islamist parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood and their more radical Salafist allies, and their candidates are very strong contenders to win the presidency. They also tried to fill the constitutional assembly with their members, leading to a walk out of other parties which was backed by the courts. In this case, the long-term structures of the state reminded the government of the day that it is required to work within the system.

The challenge is that the new government has strong social policies with which other Egyptians disagree, but it is seeking to insert these into Egypt’s as yet unwritten new constitution. The Islamist government wants more public adherence to Islamic values, and that these should be enforced by law. Many more secular (but not atheistic) Muslims do not want their religion to be part of public life and resent the government’s assumption of moral duty, not to mention Egypt’s large Coptic Christian community which also disagrees with enforcing Muslim values as part of public life.

Throughout the Middle East, the great fear is that when the Islamists gain power, they will seek to insert their view of life with the structure of government and also refuse to relinquish power. This concern was very explicitly expressed recently by Lieutenant General Dahi Khalfan Tamim, Commander of Dubai Police, who told Al Qabas newspaper that Kuwait would be taken over by the Muslim Brotherhood by 2013, who would then seek to take over the rest of the Gulf by 2016.

“They are concerned only with ruling chairs, and have nothing to do with implementing Islamic jurisprudence.” Lt Gen Dahi.

There is no doubt that governments do reflect public opinion and in time changing public morals are reflected in law, but these changes have to reflect the broad will of the people, and should focus on supporting and encouraging individual opportunity, rather than imposing restrictions.

For example, during the twentieth century all across Europe and the United States laws were changed so that women could vote. In fact, this profound social shift of achieving full equality between men and women has yet to work its way through all sectors of society and employment, but ensuring women’s right to vote and own property independently of their husbands were essential starting points, and were mandated by government action.

The Arab world has to make sure that the liberalising changes that the vast majority of its people want, do not get confused with their largely conservative social and family structures. Just because the religious parties are far better prepared for this new public debate, they should not overplay their hand.

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This article is published with the kind permission of Francis Matthew. It appeared originally on Middle East newspaper, Gulf News.

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