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Getting a grip on democracy

Photo by Richard Swift

Slippery devil, this democracy. What the hell is it anyway? For some it means individual rights and liberty; for others, collective self-determination. For many it’s simply a question of periodic votes for this or that politician. For a few it’s a principle that should inform all aspects of political and economic life. For the advocates of corporate globalization, there are no doubts: democracy equals market freedom; their language is expansive and inviting – free-market globalization opens societies, erodes bureaucratic prerogatives and expands democratic possibilities as surely as it fattens wallets. Others are not so sure.

Take Egypt, for example. The most important country in the Middle East, measured by population (more than 80 million) and strategic position, it has since the 1980s maintained ‘open door’ policies for corporate globalization. The National Democratic Party state has, despite its name, been a virtual dictatorship since it grew out of the military regime that had been in power since the early 1950s. Anwar Sadat, who replaced Gamal Abdel Nasser as President in 1970, felt that the nationalist regime needed a civilian face: thus the National Democratic Party.

There is little that is democratic about it. Critics of Egypt’s current regime see a long history of autocracy rooted in Pharaonic traditions and running on through centralized monarchy to colonial domination by England and France. Democratic activists are still faced with an authoritarian state buttressed by a fearful security apparatus and supported by Western allies who ask very few questions. So they have little in the way of a democratic political tradition to fall back on, and can have quite different faces.

One face

Mohammed Adel is barely into his twenties. He’s a key activist with the April 6th Movement. In 2008 it sprang up among the discontented young, in support of a wave of strikes by 25,000 textile workers in the Nile Delta town of El Mahalla. The demands of the workers in the Abul Sabae textile plant – the largest in the Middle East – for a living wage and independent trade unions plainly struck a chord with many Egyptians. A combination of e-activism (the Movement website has 73,000 members) and street demonstrations took the autocratic regime of President Hosni Mubarak by unpleasant surprise.

The April 6th Movement is in some respects reminiscent of the ‘colours’ revolutions that swept across the former Soviet Union. The idea is to create a broad front, from the Muslim Brothers (a strain of religious opposition dating back to the 1930s) to the restive – and sometimes quite secular – young. Getting rid of the regime is the focal point, then establishing conventional democratic arrangements and letting the cards fall where they may. A difficulty here is that the West that cheered on the ‘colours’ revolutions in the former Soviet Union is complicit with the Mubarak regime in Egypt.

Would more democracy in Egypt simply open the floodgates for Islamic extremism and sweep away the rights of minorities, as the West seems to fear? While there are no guarantees, a strong democratic opening could equally well lead to a flowering of many currents of opinion – socialist, liberal, various shades of Islamic, Coptic Christian – that lie beneath the surface. The Mubarak regime keeps intolerance alive by playing on fear: the West’s fear of political Islam; the Islamic fear of secularism; minority fears of intolerance; everyone’s fear of the police. Keeping the lid screwed down tight promotes intolerance much more effectively than letting the multiplicity of voices at least talk to each other. Even if they sometimes yell.

Globalization is most comfortable with political systems where there is a high level of citizen apathy – preferably by choice but, if not, then enforced by an autocratic state

The broad front strategy of the April 6th Movement remains agnostic on questions of economic globalization. The kind of romanticizing of the market that occurred in the former USSR is unlikely in a country that is all too familiar with the costs of privatization and cutbacks in social provision. But without a clearer notion of the economic elements of a future democracy there is a danger that the Movement could end up with the kind of minimalist version that is easily manipulated by those with money and power.

Another face

Karam Saber comes from a different political tradition and has quite different preoccupations. In his mid-40s, his personal dress and ready grin contrast with the gravitas of his legal training. He is the middle child of seven in a family of small farmers from the village of Warrak in Giza province, just south of Cairo. Karam is now director of the LAND human rights centre that works with Egypt’s small farmers in 16 provinces that dot the Nile Valley from Upper Egypt to the fertile delta. They are struggling against agribusiness for sustainable agriculture.

Karam became involved with the Communist Left at Law School but quickly tired of the factionalism and moved on to the small political space allowed to civil society organizing. The LAND Centre plays a crucial role in supporting Egypt’s million-odd small farmers. Karam helped to establish it in 1996, the year Law 92 made it easier to throw farmers off their land. He sees economic globalization as very much the cause of the pressure that is driving small farmers from their farms and endangering Egyptian food self-sufficiency.

For Karam, the rise of large-scale export agriculture is undercutting the small farmer, who caters mostly to local markets. LAND is currently involved in a law suit against the World Bank for a project that diverts precious Nile water away from small farms in the Delta to newly developed large agricultural estates in more arid areas. Many small farmers are now forced to use recycled waste water on their crops, polluting the domestic food supply.

Karam characterizes two kinds of farmer revolts: ‘In some cases, when there is an illegal farm seizure aided by the police, the reaction can be quite violent; in other cases, where there is a campaign to get fairer access to resources, it is peaceful.’ 

The kind of democracy that Karam envisions is not just a set of formal political arrangements (although they are certainly important) but one that empowers small farmers and allows Egypt to maintain the quantity and quality of its own food supply. For him, issues like the lack of healthcare, decent education and social amenities in Egypt’s 4,500 villages is a crucial part of the democratic destination. The vision here is one of an economic democracy that underpins the political arrangements and lets Egyptians decide for themselves key questions of priorities, rather than being blinded by what he sees as the fool’s gold of globalization.

Apathy – and other ideas

Globalization is most comfortable with political systems where there is a high level of citizen apathy – preferably by choice but, if not, then enforced by an autocratic state, as in Egypt or China. North America is the most successful model of this ‘strong market/weak democracy’ where, despite the brave words (if not deeds) of Barack Obama, issues of substance rarely make it on to the floor of Congress. Europe is not far behind. Not surprisingly, a growing number of people in this situation decide that it doesn’t matter and resign from even the minimal democratic space they are allowed to occupy.

This is not to say that there is no political resistance to globalization – far from it. The political cultures of France, Bolivia and South Korea have proved particularly volatile. Mass strikes, occupations, boycotts are common fare. The French recently came up with the innovative tactic of ‘bossnapping’ to deal with redundancies and unpaid pensions and wages. Privatized water supply, reduced pensions, higher food prices, cuts in the rights of workers – why is this good for us? The result can be an embarrassing (if often temporary) climb-down by the authorities.

Yet sporadic militancy usually does not have the staying power to support an alternative model of stronger democracy – and no such model currently exists. But there are fragments to be found in different political cultures around the world.

Latin America has in many ways taken the lead here. In country after country, Latin Americans have elected governments that are at least sceptical of ‘neoliberalism’, breaking with a recent past of globalization-friendly, often brutal, military dictatorship. Democratic activists have gone further, working to embed democracy in communities and workplaces, giving people a direct say over key policy decisions.

Take Uruguay, for example. Here is a country where, according to an annual survey by the independent Chilean polling firm Latinobarómetro, the population shows year after year the highest degree of trust in its democratic institutions. Some of this relates to a history of democratic rule, broken only by US-sponsored military dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s. There is a tradition of direct democracy, in which key policy questions are decided in referenda, dating back to 1917. This has proved a key tool for citizens. In October 2004 Uruguayans voted to make water privatization illegal. The year before, they used referenda to overturn privatization in the energy sector.

Other examples in Latin America include the ‘participatory budget’ experiments launched first by the municipal government in Porto Alegre, southern Brazil. The example has been picked up by as many as 1,200 municipalities across the continent. It is also being used by smaller economic units – schools, universities, public housing projects. The limitations often lie in the restricted powers of municipalities and small institutions – nothing similar has yet been tried at the level of a national budget.

Democracy in the economy has not, however, been restricted to the public sector, with a number of instances of workers taking over abandoned factories, hotels and other workplaces, particularly in Argentina and, to a lesser extent, Venezuela.

While far from problem-free, all this provides a degree of democratic input not previously imagined. Egypt may be far from Latin America. The institutional forms of a strong democracy would need to be adapted for the squatter suburbs of Cairo, the dusty villages of the Upper Nile. But a toolkit does exist, which does allow for the possibility that a post-Mubarak democracy might have deeper roots and wider effect than, say, the stock exchange in downtown Cairo.

Richard Swift is a former co-editor of New Internationalist magazine based in Toronto. He is the author of the No-Nonsense Guide to Democracy (New Internationalist Publications, Oxford 2009) and the Groundwork Guide to Street Gangs (forthcoming, Groundwork Books, Toronto). With thanks for the support of the European Journalism Centre.

New Internationalist issue 430 magazine cover This article is from the March 2010 issue of New Internationalist.
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