The Spring of 2011 was marked by democratic fever as seen in the Arab world. What does democracy mean? What are the necessary conditions for democracy to take roots? Democracy cannot be built on impulse. It cannot be imposed by another country. It has to come from a grass-root movement when the time is ripe. The revolution in Egypt and its neighbors is only the beginning. The future path is hard to predict. The danger exists that a small group of fanatics could hijack the system and revert it to some kind of dictatorship or authoritarian regime.
Democracy is always noisy and chaotic because it involves the masses, but should not have to be bloody. The most fundamental requirement is that in a democracy, the people agree to compete using ideas and words, instead of fighting with knives and bullets. Once violence is employed, people don’t bother to argue any more because they only need to kill to get what they want. Therefore, when the people want to talk and to compromise, democracy will begin to flourish.
It sounds so simple that people want to talk and compromise. In fact, they seldom do, especially for those who have amassed power. You will be surprised how long it has taken the human race to learn to compromise. The seeds of democracy began to bear fruits in the American Revolution of 1776 only in a newfound continent. The French Revolution of 1788 followed when the people overthrew an absolute monarch for the first time. Nowadays, how many countries are true democracies? They exist only as a small minority around the world. Although absolute monarchs have ceased to exist, they are usually replaced by dictators, military strongmen, and elite ruling families. As a matter of fact, democracy is a new and rare system evolved out of thousands of years of human governance.
Democracy is founded on equal rights for each and every individual. What are those rights? They include: the right to life, freedom of speech, freedom to pursue happiness without harming others, equal opportunities, property rights, privacy protection, freedom of information flow, and finally, environmental protection to sustain all the other rights. Do these sound familiar? They are all human rights as a matter of fact (See my previous essay entitled “Human Rights: To Enforce Or To Expose”). Therefore, democracy and human rights are inseparable. A regime grossly violating human rights cannot claim to be democratic even though it cites the familiar excuses such as security, stability or national interest.
Democracy is an ideal, and is always work in progress. We should focus on how much a country has achieved on the long road of democraticy. Even dictators want to claim they have achieved democracy. Why? They want to claim that they take care of their own people even though the opposite is true. They also know that democracy cannot be achieved without granting the people some basic rights. Hence they invent all kinds of excuses for their system of repression.
Even in the United States, known as the oldest democracy of the world, gross violations of human rights can be found in the form of slavery in the past, racial segregation, and subtle discrimination against various minority and economic groups nowadays. It took a civil war to eliminate slavery, and decades of protests and riots to force changes in the laws to make them more fair and just. The democratic system is always waiting to be perfected.
In order for a democracy to function, the people must believe in give and take achieved through non-violence. Ironically, they must also believe in one of the contradictions of democracy, that is, the minority obeys the majority once the votes have been cast. In return, the majority takes the responsibility to execute the voting mandate with care, and to protect the interests of the minority. In a way, democracy is like a contract of trust between the governing and the governed, where the former derives power and legitimacy from the latter. By contrast, in a non-democracy, the small minority possessing bullets and money lords it over the great majority in the name of security, stability, and other excuses.