Thursday, September 16

Tunisia shows that democracy will struggle if it cannot generate prosperity | Simon Tisdall

IImplicit in Western and American support for pro-democracy movements and transitions around the world is the assumption that, given freedom of choice, what people will naturally always prefer is an elected and representative system of government. But what if this assumption is wrong? What if a majority believe that democracy does not work for them?

Emerging testimony from Tunisia, the latest country to face a crisis over how it is run, suggests that many citizens welcomed the energetic suspension of a democratically elected parliament that had failed to address the problems of the people and was widely vilified as a selfish oligarchy. .
Mohammed Ali, 33, of Ben Guerdane, seems to typify this point of view. “I think what happened is good. I think that’s what all the people want, ”he told the guardian after last week’s surprise action by Kais Saied, the Tunisian president, to seize power and impose a state of emergency. Local politicians and Western critics called it a coup.

Ali supported the 2010-2011 uprising to topple former Tunisian dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, which sparked a series of pro-democracy revolutions known as the Arab Spring. But a decade of disappointment followed that intoxicating moment, suggested Steven Cook of the US Council on Foreign Relations. – and opinion has changed.

“Many Tunisians, or at least those who have been on the streets in recent days, seem to have a more ambivalent relationship with democracy. They seem to want a more effective state that can create jobs and a social safety net regardless of the character of the political system, ”Cook wrote.

Although the search for a more just democratic society continued, “it is possible that after a decade in which Tunisians enjoyed greater personal freedoms, the lack of prosperity has made a potentially significant number of them more willing to try again. some version of authoritarianism. ”He added.

That is deeply uncomfortable and old-fashioned thinking for Western advocates of global democracy who obsess over big ideas about peace, values, and fundamental rights. However, democratic transitions often run into more mundane issues: economic hardship, inequality, lack of opportunities, poor education, insecurity.

“We had tremendous progress on the freedom front and the political front despite all the crises,” Fadhel Kaboub, Tunisian economics professor, said to New York Times. “But what it has kept almost intact is exactly the same model of economic development that produced inequality, the debt crisis, the economic social exclusion against which the population rebelled.”

This points to another common flaw. Like the democratic uprisings in Syria, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, and Yemen, the Tunisian revolution did not receive any (or no) unconditional support from Western countries more concerned about Islamist terrorism and instability than the aspirations of the Arab street. . To some extent, it is now happening again in Lebanon.

This familiar and cowardly behavior by Western governments gives democracy a bad name. Citizens of Hong Kong, Myanmar and Belarus, where pro-democracy movements were brutally crushed last year, can rightly wonder: If the West won’t fight for democracy, then perhaps it is not worth it.

This kind of thinking delights authoritarians around the world. President Xi Jinping assumed dictatorial powers without even asking the Chinese people for their opinion, much less their vote. Maybe they don’t care. Checking out Bruce Dickson’s new book, The Party and the People: Chinese Politics in the 21st Century, Chinese academic Ian Johnson says state crackdown only partly explains the lack of overt opposition.

“At least as important is the fact that, based on surveys and anecdotal evidence, a large proportion of the Chinese population appears to be quite satisfied with the way the CCP runs their country,” Johnson wrote, citing Dickson’s research. . “Many critics may wish this were not so, but then how do you explain why dissidents have so few followers?”

Dickson suggests that most Chinese define democracy: minzhu in Chinese, not in terms of elections or personal freedom, but of results that serve the interests of the people. With such measures, Xi is possibly doing well. Similarly, President Vladimir Putin’s willingness to ostentatiously defend Russia and the Russians may help explain his consistently high approval ratings – despite its lack of true democratic legitimacy.

The general message from around the world seems to be that if authoritarian or illiberal regimes keep people safe, fed, housed and working, they may be prepared to forgo the relative “luxury” of high-level Western-style democracy. It is also clear that autocrats who deny freedom in exchange for security often fail to accomplish both. Look at North Korea or even Turkey.

In other words, political freedom in the modern age, like everything else, is transactional: it is no longer a universal principle espoused by the Enlightenment philosophers and founding fathers, but a tacky trade-off. For US Republicans suppressing votes and tampering with ballots who last week tried to screw up an investigation into Donald Trump’s failed January 6 coup, democracy is fine, if it produces the “right” results.

Given the terrible example of the Republicans, it is no wonder that democracy, as a system of government, is in trouble around the world. Last year, a Economist survey found that less than 8.4% of the world’s population lives in full democracy and more than a third under an authoritarian regime. And it’s getting worse.

As the British also know at its price, democracy often does not work well, even at its heart. This grim situation has not come about by chance or thanks to a new year of bullies for despots and tyrants. It is the product of public apathy and collusion, global inequality, and pervasive political negligence.

If President Joe Biden is serious about reversing the authoritarian tide, the United States and Europe must do more to convince Tunisians, among others, that economic prosperity and security, and collective and individual democratic rights, They are not incompatible but rather mutually reinforcing. They can have both, and they are worth fighting for.

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