Canada 2020

Demont: Democracy‘s Unintended Outcome

February 25, 2011

As the Arab world explodes in a paroxysm of protest and demands for democracy, distant history holds a warning as to what can happen when fledgling popular movements replace authoritarian regimes.

Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain and other middle eastern nations – many countries barely on the radar screens of the western public – are all caught up in a wave of widespread unrest and euphoria as groups finally grasp the political truth that mass movements pushing towards a well-defined goal often get at least some portion of what they want.

And, here, free elections are the goal.

In many cases, popular unrest wins out because soldiers cannot stomach the idea of killing large numbers of their fellow countrymen, often to back up some aging dictator who has outlived his effectiveness and who enjoys very little national support.

You might be able to draw some parallels between the African of 50 years ago and the modern Middle East.

Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, European countries, led mainly by Britain and France, relaxed their stranglehold on their African colonies and gave them independence.

For years, most of these countries had been subjected to popular uprisings and attacks by long-standing indigenous guerrilla movements, all designed to increase the cost of European rule.

In addition, people in many western countries began to believe that holding colonies were no longer appropriate in the post-World War 2 era and that the emancipation of Africa and Asia was in order.

As a result, places like Kenya, Niger and Nigeria, would be able to elect their own governments and not be ruled from London or Paris.

For many countries, especially in so-called ‘black Africa’, the relief was palatable. Now, these peoples were no longer subjected to the institutional racism of having whites a continent away decide their futures.

Instead, men, such as Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere and Nnamdi Azikiwe, took center stage as great men leading their nations into the dawning of a new era.

But, it didn’t work out that way.

One problem is the difference in opposing the existing authoritarian government versus actually ruling the country.

In independence struggles, many opposition groups operate as shadowy, romantic organizations, waging a seemingly doomed fight against the oppressive machinery of a non-representative government.

Once it becomes clear the old regime is on its way out, however, the ‘all-for-one’ agenda of these groups turns from clear – dump the existing regime – to opaque – securing a place for their own pet causes.

As a result, these fledgling democracies experienced widespread internecine fighting. Groups that once banded together to fight the common woe now found their differences overwhelming in the face of the necessity of forming a working government.

In Africa, the ensuing unrest in the 1960s had a tendency to incite military leaders, who pined for the days of a strong leader in the face of all these political weaklings.

By 1966, Nigeria’s three-year old presidency was replaced in a military coup setting the stage for the next 14 years of army rule.

Kenya, which gained independence in 1963, evolved into a one-party state with Jomo Kenyatta holding office for 15 years.

Time after time, legitimate – but ineffective – African governments were tossed out by the military or were squeezed out by one organized political party, which then grabbed the reins of power in a death gripe.

The newly emancipated countries of the Middle East face the same possibility, which once uniform agendas will splinter into unworkable governing platforms.

Worse still, in the Middle East, the groups most likely to remain united in the wake of further unrest would be those political parties and organizations representing stricter Muslim sects within these societies.

After all, their goal in many cases is not democratic elections but the installation of a more religiously based society.

Of course, such an analysis does not mean the fight for a democratic society is a lost cause.

Unlike Africa, however, the Middle Eastern states that are moving towards free elections need to tread carefully with well-considered rules to protect political parties and voting outcomes.

Otherwise, those protestors in places like Libya and Egypt might find themselves merely trading one form or dictatorship in for another.

Philip DeMont, a veteran print and television journalist based in Toronto, is a co-author (with Eugene Lang) of Turning Point: Moving Beyond Neoconservative.

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