The fascinating simultaneous demonstrations and challenges to democratically elected regimes in Egypt, Turkey and Brazil this month suggest that we need to look for an explanation for something structural in newly democratized societies, rather than seeking cultural explanations. The silliest common cultural line of analysis often asks about the compatibility of “Islam and democracy,” without our ever hearing an analogous discussion of, say, “Judaism and democracy” or “Christianity and democracy.”
The mass demonstrations in these three countries are particularly intriguing because the leaderships in all three are democratically elected, and therefore unquestionably legitimate. Also, all three countries have been passing through moments of great hope and achievement; these include significant mass economic improvements in people’s well-being in Brazil and Turkey, and a democratic transition in Egypt that has created a new global icon of the popular will for mass dignity and civil rights: “Tahrir Square.” Politically mummified Egypt set a new benchmark against which other political agitation around the world would be measured, whether in Madison, Wisconsin in 2011, or in Turkey this month where analysts debated whether the Turkish people were carrying out their own “Tahrir Square.”
The hundreds of thousands of people who took to the streets in Turkey and Brazil, and those millions in Egypt who promise a mass national demonstration on June 30 to seek the ouster of President Mohammad Morsi, on the first year anniversary of his presidential incumbency, raise reasonable questions that relate to several aspects of the two most compelling dimensions of governance: the policyand style of the ruling incumbents. If the legitimacy of the leaderships in these three countries is not directly in question—after all, they were elected in free and fair democratic elections—then why do the dissatisfied citizens take to the streets to show their concerns?
I suspect that we are witnessing a dramatic expression of the weaknesses inherent in two processes that are slowly expanding across the world: One is democratic rule based on majoritarian electoral victories, and the other is the continued diffusion of neo-liberal capitalism that turns citizens into consumers and gives corporations much greater power in the public realm than the masses of ordinary citizens. The convergence and the initial globalization of these two forces can be traced to the early 1980s, under the leaderships of Ronald Reagan in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom.
The critical element at play in Egypt, Turkey and Brazil—and visible to smaller degrees elsewhere in the world—is the expression of discontent among citizens who feel that their ability to vote in or vote out their national leadership is not a sufficient expression of their rights to be treated decently or fairly by their own society. Most of the demonstrators in Brazil and Turkey are members of the rising middle classes that benefit from their country’s leaderships and their policies during the past decade or more. Their living conditions, spending power, and capacity to hold leaders accountable, or change them through the ballot box if need be, have been broadly improving; in Egypt, economic conditions remained dire, but people feel a newfound hope, empowerment, pride and dignity in their lives, and are involved in the exhilarating, unprecedented, process of writing their constitution and creating a governance system that reflects their values and aspirations.
And yet, masses of citizens still take to the streets in these countries because they do not feel that the existing democratic mechanisms are sufficiently attentive to their rights, needs, and grievances, which spann a very wide array of issues that include ethnic and sectarian identities, economic realities, political freedoms, corruption, stressed public services, and, perhaps most importantly, an arrogant style of wielding power.
That arrogance of leaders who were freely elected has tended to chip away at but not totally negate their legitimacy. It has also sparked a historic new response from masses of aggrieved citizens who now take to the streets to demonstrate in a manner that tries to force the sorts of compromises, consultations and policy changes that are not occurring as they should through the normal democratic process.
The Reagan-Thatcher approach to governance held that a 51% majority with a mandate to govern from the citizens could do whatever it deemed to be in the national interest. But the 49% or more of citizens who increasingly feel that their rights and concerns are not taken into consideration by the policy-setting majority have taken a detour around the blockages of insensitive majorities, and are trying to force change by using new tactics of street politics.
Most of the protests have been spontaneous, locally organized, and not coordinated in a sustainable national movement. The best outcome from these protests would be to reinvigorate the formal democratic processes—elections, parliaments, courts, political parties—that tend to lose their glamour and much of their legitimacy when they become callously arrogant.
Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. You can follow him @ramikhouri.
Copyright © 2013 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global