Democracy versus Democratizing [Archives:1999/26/Viewpoint]

June 28 1999

In my many discussions with Western officials and diplomats, I could easily feel their favorable attitude towards regimes that are friendly to Western interests. That is logical. But Westerners shy away from justifying such an attitude purely on the ground of economic self-interest. They use the facade of democracy – such as elections and political pluralism – to justify their position. Again, their presentation and reasoning is plausible.
There is only one problem. Countries unfriendly to the West have learned to use the same tricks. Now they too are able to use these facades and tactics. Let me throw in some examples.
1. Political Pluralism:
Did you know that political pluralism exists in Iraq, Syria, etc.? There are at least half a dozen political parties authorized in each of them. These have offices, newspapers, etc.
2. Elections:
Did you know that Iraq, Sudan, Iran, Etc., have recently held presidential and parliamentary elections? Did you know that in each case, foreign observers were invited to watch the competition among numerous candidates for each post?
3. Press Freedom:
Did you know that there are ‘independent’ newspapers in Syria, Algeria, Iran, etc.? Did you know that these newspapers, including the government-owned ones, run stories critical of various government officials and their decisions?
Now, my question is, why does the West view the ‘democracy’ of Iraq, Iran Sudan, Syria, etc., in a different light than that of Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia or Yemen? Of course, I may be pushing the point a bit too far, and I may be comparing oranges and apples. I contend, however, that these countries are in the same group, they just represent different shades of the same spectrum.
In this regard, let me make two main points:
1. I think the final arbiter of a real democracy is the ability of society to achieve a peaceful transfer of power from one ruler to another, through direct and free public elections. The rule of law and accountability are part and parcel of everyday civil society. Finally, decentralization of power, whether in terms of competing and viable power forces at the center or in terms of local influence groups in the regions, is an important indicator of a democratic society. Unless these elements – in addition to political pluralism, elections, press freedom, etc. – exist in a society, we cannot claim to have democracy.
2. There is no such thing as a democratizing regime. You either have it, or you don’t. Look at East Europe and the Far East. From totalitarian dictatorships, they have moved to democracies. If democratizing is taken in the sense of learning how to improve the systems, we can use the term democratizing. In that same sense, even Britain and the USA are democratizing; i. e. they are working to perfect their democracies.
I will conclude with Yemen. I feel Yemen can move ahead. To achieve that, we need a more forceful interaction with the West in helping our people secure the real conditions for democracy. Many dictators are waiting to see what happens to a regime which renounces even their facade of democracy. If one country gets away with it, then in a domino effect, they will all revert to the old ways. I hope the West won’t allow this to happen, and I hope that my Yemen does not become the first country to try to renounce the facade.
Prof. Dr. Abdulaziz Al-Saqqaf
Yemen Times Founder