It is not only about elections and it is not “boundless freedom”:Understanding true democracy [Archives:2003/633/Community]

April 27 2003

Ibrahim Addahhan
Some people in Yemen believe that democracy doesn't exist. While to others, it is just a dream or illusion, a word with no meaning. To politicians, it is just lip service, a mere slogan to win votes. At least this is what Yemenis in the streets feel about democracy in the glowing fashion that must glow every five years in order to imitate a democratizing country and fool the world into thinking that we have indeed joined the new world order and started to look and feel as a modern state.

What is democracy?
What is democracy according to the common man in the street? This question proved to be a very difficult one for most Yemenis. Among the people I have directed this question to, many refuses to answer for the clear reason that they did not want to make fools of themselves by giving foolish irrelevant answers. On the other hand, the ones who actually answered my question gave me almost the very same answer every time. To them, democracy is boundless freedom. Well, this is a very open answer. I tried to get a more credible and logical answer, but unfortunately, all I got over and over again was the same response, probably due to the lack of awareness about the meaning of democracy. People have not been educated enough. In fact the only education they have on democracy is during elections, and it is limited to teaching them a single fact about democracy, “Democracy is the right to vote”. Because of the lack of awareness and information about democracy, people have no clue even of the most basic meaning of democracy. You will be surprised to know what 'boundless democracy' means to the majority of Yemenis. To help us understand why this is the case, let me tell this strange and unique story that I have experienced. Once I was traveling in a mini bus when it was cold. All windows and the door were shut. A young man sitting in front of me lit a cigarette and the person next to him requested him to put it off, since there is no way for the smoke to get out. The young man refused. I decided to interfere and pursue the young man to put out the cigarette yet he still refused. But this time he had given us a reason to why he is not putting it out! He said, “This is a democratic country, and I can do anything I want!” This answer might appear to be a good and convincing to some people, but if you read between the lines, you will be astonished when you realize that this young man had no clue about democracy that he was just lecturing us about. Democracy was never meant to harm people, it gives them freedom, but this freedom is not boundless. Your freedom in democracy has a limit. According to democracy “your freedoms end where others' start”.
Yemen is one of the countries where on one hand, the leaders and members of parliament are democratically being deprived of their basic rights and freedoms. We are witnessing the rise of this diverse, contradicting, and disturbing phenomenon in Yemen. This is because of the lack of understanding of the concept of democracy by the public and politicians as well. Some experts even predict in spite of being young, our unique experience in the Arabian Peninsula is actually heading to suicide! For our decision makers, the phrase “we have democracy” might seem enough reason to boast and cheer up, but we should look at it from a more reasonable and realistic viewpoint. We see that our parliament is not the one ruling the country when it is their job as the legislative body to do so. As a result, some members of the parliament are frustrated by what is going on around them. They feel that they have become puppets to blindly support the government. This is partly due to the partisanship that is evident in almost all parliamentary votes, and party because of the majority of the ruling party in the parliament. This is in contrast to their main duty of putting partisanship said and thinking of the nation's interests and worries some of our leaders to some extent have bypassed the parliament evading basic constitutional practices; while security forces are turned on honest journalists who are trying to point out the insufficiency of the system. Sometimes political opponents who might disagree with the government on an issue face the same faith. This disagreement does not make them enemies of the ruling party. In fact this could be a good chance for both ends to meet and discuss to find the best way to overcome the conflict. This intolerance by officials shows that over leaders themselves need to be educated on democracy. For them, democracy starts and ends with the elections and what is beyond that is not tolerable. Holding free and fair elections is the first step in the direction of democracy, but it is just the beginning. What comes after that is important too. In fact it is more important than the first step.
The real meaning of democracy means “liberal democracy”. In other words, real democracy is a political system, which starts with free and fair elections along with the rule of law, separation of powers, and the protection of basic liberties such as free speech, property and assembly. Democracy is not about the procedures for electing government, but about protecting the individual liberties and dignity against constraint by the state or the society, it is about creating a framework of law and administration to ensure justice for all.
Free and fair elections are not the only benchmark of democracy. Democracy is a promise and a commitment to ensure the safeguarding of other values as well, including equality, freedom, basic human rights, and most importantly, the dignity of every individual, no matter who he/she is, or where he/she comes from.
There are three categories of regimes in the world. The first is the one that declares itself democratic and acts accordingly. The second is the one stating that it is not democratic (like some kingdoms and sultanates). The third is the one stating it is democratic, but does not implement true democracy. Unfortunately Yemen is in third category. It is obvious that the third is the worst of all. Simply because the regime fools its citizens and the world into believing that what they get of freedom is the best that can be giving to the people and tries to convince them that there is democracy in the country. But the truth is otherwise. The misunderstanding of democracy has become the norm among Yemeni citizens, who are not able to judge whether they are in a democratic state or not!