To Say ‘We have democracy’ Is Simply Not Enough! [Archives:1999/05/Focus]

February 1 1999

This is an OPINION page.
Every week, a different intellectual writes a FOCUS on a pertinent issue! 
Hatem Bamehriz,
Columnist – Yemen Times
Some people in Yemen believe that democracy doesn’t exist. While to others it’s just a dream, 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. When it comes to politicians, democracy becomes the glowing fashion that must be obtained in order to pretend they have joined the new world order and to look and feel modern.
What is democracy?
What is democracy according to the common man? This question proved to be a very difficult one. Among the people I have directed this question to, many refused to answer for the clear reason that they did not know what democracy is, and 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 answer. This is basically because of the lack of education that they have on 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.”
The kind of democracy they know!
Because of the lack of education and information on democracy, people have no clue of even the most basic meaning of democracy. You will be surprised to know what ‘boundless democracy’ means to a majority of Yemenis. To help you understand let us study this strange and unique case that I have experienced. Once I was traveling in a Dabab (Mini bus) when it was cold. All windows and the door were shut, a young man sitting in front of me lit a cigarette, 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. Still he refused, but this time he had given us a reason to why is he not putting it out! He said “This is a democratic country, and I can do anything I want.” 
Well! This answer might appear to be a good and convincing one 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 the democracy that he was just lecturing us about. Democracy was never meant to harm people, it gives you freedom, but it’s not boundless. Your freedom in democracy has a limit. According to democracy “Your freedoms end when others’ start.”Yemen is one of the countries, where on one hand, the leaders and members of parliament are democratically elected, and on the other hand, citizens are constantly 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 a lack of understanding of the concept of democracy by the public and the politicians as well. Some experts even predict, in spite of being young, that our unique experience in the Arabian Peninsula is actually walking its way to suicide! For our decision makers “We have democracy” might seem enough reason to boast and cheer up, but we 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 hem. 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 partly because of the majority of the ruling party in the parliament. This is in contrast to their main duty of putting partisanship aside and thinking of the nation’s interests and worries. Some of our leaders – to some extent – have bypassed the parliament, eroding 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 our 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 meaning of democracy
Real 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’s 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, such as equality, freedom, basic human rights, and most importantly the dignity of every individual, no matter who he is, or where he 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 which does not implement true democracy. Unfortunately Yemen is in the third category. It is obvious that the third is the worst of all. Simply because the regime fools its citizens into believing that what they get of freedom is the best that can be given, it convinces them that there is democracy, while the truth is otherwise. The wrong understanding of democracy is so widely spread among Yemeni citizens that they are not able to judge whether they are in a democratic state or not. Democracy which is not implemented in a “democratic” country is simply not enough..
In fact, it is dangerous!