Democratic tradition and “barbarians”

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An old schoolmate of mine, an Arabist, now teaches in Egypt.

We had a fascinating talk about the situation there and it was extremely interesting to hear some first-hand accounts.

He made a point that I believe is worth typing out for the public eye.

Quote to the best of recollection:

“You see, people say that the Egyptians, or other Arabs for that matter, are simply not ready for democracy. That the attempts to implement that form of government in those countries are doomed to fail. Yeah, they have a ‘winner takes it all’ attitude, and think democracy is just a way you become an absolutist sultan, which naturally provokes a retribution by the other guys, and then it just goes back and forth between the factions. But how, I ask, are they going to ever become ready for democracy, unless it is implemented now, with all its shortcomings, and the democratic culture is simply allowed to develop through inevitable growing pains? Democracy isn’t something you one day wake up ready for. Democracy is earned. So we need to let them earn it, and quit the vaguely racist condescension about unprepared barbarian peoples.”

Democratic tradition, the ability to effectively work with a democracy, isn’t an inherent cultural trait or a stage of development separate from the practice of democracy itself. It is precisely the faulty and troubled young democracy that is where better things and mature democracies come from. If you want to grow up, you have to deal with puberty first.

The Swiss, perhaps the only properly working democracy in the world, are also the longest running one.

In fact, there is a distinct correlation between the age and quality of democracies. Yeah yeah, that can also mean that people who are at a certain “level” are simply capable of sustaining a democracy over longer periods of time. But that doesn’t seem to be it. Young democracies are always troubled.

It is what my friend in Egypt said.

On the converse side, democratic capacity can also deteoriate, as frequently appears to be the case even on good days in America and Europe. Democratic capacity depends on the ability of the people to make informed, intelligent and responsible decisions. Otherwise, you just have a bunch of tribal baboons in a screaming match over stolen goods.

Now tell me that only happens to Egyptians.