"The People Are Not Ready for Democracy!" Announces the Tyrant

Benjamin R. Barber

Author of ‘Strong Democracy’ and ‘Jihad vs. McWorld


Egyptian protesters are being asked to choose between revolution and democracy, and if this is the only choice they are allowed to have, then I say go for revolution. Here’s the dilemma they face: a hectoring set of self-interested leaders including Egypt‘s Mubarak surrogate Vice President Suleiman, the Egyptian Army, Egypt’s neighbors in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Emirates and Israel, and the entire Obama administration are instructing the brave women and men of Tahrir Square in the nuances of democratic theory, saying in one voice “Slow down! Democracy takes time!” Why? “Because the ground must be prepared for an orderly transition to democracy.” And if the protesters won’t listen? “Then they will undermine stability and reap the whirlwind — breed a chaos that can only lead to a renewal of tyranny.”

These seemingly wise cautionary remarks are well grounded in history and political philosophy and seem compelling. In the absence of a bottom-up civil society including independent NGOs and well organized political parties, and without citizens educated into the responsibilities and complexities of democratic governance, today’s ardent but orderly advocates of change can morph into (or be taken over by) tomorrow’s desperate and disorderly mob. All true, too true.

But here’s the rub: what is wise counsel coming from independent observers rooting for democracy becomes reactionary stalling when prescribed by interested players rooting against democracy. We can only scorn autocrats who are suddenly repositories of prudence concerning the sociology of democracy. They are obviously using such arguments as a pretext for staying in power and thwarting popular aspirations. “The people are not ready for democracy!” announces the tyrant.

Ironically, the Egyptian autocrats now counseling patience because there is no culture of democracy are themselves responsible for preempting the emergence of a culture of democracy. Mubarak’s stealth heirs are hypocrites deploying prudence to rationalize stasis. When they say “slow down,” they mean “stand still!” And when their allies warn against “new tyrants” they are expressing a preference for the tyrants we already have.

Like the parricide who throws himself on the mercy of the court as an orphan, Suleiman and his military comrades are civicides explaining that democracy cannot work in the absence of institutions they have banned. “You don’t have a civil society!” scream the civicides. “The Muslim Brotherhood is an illegal party!” howl the judges who have declared it illegal.”The people are not ready for democracy,” announces the tyrant.

Yet the dilemma is real: revolution and democracy are often at odds. What liberates a people from tyranny doesn’t always lead them to freedom. The French Revolution was an earnest uprising that led to Napoleon and ended in the restoration of monarchy. And the Russians are still recovering from the Russian Revolution 94 years later, uncertain even after 1989 that it is democracy they are experiencing in Moscow. So is it not the better part of wisdom to counsel our brothers and sisters in Tahrir Square to go slow and to pave the road to top down democracy by heeding Alexis de Tocqueville and forging a bottom up civil society?

Not when the counselors of prudence are more interested in survival than democracy. Or when American officials cautioning against “rocking the boat of stability” are really worried about the American cargo the boat is carrying. Suleiman and company warn the people against a new “coup,” because “that means chaos” which will breed a new tyranny: but they have spent thirty years generating chaos to justify their own permanent coup, and what they really mean is let’s hang onto the tyranny we already have.

Is there a way out of the conundrum? Yes: when good arguments become pretexts for bad people to do bad things, those arguments need to be set aside. A transition managed by experienced democrats would be nice, but since the regime has guaranteed the people will have had no civic or democratic experience, the people have a right to gain it on the ground. One way to create civil society is to practice civil politics. It is noteworthy that Muslims and Christians who were recently assaulting one another in mutual frustration are now not only protesting together but protecting one another from pro-Mubarak thugs during their prayer periods. Common civic action trumps religious prejudice and turns religious partisans into citizens.

So although I am a democratic theorist and I understand that patience and prudence are needed in the pursuit of democracy, and I worry that revolutions in democracy’s name often produce something other than democracy, my advice to the people in Tahrir Square is pretty simple: if the surrogate dictators and their armchair allies tell you that you are not ready for democracy, it is only because they are not ready for you. Tell them you intend to become the very thing they fear most: a people who refuse to wait until they are granted liberty, because liberty is not a prize to be conferred by the privileged but a right that must be won by struggle.

Tell them that while it may be true that it usually takes citizens to make a revolution, sometimes it takes a revolution to make citizens.




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