The race between democracy and authoritarianism

Dr. Abdel Moneim Saeed
Dr. Abdel Moneim Saeed
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Perhaps the Democracy Conference called by Joseph Biden, which will be held on 9 and 10 December, will be the starting point of a new race in today’s world between democracy and authoritarianism. This dichotomy is American par excellence, for the world cannot be split into states that adopt a pure form of this or that system. Rather, there is a diversity that positions most states somewhere in the middle, in the grey zone of political systems, depending on each country’s circumstances: its history, its policy, and the ability of its social elite to make a suitable choice for their country.

Surprisingly, this comes in the aftermath of several proclamations of the “end of ideology,” since the world is now too complex for a single system of governance with pure ideas and a standpoint on all matters to truly accommodate the current state of governance and administration in the world. The most recent proof of this is that the relation between technology and governance systems has been changing in the last years.

At the turn of the decade, there was talk of how modern digital technologies and the resulting social media tools have “enabled” masses, as every individual in any given country could now give their take on public affairs. The average citizen no longer needed the state’s media and their mobilization and unilateral views. When the so-called “Arab Spring” protests and masses emerged, they were quickly labeled as “democracy” revolutions born from the womb of Facebook, from which they drew their diversity, peace, and tolerance values, all of which are, indeed, democratic values.

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Yet, when all these revolts eventually crystallized into civil wars and the fascist dominance of the Muslim Brotherhood, no re-assessment was achieved, particularly because the revolting groups did not cast their ballots. Their parties entered the political realm without any remarkable programs or platforms and were soon gone with the wind.

On the other hand, when this was a matter of individuals, not revolting or protesting masses, modern technologies were vilified as a tool for authoritarian leaders elected because of their “popularity” gained through the rapid spread of social media. The most prominent example here is former Twitter-adoring US President Donald Trump, but he is far from being the only example. The same happened with Brexit and with elections in Hungary, Poland, India, Ukraine, Brazil, and dozens of other states. Technological advances allowed the emergence of popularism that employs fascist, racist methods at times and sectarian, religious methods other times, as happened in many Islamic countries, where the Muslim Brotherhood managed to separate the Gaza Strip from the West Bank, or take over the reins in Egypt, or obtain a majority in Tunisia.

For the first time ever, the integrity of the elections was questioned in the US, and the US President’s refusal to leave the White House if he loses the 2020 presidential race became a possibility. Another first in US history was the occupation of legislative councils in several US states by armed groups, and the insistence of other, rival groups on defunding the police.

In Tunisia, Iraq, and other countries, the state’s ability to carry on became a daunting issue, and the formation of governments turned into impossible missions. When governments did form, they often faced no-confidence motions put forward in no time, or efforts to hold new elections that rarely yielded different results. For a whole year, political powers in Israel failed to form a government, and four election rounds later, the power was divided. Yet, the political battle is far from over.

This combination of files pictures created on June 7, 2021 shows US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin. (AFP)
This combination of files pictures created on June 7, 2021 shows US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin. (AFP)

Political think-tanks are now recanting their stance on the role of technology, which they celebrated during the first decade of the 21st century and deemed to be a buttress of the increase in the number of “democratic” countries. Currently, though, they look at technology as a reason for the drop in democracy around the world and the loss of its status as the number one governance system in the world.

Now, here comes the Democracy Conference ushering in a new race. There is no regional context for this summit, nor is there a value framework, nor even any interest of any kind. Rather, it’s a conference on an ideology that seeks to combine “liberalism” and its equality, tolerance, and justice values, with democratic procedures for the rotation of power based on the majority rule.

What this equation lacks, first and foremost, is competency and the ability to achieve its deliverables through competition in the socioeconomic market. Second, it lacks reliance on balanced social and racial bases, which helps prevent “majority” from becoming a synonym for “tyranny” at the hands of the largest group. This is not a possibility in many countries of the world whose histories have not been blessed with social or political balances and were finding other ways to advance was a necessity, whether that advance would be achieved at the hands of an individual, a political party, the armed forces, or a senior national objective set by powerful enlightened forces who could influence the various components of society.

The East Asian and Southeast Asian experiences portrayed, in various ways, the kind of progress driven by a sufficient base of political support, which expresses national alliances and projects for transition, not from one political party to another, but from one backward situation to a more advanced one. Often, technocracy was the driver of progress in these cases, not political support. The truth is, when the states of this region transitioned to democracy, they often maintained the same political alliances and their supporting bases as leaders of the national project.

What the Democracy Conference does not lack is the focused objective of creating an ideological tool that counters China and manages to position the most populated country within a framework of principles and ethics that the world does not accept. It is an attempt to lay a moral siege on China that nonetheless discounts the fact that China follows a different development model than the Western one, which is facing quite some bumps inside many Western countries and even more outside of them.

Affixing a label of authoritarianism –which is often perceived to branch out into dictatorship or autocracy– on China’s back cannot explain the superpower-level progress that China has achieved, nor the fact that it is impossible for a country of 1.4 billion with an area like that of the US and with 33 provinces and autonomous regions and governorates and cities to be ruled as it was or have its resources mobilized as they were through an authoritarian system. The new Chinese mode of operations is different from the one the US presents to the world. It no longer relies on Washington to fight terrorism in Afghanistan; instead, it seeks to cooperate with Pakistan, Russia, and Iran to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a hotbed for terrorism.

Everything else does not matter. China does not care whether democracy is enshrined in Kabul. Its strategic objective has always been and will always be the building of the state, and its steps on the global level are headed in a special development direction tailored to the Belt and Road initiative.

This article was originally published in, and translated from, pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.

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