In a Grain of Sand – The Roar of the Tiger

Dahlia Rizk

If asked, so many would reply, almost instinctively, that the development of democracy in the world is a good thing, regardless of time and place. That idea is certainly at play now in the Middle East, where we see ad-hoc attempts at the democratic process without really thinking twice about what democracy means. But if you were to ask me what I thought about having truly transparent elections in places like Egypt or Pakistan right this moment, I’d tell you not yet. Not now.

The rhetoric of the Bush administration on Iraq, and the war on terror have lead us to imagine democracy as an ends in itself that is inherently good. Just the event of holding elections leads us to believe that the country is embracing liberalism, human rights, and modernity. And this may be true — democracy does open up for these possibilities, as it does for all others.

But that doesn’t mean that these values are the ones that the people, the voters, are going to elect. Just because you give someone a genie doesn’t mean they will wish for what you want. You might want them to wish for a black stallion that you can ride around on, but instead you get a tiger that will actually run after you.

Over the past few years, we saw elections in Palestine, in Egypt, in Iran. All these elections were relatively transparent to previously-held ones. They were seen as positive developments that would bring the Midde East into an era of modernity, of enlightenment. And tigers came and crept up on us in all of these places, tigers that threatened progress and counterterrorism. Hamas, Ahmedinejad, the Muslim Brotherhood — these were not the stallions we wanted.

We’re still confused, I think, and still making these mistakes. Democracy is a means, and not an ends, by which a people can create a government. It’s not a panacea and it says nothing about the kind of government that will emerge, other than the fact that most voters chose it. And what are voters in the Middle East likely to choose? The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt made unprecedented gains in the 2005 parliamentary elections with their slogan “Islam is the solution.” Solution to what? They didn’t need an explanation to make the gains that they did, because they represented so many voters who were against American policy, responding positively to the rise of Islamism, and didn’t know a damned thing about good government.

Despite what Bush might claim in the State of the Union address, human rights and freedom don’t always come naturally to all humans. They may actually be acquired tastes in many parts of the word, and we need to find ways to bring liberal values to light without giving power to extremist demagogues. We need to unleash the stallions without having to hear the tigers growl.

Dictators clinging on for dear life, such as Musharraf or Mubarak, may have the unique power to do this, of ceasing their attack on moderate opposition parties, and drawing them into government. And yes, this process is undemocratic, technically speaking. But it can bring about an environment where values such as freedom of speech or secular government can take place, and where voters will eventually choose to elect them into power. Ideally, these are the real ends of democracy.