The Dangers of One-Size-Fits-All Democracy

For over a month, we’ve been talking about revolution in the Middle East. It started with a man who set himself on fire, desperate, after police confiscated the produce he sold without a permit.

Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old university graduate without a steady job, was trying to support his family. His self-immolation has left him burned from head to toe, in intensive care, wrapped completely in white gauze bandages. But he spurred his country to action, leading to transformation in Tunisia and demonstrations that spread across North Africa to Egypt. And now the world turns its attention to what will happen next in Yemen, Libya and Bahrain.

But there are few models for what comes next in this region. Young people storming the streets demanding true democracy have never lived in one. Hosni Mubarak was in power for three decades. Muammar Gaddafi has ruled Libya for four. Bahrain is a monarchy with a repressive military. And, of course, there’s Iran.

In the West, for the last month, we’ve celebrated the happenings there, thinking in terms of liberal democracy, the kind of democracy that we enjoy in America. For us, that is the only kind of society that matters. But when Tunisians, Egyptians and other people in the region rejoice, they are not necessarily celebrating the same thing.

This was not our revolution in Tunisia or Tahrir Square. While we may want for Egypt and the Middle East a liberal democracy that guarantees the rights of minority groups, we must allow for self-determination.

For example, should their revolution come to fruition, Egyptian democracy may include ideas anathema to our own. Socialist ideas may be included alongside capitalist and business interests. Labor and liberal interests may or may not be represented. In a new Egyptian democracy, there will likely be not one, but a range of Islamist perspectives, including that of the Muslim Brotherhood as a dominating force. And there probably will be elements associated with the old regime.

The majority of people who talk about politics and who engage in politics may be interested in a democracy that looks like ours. But there may also be some elements hostile to that. There may be some who would give privilege to Muslim religious status over Christian religious status, for example; or who would give privilege to men over women; or older people over youth.

Such ideas have no place in our own democracy, which is premised on equality. But it took us many years of legislation and jurisprudence to define the constitutional framework of our society. And we are still working to become a more perfect union.

We in the West hope that these countries will move toward equality and citizenship for all. But whether they choose to journey in that direction remains to be seen, and is for each nation to decide, independent of others. It will have more to do with the steady flow of history, the basic needs of the people, the dictates of the military and the quiet diplomacy of world powers. It will have little to do with the wishful thinking of Western idealists.

Jami Floyd is an attorney, broadcast journalist and legal analyst for cable and network news, and is a frequent contributor to WNYC Radio. She is former advisor in the Clinton administration and served as a surrogate for the Obama campaign on legal and domestic policy issues. You can follow her on twitter.