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Democracy and the blood of patriots

  • File - Students carry banners during a sit-in in front of the Lebanese University as they call for their right to vote and to bring a role for the student committee in Jal al-Dib, Thursday, April 19, 2012. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)

The International Day of Democracy falls on Sept. 15. The United Nations describes it as “an opportunity to review the state of democracy in the world” through the eye of the local media.

It is difficult to be optimistic on the U.N.’s International Day of Democracy, when the region is beset by so much turmoil.

The struggle for freedom in the Middle East is not going well. In Syria, an uprising that has claimed more than 110,000 lives has reached new heights of atrocity – inhuman chemical attacks killing hundreds of children and a world united only in its determination to look the other way.

It was once said that in the Middle East, books were written in Cairo, printed in Beirut and read in Baghdad. Today, Egypt is in the throes of turmoil, the nascent hopes of democracy crushed under the boots of military brutality and thuggish Islamist rule. Meanwhile, hardly a day goes by without senseless deaths on the streets of Iraq, a nominal democracy now steeped in sectarian hatred.

Even in Lebanon, the traditions of democracy have been trampled on. Parliament unilaterally extended its mandate in a move of questionable legality and postponed elections. We will never know if such an innovation is legal because the country’s Constitutional Council never met to address it, hamstrung by communal loyalties that have taken precedent over democratic norms.

The political vacuum persists. Representatives who are no longer elected, and who went through the trouble of extending their own terms, do not attend parliamentary sessions, which repeatedly fail to achieve quorum. Lebanon has now gone 179 days without a fully functioning Cabinet.

The Lebanese state is no longer empowered by the people, nor is it working for the people.

The cynicism has spread. It is almost impossible to have a conversation on Middle Eastern politics in the streets of Beirut without a derisive reference to the “so-called Arab Spring” or to how life was probably much better in Egypt under Hosni Mubarak or how the choice in Syria is between stability under a police state run by Bashar Assad or heart-devouring rebels.

But we should take heart. The Arab world is no longer a swamp of political apathy. It is that cancerous apathy toward the world that was condemned by Sophie Scholl, one of the leaders of the German resistance against the Nazis.

“The real damage is done by those millions who want to ‘survive.’ The honest men who just want to be left in peace,” Scholl said. “Those who don’t want their little lives disturbed by anything bigger than themselves. Those with no sides and no causes. Those who won’t take measure of their own strength, for fear of antagonizing their own weakness.”

Scholl’s words ring true today. Arabs no longer simply want to “survive.” They will never again cower before the iron fist of a dictator because they have taken measure of their own strength when they rose up to fight the corrupt police state, whether the fight was for bread, freedom or social equality.

They took measure of their strength whenever they massed in the ancient squares of Arab capitals and demanded the removal of a head of state. When they risked their livelihoods and the short-term stability of their nations to tell their leaders “enough.” When they created neighborhood watches, protest camps, patrols to combat sexual harassment, and art, music and graffiti to denigrate their despots and rulers, breaking the fear barrier.

The events of the last two years prove that democracy is not the exclusive domain of the Western world, that freedom of thought is a universal yearning, and that strongmen can no longer dominate Arab societies. They also show in stark clarity that mere elections are not democracy; the upheavals in the region also highlighted the need to protect the region’s minorities and social diversity and the poison of sectarian politics.

But in the midst of the turmoil, it is difficult to see the silver lining. Thomas Jefferson once said that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”

That is scant solace to the mothers and fathers of the tens of thousands who paid the ultimate price to fight tyranny, who pray that their deaths will not be in vain.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 16, 2013, on page 3.
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