05 July 2011

The Arab spring—seeking a deeper democracy than ours?

Catherine Ashton, high representative of the European Union for foreign affairs and security policy, recently stated that the EU called for "deep democracy" in countries such as Tunisia and Egypt as they liberated themselves from dictators. She emphasized that deep democracy is about more than votes and elections. It includes the rule of law, freedom of speech, an independent judiciary, impartial administration, enforceable property rights and free trade unions. "It is," she said, "not just about changing government but about building the right institutions and attitudes."

She is right about all that of course but she might have added that, most importantly, it is about ensuring that decisions of governments derive from citizens and not from vested interests. On this critical point, the governments arising out of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt have the potential to be deeper than ours.

We have experienced in recent years the shallowing of our democracy. Government decisions seem increasingly abandoned to an ideology of free market supremacy within which the influence of corporations and their neo-classical economic gurus all to frequently trump the influence of citizens. An example is U.S. President Barack Obama's medicare program, the most important piece of legislation passed in that country in recent years. Without major concessions to the insurance and pharmaceutical industries, it is doubtful he would have seen it passed. But much more importantly, the economic liberalization and globalization driven by free market zealotry has resulted in the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression.

Now the U.S. and the EU are encouraging the Tunisians and Egyptians to adopt this same philosophy just as they encouraged Eastern European nations to adopt it after the collapse of Communism, ignoring the fact that many of those countries then either stagnated or endured a monster credit bubble followed by a fiscal crisis and a collapse into the arms of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Fortunately, there is evidence the Arabs are not falling for it. For example, Egypt recently rejected a $3 billion loan from the IMF as Arab activists warned that conditions attached to western aid threaten to undercut the goals of economic and social justice at the heart of the Arab spring.

The Arab NGO Network for Development is concerned that transitional governments meant to be in power for the short term until elections can be held could be signing up their successors to long-term commitments to neoliberal reforms—privatization, deregulation and liberalization of trade—in exchange for the urgent financial help they need. They point out that these reforms were largely responsible for the inequality and concentration of power that created the need for revolution in the first place.

A joint statement from 65 Arab civil society groups included the following, "The path to development of each country should be decided by its own people, via constitutional processes and national dialogue." If the revolutionaries remain true to these words, they may not only create deep democracy for themselves, they may refresh democracy for all of us.

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