Experiments in Democracy: Egypt, Tunisia and the US

Rarely does history present us with events which resemble a scientific experiment. Events in the Middle East over the last nine years, but especially in the last month give us an opportunity to examine how best to establish democracy. Analysis of what has recently taken place in Tunisia and Egypt can be measured against the ongoing tragedies of Iraq and Afghanistan.

With Iraq and Afghanistan, the reasons the Bush and Obama Administrations have given for the US invasions and continuing occupations have shifted over the years. The latest excuse seems to be the one which the US government has settled on and which they believe will serve to explain and justify the enormous cost in lives and treasure. We are now told that our soldiers and Marines are killing and dying in Afghanistan and Iraq to bring democracy to those nations.

While it was not the US government’s original intent or justification for the invasions, I believe that most of the troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan (some have served in both countries) believe that their sacrifices are intended to bring freedom and democracy to these tortured lands.

The people in the streets in Tunisia and Egypt, it is quite clear, are willing to disrupt their daily lives, their national economies, their entire society; they are facing the possibility of arrest, injury or even death to establish freedom and democracy in their land. So we are justified in using the successful establishment of democracy, in countries where it did not before exist, to measure the appropriateness and effectiveness of two very different modes of operation.

After eight years of war in Iraq and nine years in Afghanistan, the killing of over 5,000 US men and women in uniform, with over 100,000 severely wounded, with hundreds of soldiers from allied countries killed and wounded, with the killing of scores of thousands of Iraqis and Afghanis, mostly civilian, and the killing of countless Pakistanis, neither Iraq nor Afghanistan have anything resembling democratic governments and the fragile democracy of Pakistan is on the brink of collapse. Even after the expenditure of US resources rapidly approaching three trillion dollars, what we have in both occupied countries is a hollow shell, a thin façade of what our government insists on calling democracy. And the killing continues.

In Tunisia and Egypt we see a very different approach to establishing democracy. Tunisians and Egyptians, fed up with the dictatorships which billions of dollars in US military aid helped to maintain, went into the streets and within a month achieved non-violent revolutions.  This cannot be stressed enough; both Tunisia and Egypt are further along the road to democracy than ether Iraq or Afghanistan through the power of non violent action, not the violence of military force. Yes, there were deaths in both countries, less than 400 total and most observers testify that the major cause of death were the actions of the repressive governments and their paid supporters.

Tunisians and Egyptians understood that the most secure road to democracy is through the practice of direct democracy.  They employed the power of the people (the literal definition of “democracy”) in direct, non-violent action on the streets to bring about the downfall of dictators.

We fail to learn the lessons of these amazing achievements at our peril. As citizens of a democracy under siege we can take lessons from our Arab brothers and sisters that democracy is more than voting every two or four years. It is more than waiting for elected leaders to fulfill their campaign promises. It includes a healthy skepticism of elected and unelected power, in the form of mega business corporations, financial institutions, and leaders who promote fear of and anger toward our fellow citizens. We can remember that democracy, real democracy, not just electoral democracy takes effort, it is what happens between elections, it does not run on automatic and, if we are willing to send our sons and daughters to war to achieve it in someone else’s country, we should be at least willing to exercise it here at home.

We should also be willing to spend our treasure on it. We should examine our national budget to see if it invests in the necessary elements for building and preserving democracy, or if it tosses our tax dollars at the vain attempt to achieve “national security” through domination and control enforced by the use or threat of military violence. This question, although unacknowledged on all sides, is what underlies the debate over how to reduce budget deficits: how do we “secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity”? Do we invest in programs which strengthen people’s ability to live decent, secure lives? Do we help build their capacity to be active and concerned citizens? Or do we put more and more of our treasure at the service of a bloated military, and weapons manufacturers who keep promoting the next weapon system as the securer of our freedom and democracy?

The Tunisian and Egyptian people have demonstrated that it is not weapons and violence which secure democracy; it is people willing to exercise their power non-violently. They know freedom is not free and they are willing to put their trust in the power of organized, concerted, sustained non-violent action. Perhaps, as in Wisconsin, it is time we experiment with that.

Joseph Gainza lives in Marshfield, Vermont. He is a member of the Steering Committee of Vermont Action for Peace and Pax Christi, Burlington, Vermont.

Photo by Jonathan Rashad