Some thoughts on the West and democracy in Africa and West Asia

One of the narratives that has come about in response to the uprisings in Africa and West Asia is that the Western world needs to intervene to either protect the protesters or to help consolidate any emerging democracies. Jack Layton, the leader of Canada’s federal left-of-centre-left New Democratic Party, spoke at a rally for Egyptian freedom on February 5, 2011, and said that Canada and Canadians could offer

… to help the people of Egypt to construct … democracy using the knowledge and expertise that we have developed over so many years — which has fallen into some disuse lately. Bring our troops back home from Afghanistan and let’s start being envoys for peace in places like Egypt.

Clifford Orwin is a professor of political theory at the University of Toronto. Unlike Layton, he is a supporter of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Orwin often writes opinion pieces for the Globe & Mail. His latest opinion piece is also featured on the home page of the department of political science.

In it, Orwin argues that uprisings do not straightforwardly lead to establishing and maintaining democracies:

… disgust with despotism, poverty, inequality and corruption is the easy part of the revolution. Lofty hopes don’t suffice for successful self-government, and may undercut it…. What’s needed is the development of institutions of civil society – schools for the practice of democracy.

Decades of repression, or government co-optation of oppositional movements, has led to a shell of a civil society. The people of Tunisia and Egypt have no experience “managing complex affairs.”

Orwin agrees with Layton that the West, or, established democracies, can help the people of Egypt and Tunisia by offering them knowledge and expertise in the managing of complex affairs. However, he does have a fairly significant difference with Layton’s general approach:

… democratic self-government isn’t likely to arise spontaneously. Those pundits who anticipate such a blossoming of democracy ex nihilo have only harsh words for George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda.” But it’s hardly an accident that the only functioning Arab democracy, albeit a struggling one, is Iraq. Obviously, Tunisia and Egypt aren’t crying out for someone to invade them. Still, they may well require the same intensive international nurturing.

The curious aspect of Orwin’s piece is that he does not exactly define what he means by democracy. Iraq certainly has elections and a parliament. They function. It’s not entirely clear how they function, or what they do, but they do something. The question of Iraq’s civil society is similarly complex. Trade unions exist, but they exist in a highly repressive context. Trade union leaders are assassinated, strikes are broken, and, following a pre-invasion law that has been maintained, public sector workers are prohibited from unionizing. Underlying this repression of trade unions is a commitment on the part of Iraq’s new social order to American-inspired capitalism which was not something that was put together through a constituent assembly, but through an American provisional authority.

Iraq’s society has increasingly been separated into caricature of sectarian division, and the intensity of this division is a relatively new phenomenon reinforced by new forms of governance that were, again, introduced under American provisional authority. Recently, Iraq’s security apparatus handled the “Day of Rage” protests in a manner similar to other, dictatorial regimes: repression and murder. Up to 20 protesters were killed in one day’s demonstrations. But, again, that’s something that was also part of American provisional authority. One need not forget that the Americans have not left Iraq, they continue to occupy it. What can one say, fundamentally, about democracy — rule by and for the people — in the face of foreign military occupation?

Orwin may be on to something if, for him, all of this is somewhat emblematic of an established democracy. After all, we see in Wisconsin the leading edge of the attack on the public sector trade unions’ very rights to collective bargaining. It is, in effect, an attempt at public sector de-unionization, a heady imitation of Iraq’s labour laws. The response of Toronto Police Services, backed by other levels and regions of Canada’s security apparatus, to the G20 protests is also revealing. It is unclear how many protesters were sent to hospital with injuries, but we do know that over 1,000 people were arrested over the course of one and a half days. Political activists were targeted and jailed for weeks on end, some are still in jail while others have been released on such restrictive conditions as not speaking at public venues. In contrast, it took over twice as long for Egypt’s security apparatus to reach the arrest of 1,000 people between January 25 and January 28.

The United States and Canada, it would seem, are also “struggling” democracies. As Layton would say, the “knowledge and expertise” have “fallen into some disuse lately.” But the truth is that Western countries have long offered “knowledge and expertise,” both financial and political, to “struggling” regimes in the Arab world, and beyond.

We know that the United States and European Union’s member states have sold millions of dollars of weaponry to repressive African and West Asian regimes — including Libya. Those weapons are, in turn, used on civilian demonstrators. From Tunisia to Egypt to Palestine to Bahrain the tear gas canisters of Combined Systems, Inc. are proudly branded “Made in U.S.A.” — and then there are the tanks, the assault rifles, the helicopters, the armoured vehicles, the warplanes, and so on.

France’s foreign minister, who has just resigned at about the same time as Tunisia’s interim prime minister, offered France’s expertise in squashing demonstrations to Tunisia’s regime under Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali. She resigned as a scapegoat, but that was and is French policy. Bahrain’s national security agency had as its director until 1998 British national Ian Henderson, who was trained in suppressing uprisings as a British colonial police officer — notably putting down the Mau Mau rebellion in British-colonized Kenya with utmost brutality.

To be clear, this is only scratching the surface of the breadth and depth of support for authoritarian regimes all over the world by Western governments. These tinpot dictators are okay so long as they do what is in the interests of the Western powers that be.

Orwin is on to something, for sure, when he points out that the energy and motivation of an uprising is not, necessarily, something that will translate into long-term democratic governance — or governance of any kind, actually. But that hardly means that the West can, or will, intervene in a way that is supportive of democracy. The truth is probably the opposite, that if the Western governments stop providing support to authoritarian regimes, they will fall rather quickly to be replaced by something that, if not interfered with by Western intervention, can actually spring up into something far more democratic.

In fact, we may have a lot more to learn in terms of democracy from the uprisings in Africa and West Asia. The protests in Wisconsin by unionists and general populace were clearly inspired by Egypt. The occupation of the state’s Capitol building is clearly inspired by the occupation of Tahrir Square. Where unionists in Egypt have gone out on strike not only for economic but political reasons, and have continued to strike despite promise of repression from the U.S.-backed Egyptian army, workers in North America and Europe, and other parts of the world, can take inspiration in the face of relatively less repressive national security apparatuses.

What the workers in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and Iraq have shown is that “democratic” or not, when laws and legal apparatuses are used to repress truly democratic values, it is worth violating those laws en masse. The question is whether or not the workers of North America and Europe will take this cue to defend democratic values and rights, or if they will submit themselves to the “hollow shell” of democracy, a democracy that has “fallen into some disuse lately.”

Not only that, but the self-organization of the people in Tahrir Square, into committees for health, food, security, communication, and so on, is being replicated in Bahraini and Yemeni occupations. Popular committees have also organized all over Africa and West Asia where uprisings have occurred for civil defence. And, moreover, although details are sketchy we can look at the self-organization of masses of people along with defecting political and military units to set up alternative governance structures in parts of Libya that have been removed from the current regime’s control. Clearly, some people are capable of “managing complex affairs.”

This management is not spontaneous, but it has been built upon the continuous struggles of people’s movements and other organizations that existed and functioned despite dictatorial regimes, sometimes out in the open, sometimes in hiding, sometimes in semi-exile. As the Libyan example shows, it can be scaled up to control of cities and towns. No, it is not all smooth sailing from there to the management of a national state, but it is management of complex affairs.

If anything, everyday citizens in Europe and North America can learn much from the examples of self-organization, political and economic self-organization, that have emerged in Africa and West Asia. This is a form of democracy that can go beyond the simple act of voting for someone else to manage one’s affairs. There is nothing saying that it will go that way in Africa and West Asia of the uprisings, but it can. We should be asking Tunisians and Egyptians for help — how do we get rid of unpopular rulers who eat away at the fabric of democracy everyday?

So far, I have not even touched upon the huge reservoir of colonial tropes and narratives that Layton and Orwin are drawing upon. Basically, it goes something like, the natives are incapable of ruling themselves, and so we must help them overcome their incapacities through the transmission of knowledge and expertise. That is the white man’s burden. But like colonialism before it, the interventions that the West makes in Africa, West Asia, and other parts of the world, are predicated upon a fairly simple logic of geopolitical dominance and exploitation for economic reasons. In fact, teasing out those geopolitical and economic connections, that go far beyond Israel and oil, would require a piece on its own.

To remove the Western governments and their pernicious influence from these regions would do far better for their political and economic development than their sustained destabilization that has cost untold millions their lives, livelihoods and living. Any rational observer would conclude that it is unlikely that, all of a sudden, Western governments will see the light and will start supporting freedom and democracy after decades of supporting repressive authoritarian regimes. What the world could use, contra Orwin, is far less “intensive international nurturing”:

Ghoga said the newly formed council was not contacting foreign governments and did not want them to intervene.

His comments came after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Washington was “reaching out” to opposition groups in the east.and was prepared to offer “any kind of assistance” to Libyans seeking to overthrow the regime. this!

3 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Nathaniel said,

    February 27, 2011 @ 7:32 pm

    Those US sanctions on Libya are definitely going to be a problem, since one of the restrictions is that Qaddafi and family can’t travel, and more importantly the US is going to use those sanctions as a stick for whatever government comes next. One of the great joys of these revolts is that after decades of Arab mind bullshit, these come out of nowhere for Israel and the US (and the other imperialist countries), but it also means that the enemy is recalibrating its plans and we “ain’t seen nothing yet”.

    I’ve got to start using my blog to write these things up. Got some thoughts about anti-imperialism of the global class war/Marcyite variety and inspiration as mentioned in your post vis-a-vis MLM Mayhem’s posts.

  2. 2

    JMP said,

    February 28, 2011 @ 3:21 am

    Great post. I liked how you really brought out the hypocrisy of supposed “democratic” theorists like Orwin: there is this strange fetishism for the form, but not the essence, of democracy amongst these types of capitulationist thinkers. And now, after spending their careers supporting every American puppet as “democratic”, they’re rushing to apply their same dead logic to events that are attacking the same puppets they love to support. Orwin’s logic often feels like the same logic as the “democratic” legal logic applied by reactionaries like Patrick Devlin (whose arguments are being resuscitated by conservatives arguing against gay marriage and the “9/11 mosque”) who hold that the appearance of elections, and the formal application of a supposed 51% referendum, is synonymous with a richer notion of democracy.

    “This management is not spontaneous, but it has been built upon the continuous struggles of people’s movements and other organizations that existed and functioned despite dictatorial regimes, sometimes out in the open, sometimes in hiding, sometimes in semi-exile. As the Libyan example shows, it can be scaled up to control of cities and towns.” Well put… But what else does the Libyan example show? As much as I agree that Qaddafi is a senile tin-pot dictator that needs to go, the class content of the uprisings in Libya differs from that of Egypt, just as Egypt differs from Tunisia. There is a tendency to utterly homogenize these intifadas, and this might be a problem – especially since the organizers speaking for the Libyan uprising, and who are responsible for giving it its direction, are demanding American intervention, veiling their actions in neo-liberal language, and even attacking African migrant workers under the banner of some nebulous “anti-Qaddafi” politics. What are your thoughts about this?

  3. 3

    noaman said,

    March 1, 2011 @ 4:04 am

    @JMP: I finished off my piece with a link to an Al Jazeera English article where the spokesperson for the anti-Qaddafi council in Benghazi specifically points out they do not want foreign intervention. It’s somewhat expected that there is resentment against migrants (not only with respect to mercenaries but competition over jobs — and further dimensions need to be examined), but again it seems that the popular committees in Benghazi have set up camps for migrant workers who have been unable to leave (those from poorer Asian and African countries, predictably), and they are under armed guard and people are donating supplies to them.

    So you’re right that the movements are not homogenous, but it appears that there are at least apparently progressive elements there, doing some important things, and that are deserving of our support and solidarity. It’s tricky because information is sparse, but from what information we do have it seems that there are attempts at fighting Qaddafi in a principled way.

Comment RSS · TrackBack URI

Say your words