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Azeem Ibrahim Headshot

What Does Democracy Look Like?

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LIBYA NATIONAL TRANSITIONAL COUNCIL
AP

"This is what democracy looks like!" A familiar chant from protesters, these words have reverberated this year from Wisconsin, in support of unions, to Cairo and other Middle East capitals throughout this exciting period of change.

But as we approach the end of this momentous year, we may well ask what democracy looks like now, after all the early promise of the so-called Arab Spring. What is being gained by all those hundreds of thousands of people massing in the streets and squares with their banners and their high hopes for change?

It is useful to consider that peaceful revolutions lead to peaceful resolutions, according to Gene Sharp, the "Machiavelli of nonviolence". His book, From Dictatorship to Democracy, has been translated into more than thirty languages, including Arabic, and has been claimed by some to have influenced resistance organizations all around the world. His ideas have helped inspire the foiled Velvet Revolution in Iran in 2009, the movement that toppled President Mubarak of Egypt, as well as the youth movement in Tunisia.

Sharp's key theme is that political power ultimately derives from the subjects of the state. His fundamental belief is that any power structure relies upon the subjects' obedience to the orders of the ruler. If subjects do not obey, leaders have no power. The popular uprising against Gadaffi in Libya began as if based on Sharp's handbook. The initial uprising against Gadaffi was overwhelmingly non-violent, with thousands of soldiers refusing to fire on the crowds and instead, joining the pro-democracy forces.

However, six months and around 13,000 deaths later, the armed overthrow of a brutal dictator has revealed the weaknesses in Libyan civil society. Forced to counter the brutality of Gadaffi's mercenaries, retaliation with force has reinstated the power of arms as the norm. Libya is now awash with arms and history has shown us that countries where dictatorships are overthrown by armed insurrection are more likely to be unstable or vulnerable to another dictatorship.

Libya is attempting to avoid this by establishing democratic institutions in a race against time and the forces of history, as the rebel leaders are now beholden to the West for armed and financial support. Support from the U.S., the E.U. and the U.N. is seen by some elements to be undue meddling in Libyan affairs. However, critics who keep denouncing the Libyan Revolution as somehow not home-grown because it got Western help should remember that the revolutionary governments of Egypt and Tunisia were very much working against Gaddafi, who, if he had remained in power, would have attempted to undermine their fledgling democracies.

With all eyes on Libya as the final stage of their popular revolution is underway with the imminent fall of the last holdout towns of Sirte and Bani Walid, the shape of the future will largely depend on the extent to which it really was a popular revolution. How much could have been accomplished without NATO intervention? Once the emphasis shifted from a humanitarian intervention to a regime change, what do NATO allies hope to gain from it? The easy answer is oil, but Libyan oil was already under the control of international oil interests.

Tensions are increasing between the different militia factions and recently defected former members of the regime are viewed with some suspicion. However, as it establishes itself in Tripoli, the National Transitional Council has proposed a policy of reconciliation, not revenge, with its first task the preparation of a new constitution for approval by referendum so that democratic elections can take place. In spite of all the problems of clearing the rubble of the war and the past, Libya is still a paradigm of how liberty can be won against a corrupt and violent dictatorship.

But liberty does not automatically lead to democracy as Egypt is finding out. The freedoms won with the overthrow of Mubarak are starting to look ephemeral as the political process slowly moves towards the Parliamentary elections scheduled for November. After a summer of exuberant activism, the continuing power and relevance of the peaceful revolution is now in question. Many activists are expressing their disenchantment with the course of post-Mubarak Egypt. Their street protests and the Tahrir Square magic have led to notable successes but still the power structure remains in the hands of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. As well as frustration about SCAF decisions, there is serious labor unrest and fear of rising Islamist power. The young people of Egypt are finding that democracy is elusive and slow.

Ironically, democracy is getting harder to define especially in the U.S. today where corporations are increasing their influence in the voting process. A recent CNN headline read,"Wall Street Protesters Inspired by Arab Spring Movement." Using the Internet, the protest campaign against the financial community is being planned to bring people out into the streets with a march through Manhattan and a sit-in at the New York Stock Exchange. Hoping for radical and non-violent reform of the global financial system, the protesters will join the international calls for bread, justice and freedom, and we can expect to hear the chant reverberating again soon in the streets of New York -- "This is what democracy looks like!"

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a Fellow and Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and a former Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and World Fellow at Yale.

More writings here: www.azeemibrahim.com