"Will Arabs be able to form real democracies?" (or some variation on that theme) is a question I am frequently asked these days. After several exchanges with those who ask this question, I have come to realize that in most instances, in the backs of their minds, are a set of assumptions about what constitutes a "real democracy" and a rather naïve and ahistorical understanding about how democracies come into being and then function and evolve.
Democracies are more than an election, and it's not the first election that matters, it's the second and each one that follows that matter more:
I was in Yemen in 1993, having been invited to speak there on democracy and elections. The country was about to hold its first post-unification parliamentary contest and the air was as thick with politics as the city's walls were with posters. As I visited the headquarters (or qat sessions) of each of the competing political parties and heard their election strategies for winning this contest and their plans for the future of the country, I also listened to their complaints. "The ruling party keeps tearing down our signs", or "they are paying people to vote and telling them for whom to vote", and more.
Having been involved in politics and elections since my childhood, none of this was new to me, and I told them so. "That happens in Chicago all the time", I would say, or "in Philadelphia, we call that 'walking around money'", or "I know how difficult that behavior can be, it was done to us last year in Michigan".
A State Department official who was present at one session complained to me afterwards about these comments. I rejected the criticism arguing that I could not pretend that America's democracy was a flawless model to be emulated -- a sort of "Cindy Crawford of democracies". Because holding ourselves up as perfect is not only false, it sets the bar too high, beyond the reach of others.
The issue, I would remind each group I addressed, is not the flaws in this election, but whether or not processes were being put in place to impartially adjudicate complaints and take action to correct problems before the next election.
This did not occur in Yemen, with the result that with each election that followed the system became less, not more, open, undermining confidence in political processes, in general, and democracy, in particular.
Democracies aren't born, they are made over time:
Early in President Clinton's term in office, I was invited to the National Archives to hear the President address how he planned to "mend, not end" our nation's Affirmative Action program. Waiting for the speech to begin, I was struck by the murals that surround the ceiling of the building's main hall. They portray scenes of the "Founders" who were, of course, all white men of means (landowners, merchants, or professionals, etc). As I looked at them, I thought to myself "did these men (many of whom were slave-holders) have any idea what would become of their fledgling and imperfect enterprise?"
It is important for us to remember that when, in 1788, the vote was taken in Virginia to ratify the newly drafted Constitution of the United States, it passed 89 to 79. Those numbers reflected the limits on the franchise in our new democracy. Only white men of wealth were entitled to vote. And we should never forget that it took another seven decades before slavery was abolished, as an institution, and six more decades before women were given the right to vote, and even longer still before the franchise was fully extended to African Americans. One could add the discriminatory and burdensome restrictions placed on African Americans even after they were guaranteed the right to vote, or the shameful genocidal treatment of Native Americans or the "dirty tricks" that have been used to intimidate and suppress the turnout of Hispanic and other minority voters. The point should be clear. Our democracy was not born perfect. To the contrary, it was extremely imperfect. But equally important to recall is how our democracy has continued to grow and expand.
Even now, though, after evidence of wide-spread problems that called into question the results of the 2000 and 2004 Presidential contests and the Supreme Court decision that opened the doors for unlimited amounts of undisclosed corporate funds to play a role in our elections, it is painfully clear that we still face real challenges to our democracy and a lot of hard work to do here at home.
And so before we either pontificate or prejudge a bit of history and humility are in order.
Having said all this, two additional observations are in order. The first is that while the shape and pace of the new democracies that may emerge in Arab countries will vary depending on customs and conditions, the test of their vitality and their validity will be in their ability to self-correct, change, and expand.
Second, while elections and expanding political participation are important, it is also imperative that governments respect basic human rights and freedoms. They should: provide citizens with the right, individually and collectively, to redress grievances; protect them from abuse at the hands of the state; and create an independent judiciary that guarantees due process, rule of law and protects the rights individuals in their homes and persons. If new democracies do this, they will be starting ahead of where we started our enterprise. The rest will take time and hard work - though, one can only hope, not the centuries it took us.
Dr. James J. Zogby is the author of Arab Voices: What They Are Saying to Us, and Why it Matters (Palgrave Macmillan, October 2010) and the founder and president of the Arab American Institute (AAI), a Washington, D.C.-based organization which serves as the political and policy research arm of the Arab American community.