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May 23, 2024

History of hypocrites: Embracing the Arab Spring

By STEFAN KAY | March 7, 2012

Recently, the Arab Spring and Senator Rick Santorum have led to the resurgence of healthy discussions about democracy and its expansion. Spreading democracy, either directly or indirectly, has been the United States' proud goal for almost a century, and many of its European allies have joined this seemingly noble cause.

While this dedication to "freedom" has its obvious merits, there is a dangerous paradox that exists within the notion of spreading democracy to which politicians and citizens should pay close attention.

On his highly entertaining campaign trail, Santorum has repeatedly made controversial comments regarding last year's Egyptian movement that overthrew Hosni Mubarak. According to Santorum, the U.S. failed to respond to a wave of radical Islamists in Cairo who were trying to violently overthrow the regime. Surely, each one of the Republican hopefuls has a somewhat understandable tendency to criticize the current administration on all of its decisions (even when they occasionally get it right). But the implications of Santorum's statement go far beyond partisan politics. The issue that both the post-Arab Spring elections and Santorum have resuscitated is a misunderstanding or an unwillingness to understand the fundamental principle of democracy.

Politicians and academics in both Europe and the U.S. have lucidly expressed their displeasure with the success of the conservative Islamist party in the recent Egyptian elections. Elections in many of the other Arab Spring countries have similarly resulted in the empowerment of Islamist parties. Although some politicians have merely indicated they would have preferred an alternative outcome, many politicians (including Santorum) have shamelessly labeled the Arab Spring movement non-democratic and a failure.

This offensive contradiction goes completely against the goal of spreading and facilitating democracy. Freedom and liberty are by all means supremely important attributes of a democracy, but neither can truly exist without the freedom to elect those who govern. Saying that one only supports this freedom to elect as long as a certain party is elected is akin to saying one only supports freedom of religion as long as everyone chooses to become a Christian. It completely defeats the purpose of promoting the cause in the first place.

Although this notion may appear straightforward, evidently some politicians still struggle with it. In fact, this rudimentary concept has been lost on many politicians since the beginning of the era of western democracy.

The U.S. decided it was "fighting for democracy" in Vietnam even though Ho Chi Minh was elected with a clear majority by the people. Chiang Kai-shek had backing from the West in its attempts to "bring democracy to China" even though, again, the people indicated in the election that they preferred Mao. The Nicaraguan Contra militia received U.S. grants and support in apparent efforts to "bring freedom to Nicaragua," even though the people had indisputably elected the Sandinistas.

The people may not have always elected the "right" rulers (although with these examples it is very difficult to favor the alternatives), but that is the price to pay for democracy. Politicians and civilians all over the world were absolutely dumbfounded when President Bush was reelected, and they were all convinced that voters made an erroneous decision. But at no point did anyone feel it would be appropriate to intervene in U.S. domestic policy and somehow put someone else in power. The point of facilitating democracy is to give people the complete freedom to elect whomever they prefer, without any outside influences over the outcome of their elections. Spreading democracy is no longer democratic if it becomes imposing preferred leadership.

The western powers should embrace the new leadership in North Africa and the Middle East, regardless of the elections' outcomes. Although the current rulers will not always agree with the EU and U.S., they are the first to truly represent the people and their political will, which has almost never before been the case in that region of the world.

It also presents a rare opportunity for the West to support democracy in a fair and exemplary way. The Arab Spring transcended any "spreading of democracy" efforts because it was organic and came from within. Although much of it has been a mess, the Arab Spring is a huge step towards empowering the people in places where they once had no freedom. It would be embarrassingly hypocritical if western politicians did not embrace it.

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