Friday, July 05, 2013

What is Democracy? A Lesson for Canada.

Democracy: “A system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.” (From Google  definition search)

The first democracy arose in Athens and was a direct one, that is, every eligible citizen participated and had a voice in it. As you can imagine, with tens of thousands of eligible citizens, the democracy could be raucous. The one salient feature of this kind of democracy was that the people participated all the time, not just every few years on voting day.

The biggest criticism of what’s going on in Egypt today is that the military went against the democratic process.

“Reeling from what it called a military coup against democracy, the group said it would not work with the new political system.” (Hamza Hendawi, The Toronto Star, 4 July 2013)

“Hours before the army removed Mursi, Mohamed Nufil, a 44-year-old government employee at the same rally, said he was certain the president's supporters would turn to violence if the army aborted what they saw as a legitimate democratic process.” (Alexander Dziadosz, The Star Online, 5 July 2013)

“British Prime Minister David Cameron said "we never support" military intervention. "But what we need to happen now in Egypt is for democracy to flourish, and for a genuine democratic transition to take place," he added….President Fran├žois Hollande, on a visit to Tunisia, said that next door in Egypt "the democratic process has stopped and must return.” (CBC News, 5 July 2013)

“Rick Roth, a spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, stated flatly that the ouster of Morsi was “a coup.” (Matthew Fisher, Postmedia News, 4 July 2013)

We have become so used to seeing democracy as only by representation, only through elections of politicians, that we forget that direct democracy was the original incarnation and the only model that is truly representative of the population. We here in Canada know how much the first-past-the-post system of democracy can distort what the population actually wants; other countries use electoral systems that better represent the voting decision of eligible citizens. Yet neither exactly expresses the populace’s political views as direct democracy does.

When I turned on the television news and saw every road in the wide-angle picture filled building-to-building with people, my jaw dropped. I’ve seen squares and central areas choked with people on past news shows, but nothing like this before. I heard an Egyptian official on one news show say that 33 million people had taken to the street to express their desire that the military oust President Mohammed Morsi.  That’s over one-third of Egypt’s population. That is far more representative of the people than the less than one thousand elected representatives because each elected representative cannot represent exactly the views of every citizen in their constituency (and in Canada’s case, probably not even one-third of them).

“The good news is that around the world, coups now more frequently result in a quick return to the normal democratic process than in the bad old days of the Cold War.” (Joshua E. Keating, Winnipeg Free Press, 5 July 2013)

The normal democratic process mentioned above is not direct democracy but representational democracy. Not democracy at the timing of the people, but at the timing of the politicians when they choose to hold elections – or in some countries when the law states when elections are to be held. Not democracy in the street but in the legislative houses. And not democracy when over a third of the people speak up, but when fewer and fewer eligible citizens vote and only express their political decisions during elections every four to five years while in between elections they grumble and feel powerless.

And a 21st century democracy does not and should not include the disenfranchisement of women, the stripping of their human rights.

I would say that the normal democratic process in Canada is in need of Egyptian-style direct democracy. Oh, not the military intervention part – that is so not us, thank goodness -- but the part where people took to the streets and demanded that their leaders pay attention. Egyptians flooded the streets because of real issues that are making their lives difficult: the increasing oppression of women, the stagnating economy, the loss of hope for a better future. But maybe they were able to protest volubly and day after day because of the very reason that they were protesting: their lives aren’t that comfortable, their purchasing power is abysmal, and women are physically threatened not just societally put down. When life becomes that hard, you have nowhere to go but to the street with your fellow citizens. Here in Canada, life is difficult for many, but for the majority, it’s comfy. Yet there must be a sense of powerlessness, of hopelessness even among the comfy for fewer and fewer Canadians to be going to the polls. That sense of powerlessness is a signal that we need to revitalize our democracy in the Canadian way. The Canadian way is peaceful, includes respectful negotiation, healthy debate. But it also includes protests, big ones too, when the powers that be stop listening.

Instead of denouncing the military for acting on the wishes of so many in deposing President Morsi, perhaps the pundits and Canadian leaders should be asking themselves how can we re-enfranchise the people of Canada to participate as willingly and energetically in their country as Egyptians are today?

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