Egypt: liberal democracy or an African democracy?

Published on Pambazuka News, by Patricia Daley, February 9, 2011.

In the context of the popular uprisings in North Africa, Patricia Daley draws on the work of Nigerian scholar Claude Ake and asks how social justice scholars can operationalise the democratic principles he articulated.

As I watched the scenes of revolutionary protest in Egypt and the reluctance of democratic western nations, self-claimed champions of democracy, to support the will of the Egyptian people, I started to ponder why the use of the term ‘liberal democracy’ has always made me feel uncomfortable, even though I am opposed to dictatorships, one-party rule, and other systems of governance that deny the participation of citizens. In contemporary political rhetoric, democracy is often seen as the gold standard. Yet, those who uphold it at home and cite it as a reason to pursue warfare, when confronted with people power, are left bumbling. The humanity and dignity of the Egyptian people are at odds with geo-political interests – even when exposed to the full glare of international attention. It seems as if the empire has no clothes.

These events force us to consider the relationship between liberal democracy, empire, global economic dominance, and social Darwinism. The Nigerian scholar Claude Ake, in his book ‘Democracy and Development in Africa’, considers democracy within the history of colonial and post-colonial Africa. Writing of the North’s attitude to democracy in Africa, Ake notes that: 

Even at its best, liberal democracy is inimical to the idea of the people having effective decision-making power. The essence of liberal democracy is precisely the abolition of popular power and the replacement of popular sovereignty with the rule of law * (p.130)’ … //

… Capitalist development, with its focus on individual choice, may have appeared to deliver material benefits to many in the industrialised countries but this came out of the struggle of the working people fighting for better living and working conditions. Such struggles, what Karl Marx termed, class struggles, are on-going, and are bound to intensify in the late neo-liberal era, as the safety blankets in some welfarist societies in the west are pulled away. As David Harvey and Samir Amin have shown us, inequalities and uneven development are inherent to the capitalist system. Accumulation by dispossession in the global south and former colonial territories continues apace, assisted by comprador elites. Such practices are set to intensify as a result of the economic crises that have recently beset advanced capitalist economies.

Advocates of social justice in Africa and everywhere have to sharpen their tools of analysis to provide directions for non-violent revolutions and to think creatively about the sorts of socio-political organisations that will provide genuine representation. The focus on ‘community’ by international development institutions has sought to de-politicise and de-mobilise transformative collective actions in many states. While the old ideas of socialism may have lost their relevance and organising power after 1989, the principles of collective action, social justice, and popular participation remain as rallying cries for revolutionaries. The lesson from the recent uprisings in North Africa is that the quest for human freedom can never be extinguished.

The Tunisian and Egyptian peoples’ call for an end to dictatorship, military brutality, and their assertion of the right to self-determination forces scholars of social justice to think through how to operationalise democratic principles like those outlined by Ake and long articulated in the philosophy of ubuntu. The people know what they want, but, as social scientists, do we know how to give them what they want? (full long text).

* (My comment: but look at the Swiss Democracy. We Swiss have the people’s sovereignty, but when we vote NO for minarets, the world cries, in search for justifications. This means: peoples are like governments, they look first for themselves. Yes, unfortunately too often also belonging the rules of Social Darwinism. But THESE items were put into our heads since ancient times, systematically, in long-term work, by potentates. I believe we can change items in our heads. For me social darwinism is an artificial concept and these concepts can be – and have to be – replaced now by humanitarian ones.

But let me add: we never will have a world of peace only guaranted by laws and rules. What gives glance to our lifes is personal empathy for our fellows, is our ability to think, chose, decide by ourselves in situations when a rule, a law is contrary of a humanitarian situation, is the right and the courage NOT to follow only bureaucratic reflexes … all this has to be developed by each of us. We must learn NOT to be submitted to rules of our group, if their laws express social Darwinism.

We must recognish than not only the Governments have to change, we must learn and accept that WE TOO have to look how we behave with our fellows, our husbands/wifes, our employees, our children. Are we educating our children, or only spoiling them, believing that life is better only when taking, and never when giving.

Our elites have NOT shown us the right way to go on, so let us not copy their behavior of Social Darwinism, as soon as we are the power).

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