The Semantics of Democracy

The Semantics of Democracy

[This essay was written last year, after the revolution in Egypt. It seems apt to post it now, seeing how Egypt has elected a new President.]

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In the wake of the dramatic political events in the Middle East in February 2011, there are many who wonder if some countries there will now embrace democracy. Indeed, since the revolution in Egypt, there is analysis of how fast its citizens were able to start the revolution to oust the regime of Hosni Mubarak. Also, there has been debate about the blueprint for democracy that Egypt will now adopt. From a writer’s perspective, however, one question remains strangely unanswered: what, actually, does the word ‘democracy’ mean?

Let’s start with the events in Cairo, Egypt, by referring to the story told by Umapagan Ampikaipakan, a columnist with the New Straits Times of Malaysia: approximately two months before the revolution commenced, Mohamed Bouazizi was a 26-year-old man who had a university degree. When he could not find work, he decided to start a small street stall to sell vegetables. Without a licence, the police stopped him from doing business. Frustrated and angry, the young man committed suicide by setting himself on fire. Furious, the citizens of the town rioted and there were clashes with security forces. A few days later, another disillusioned man ‘climbed an electricity pole, shouted “no for misery, no for unemployment”, touched the 30,000 megawatt wires and electrocuted himself.’ These were men who had nothing to live for. The response of the authorities was as expected: although they regretted the incidents, they thought that people had taken them out of context and were using them to reach unhealthy political ends.1

Mr. Ampikaipakan also states that, ‘… the idea of democracy, that practice of social equality, that notion of “by the people, of the people”, has long been considered to be the last best hope. Because it places the responsibility, the burden — even the eventual guilt — in the hands of the many. Because it forces the individual to think with the collective; like a collective.’ 1

Khor Swee Kheng, in his letter to the New Straits Times, adds to the story of the political drama in Egypt by saying that the attention of the world was more focused on the angry young men and their internet tools than maintenance of democracy. He believes that democracy is the least ‘imperfect system of governance, and (in combination with capitalism) probably the vehicle that has done most to eradicate poverty, raise living standards and improve “happiness” levels worldwide.’ 2

Mr. Khor makes the statement that an entire nation of angry young people coming together and using technology to revolt against an autocratic government does not necessarily bring about democracy. He argues that, in the absence of large middle class, the template for proper government does not contain essential elements for democratisation. For instance, the people must be aware of their rights, have the intellectual and emotional courage to fight back and the tools to organise such a fight. In addition, leaders of a democratic nation should have the ability to govern the people. Finally, there should be democratic tools such as ‘a free media, a working legal system … and independent universities.’ In the absence of all these, when a country moves rapidly from autocracy to democracy, there is chance that it will be much harder to build an effective civil service as ‘we hardly can expect the brave leader of the revolution to automatically be a competent minister of roads, and his underlings to also happen to be trained civil engineers.’

Karim Raslan, a columnist with The Star, somewhat echoes Mr. Khor’s sentiments when he writes as follows: ‘When people invoke “democracy,” they mean much more. They mean freedom, prosperity, good governance, social justice and peace … At the same time, democracy … isn’t just a simple process of calling elections and voting. In order for the process to work, there needs to be a media that is free and fair as well as counter-veiling institutions – NGOs and law courts that are objective and above the fray. It’s also important that there should be a 50:50 chance that the present bunch in government can be thrown out of office: otherwise why bother?’ 4

Mr. Raslan goes on to argue that democracy also depends on the culture, religion, history and politics of a nation. In the end, he makes a plausible conclusion that because human nature is such that we are always evolving, (in other words, we always want more), ‘democracy allows for this constant evolutionary process, responding and adapting to popular sentiment.’ 4

The point that democracy is constantly evolving was illustrated very well by the chart that Anup Shah created in his article, Democracy. He starts by explaining that the word ‘democracy’ literally means ‘“rule by the people”, taken from the Greek terms, demos (meaning “people”), and kratos (meaning “rule”).’ Then, he plots the development of democracy and its application throughout the ages from Ancient Greece (where democracy was only practiced by citizens who were male and had completed military training; women and slaves were excluded) and Ancient India (where a less rigid form of the caste system practiced a type of democracy that was similar to the kind practiced in Ancient Greece) to England of the Middle Ages (with the introduction of the Magna Carta and eventual establishment of the parliamentary democracy) and Post World War II which saw the overthrow of corrupt dictatorships and transitions of so-called Third World Nations to democracies.5

Here’s the thing: only four writers (three in Malaysia and one from the US) have been highlighted above. While all of them have used the word ‘democracy’ liberally, each person seems to have his own definition of the word, how a country will achieve democratic status and how democracy should be practised. No doubt, there is some overlap in their views, but consider this: if one were ask for the views of people from other parts of the world, there is bound to be confusion when trying to define an ideology that is as seemingly simple and universal as democracy. No one makes this point better that George Orwell in his essay, Politics and the English Language: ‘The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning.’3

Mr. Orwell points the crux of the matter when he writes that, ‘Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.

Where, then, does that leave Egypt and other countries who are on the path to democracy? Decidedly, it is only proper that the citizens of a country revolt against an unfair regime that denies them basic rights and causes them to suffer such imaginable hardships. It is proper to be rid of leaders who ignore human rights abuses, are uncaring and corrupt. Once a revolution has been successful, to rebuild a nation, it is wise to take the cue from Mr. Orwell: whatever ideologies or system of government this new nation would like to adopt, its leaders must be honest at all times. In other words, when drafting the rules, regulations, constitutions or any other instrument of government, every effort should be made to ensure that the words used should not be ambiguous, confusing or subject to semantics. Such a task will take time and patience and cannot be rushed or coerced.

Ultimately, if one were to take all of the above into account, and add some flexibility to the equation, the task of nation-building will probably be less fraught with tension and uncertainty. Perhaps, such genuine effort on the part of new leaders will go some way towards showing people that they now have something to live for.

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Footnotes:

  1. Ampikaipakan, Umapagan. One Step At A Time On The Road To Democracy. New Straits Times. 15 February 2011 (Accessed 21 February 2011) < http://www.nst.com.my/nst/articles/17umia/Article/>
  2. Khor Swee Kheng. Democracy May Not Take Hold. New Straits Times. 14 February 2011 (Accessed 21 February 2011) < http://www.nst.com.my/nst/articles/18revo/Article/>
  3. Orwell, George. Politics And The English Language. First published by Horizon, UK. April 1946. (Accessed 21 February 2011) < http://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/politics/english/e_polit>
  4. Raslan, Karim. Democracy Can’t Be Imposed. The Star. 15 February 2011. (Accessed 21 Febraury 2011)< http://thestar.com.my/columnists/story.asp?col=ceritalah&file=/2011/2/15/columnists/ceritalah/8064797&sec=Ceritalah>
  5. Shah, Anup. “Democracy.” Global Issues, Updated: 30 November 2008. (Accessed 21 February 2011) <http://www.globalissues.org/article/761/democracy>

By Aneeta Sundararaj


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