“Democracy” is a key term in the definition of what constitutes the free world. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines democracy as, “… a method of group decision making characterized by a kind of equality among the participants at an essential stage of the collective decision making,” (Democracy, 2006). Essentially, democracy takes into consideration the belief system of the majority in making decisions that affect the general population, and the reader can take this definition as being at the core of democracy. But that simple definition does not do justice to the many complications that arise when combining each nation’s accepted beliefs and whether democracy, at its core, can truly exist in the many complicated nations in which it finds itself attempting to emerge. In this paper, I will discuss the different forms democracy takes in four nations throughout the world. These will include Egypt, India, China, and the United States. I have chosen these countries because they represent a nation fighting for democracy, a country that has managed to stay democratic over what many academics consider to be slim odds, a country that is not democratic, and a nation that has been democratic since its creation. These extremes represent democracy’s polarity, which is often driven by the interaction of church and state or the interactions between democracy and secular belief systems. By analyzing an assortment of opinions from academics, and comparing those to real-world political systems and events, I will come to the conclusion that the separation of church and state is a prerequisite to ensuring that the democracy, at its core, can rule.
It should be noted that while democracy is associated by many in western civilization (which I consider to include North America, Western Europe and parts of Eastern Europe) as being inherently good, the beliefs of the majority in some countries, many of which are in the Middle East, should not be carried out in regular political practice. According to Huffington Post writer Terry Newell, “Protests in Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Jordan may lead to free elections, but those elections contain the seeds of anarchy and despotism as much as those of constitutional government and personal liberty,” (Newell, 2011). This could cause a person to wonder whether the voice of the people in this situation should be heard, as it could only lead to anarchy and despotism.
But while Newell has a pessimistic view on democracy in the Egypt, former United States President Jimmy Carter outlines his beliefs in a lecture at the American University in Cairo, saying the Egyptian protests will set an example for other countries. He alludes to a separation of church and state as the fuel that will pull Egypt, and many countries throughout the world, out of dictatorship and into democracy: “To succeed, it is important that you demonstrate that Christians and Muslims can live together in harmony and with mutual respect, and that Arabs and Jews, Palastinians, Americans like me, can work together for the common good,” (Carter, 2012). Carter admitted people have doubts about the future of Egypt, but he says democracy is inevitable.
Areas that need to be ironed out include, for example, the position of parliament when compared to the president, the prime minister’s role, the responsibility and level of power of the president, and the military’s role. Carter suggests developing a military that is similar to that found in the U.S. He said members of Congress decide the military roles and activities. This is just one example of the ways in which democracy forges itself into a society. Instead of order handed out by a dictator, the military is guided by a group of elected officials.
As the facts prove, however, the progress towards democracy of which Carter is hopeful hasn’t been fully realized, not yet at least. The democratically elected parliament in June has been dissolved and proposals for a reinstatement of aspects of martial law were uncertain prior to the election. An addendum to the Constitutional Declaration, which was designed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to provide privileges to the military by including them in the constitution’s drafting process, was in violation to an agreed-to commitment to the Egyptian population to transfer all power to an elected government. This represents, as Carter says, interference in a constitution by an unelected military body.
Despite the difficulties moving forward, and the constant interference by unelected bodies in developing the nation’s constitution, Carter believes Egypt will overcome the boundaries and emerge as a democratic nation – but he emphasises the need for acceptance of people of all colors and beliefs for the core of democracy to gain prominence. “Human beings, no matter the color of their skin, no matter their religious beliefs, no matter whether they are a man or woman, are equal in the eyes of God and should be treated equally by government as well (Carter, 2012).
So as one nation battles for democracy, another that is considered a democratic nation since claiming independence from Britain in 1947, is struggling with its identity of being democratic. “Democratic theory holds that poverty, widespread illiteracy, and deeply hierarchical social structure are inhospitable conditions for the functioning of democracy,” (Varshney, 1998). So if this is taken to be true, and assuming acceptable living standards are inherent in the core meaning of democracy, then has India really been successful at establishing itself as a democratic nation? But as the BBC points out, a democratic country in poverty “demonstrated beyond argument that poverty, massive illiteracy and diversity on a sub-continental scale were not arguments against democracy, they were arguments for it,” (Kesavan, 2007).
Since becoming a democratic nation, India has only once abandoned its democratic beliefs – for 18 months from 1975-77, (Varshney, 1998). For six decades, India has had over a dozen parliamentary elections and countless more state assembly elections. As part of a building block to a democratic nation, the press has played a key role in being watchdogs over the conformity to the democratic process. This is something many would believe to be fundamental to maintaining and supervising democratic nations, (Rummel, 1989). Ashutosh Varshney, author of “Why Democracy Survives,” agrees: “The press has remained vigorous, free, and unafraid to challenge the government, as even a cursory sampling of morning newspapers will show.”
It appears that despite a high level of poverty – possessing approximately one-third of the world’s poor (The World Bank, 2012) – India has managed to keep true in its commitment to maintain democracy’s core values. After all, voter turnout, which was about 45 per cent in the first election in 1952, has been tallied at 60 per cent in recent years (Varshney, 1998). That compares to about 57 per cent in the last U.S. presidential election (McDonald, 2012).
But despite the appearance of the success of democracy in India, threat still looms: “That India still practices democracy is in and of itself unique, and theoretically counterintuitive,” (Varshney, 1998). The political unrest felt in India has a population unhappy with the living conditions in which it finds itself.
The only threat to democracy in India is the possible election of a political party such as the Bharatiya Janata Party. The party supports a European nationalist ideology that favors rule by the nation’s majority, which would be Hindus, in this case (Kesavan, 2007). This could cause a merger of church and state, and the destruction of democracy in the name of Hindu beliefs. However, the BBC states: “The republic’s statues and the rulings of their authorised interpreter, the Supreme Court, make it nearly impossible for political parties to fundamentally alter the basic structure of the constitution.
China is currently ruled by the Communist Party of China, centralizing the state and maintaining a unitary government, military and media. The national constitution guarantees the legal power of the Communist Party (ChinaToday.com). The party has been in power since 1921, making democracy at this point an unlikely outcome. Unlike in Egypt, where religion was a main catalyst for the former dictatorship, China completely separates church and state in a secular regime.
According to Cheng Li, director of research at The Brookings Institution, an independent research and policy institute, “To expect that the Chinese Communist Party can pursue democratic reforms and clean up corruption is akin to asking a doctor to perform surgery on his or her own body,” (Telhami, 2007). The quote outlines the inability of corrupt systems to restructure themselves, eliminating potential corruption and instituting a democratic regime. However, as proven in the Egyptian protests, people do have the ability to overcome undemocratic rule.
As previously mentioned, the media is a key component in the maintenance of a democratic regime, holding the party in power accountable to the public by communicating any transgression. It should be noted that the facts point out that Chinese media doesn’t represent the type of journalism that promotes democracy (Gurmann, 2012). But similar to the protests that have taken place in Egypt is a culture that is becoming fed up with a government they have no control over.
In 2002, with tools purchased from a hardware store, a group of citizens in China broke through the communist regime’s multi-billion-dollar information blockade. Three men devised a plan while in prison to use wire cutters and a DVD player to broadcast what they claimed to be the true acts of the ruling Communist Party of China when it banned the falun gong practice of meditation and spiritual beliefs. The men climbed electrical poles and found cable boxes that they spliced with a DVD player. A total of 15 channels were interfered with and broadcasted the men’s video for approximately one million people to see at once. After five men set themselves on fire, claiming to be practicing the mediation technique, the government banned the practice. However, those suspicious of the exhibits claimed the state-run media created propaganda in an attempt to ensure the government turned public opinion against the practise. But those who practiced falun gong knew the burning demonstrations were fake. Western media eventually discredited the ban on the spiritual practise, but because of Chinese censorship, the masses in China were unaware of other holes in the Chinese government’s attempt at tricking the public.
One of the men who helped broadcast the DVD to the masses, and who was subsequently sent to jail, said the men were driven to what they did because they had no way to speak for themselves. The video they created showed people practicing fulan gong throughout the world and they showed what actually happened during the apparent self-immolation. The result was masses of people taking to the streets to practice the meditation, not knowing the communist party wasn’t responsible for the videos and they hadn’t reinstated the practice.
Police responded by having an officer positioned at each telephone pole in the city. Law enforcement would go on to arrest approximately 5,000 people over the following three weeks for practicing fulan gong. Police beat to death almost all the men behind the broadcast. The sole survivor remains locked up. One of the fulan gong practitioners escaped to Thailand after being in prison for his beliefs 10 times and he is now living in Canada, fighting to prevent what he and others like him went through. The men’s sacrifice spawned over a dozen similar broadcasts throughout China in the next several years, damaging the credibility of the communist party, while striking a cord for democracy (Gurmann, 2012).
The fight these men started, and the protest that erupted, is similar to the protests in Egypt that lead to a move towards democracy in that political system. While a non-democratic party may have the rule, the events that occurred in Egypt prove that others, like those who spoke out in China, could generate a movement towards democracy.
The United States is one of the few nations that started out as a democracy. The values are etched into the Constitution, which many consider to be the backbone to the free world. As a leader in democracy, U.S. officials have taken it upon themselves to spread the ideology. “Scholars, policymakers, and commentators embraced the idea that democratization could become American’s next mission,” (Lynn-Jones, 1998). But according to The Brookings Institution, the U.S. has failed in its attempt to bring democracy to the Middle East, not because the Middle East can’t become democratic, but because the mission to democratize the Middle East – after Sept. 11 and the onset of the Iraq War – was based on contradictions, (Telhami, 2007).
Holding democratic elections in some countries can hinder peace, as it divides people who want democracy and those who do not. Furthermore, scholars have argued that elections in countries with conservative values fuels illiberal democracies and endangers freedom. Some have said the U.S. should scale back or end its efforts to spread democracy, which grew with the Clinton administration. “The spread of democracy – especially liberal democracy – benefits the citizens of new democracies, promotes international peace, and serves U.S. interests.” (Lynn-Jones, 1998). While Sean M. Lynn-Jones points out these concerns in his paper “Why the United States Should Spread Democracy,” he ultimately states that the U.S. should promote democracy abroad. “Global interests would be advanced if the world contained more democracies. It will often be difficult for the United States and other actors to help countries to become democracies, but international efforts frequently can make a difference.”
As Jimmy Carter said, “Democracy is inevitable.” When protests – such as those conducted by Egyptians and the ones executed via cable by the Chinese – are carried out, it brings a voice to the populace and quiets the dictator’s whip. While happening nearly 10 years earlier than the Egyptian protests, the Chinese cable hijacking is similar to a starting point not unlike the one executed in Egypt that caused the nation to begin restructuring its political regime, which is still going on today. The core of democracy must then be the ability of the people’s voice to be heard. While that ability is at its infancy in China, Egypt has managed to accomplish something many political scientists believed to be impossible. But unlike Egypt, China doesn’t have unbiased media available to take any protest to the world stage. The Egyptian riots fueled media response, which caused the U.S. to ask for the resignation of then president Hosni Mubarak, who eventually did step down. And as Egypt emerges out of dictatorship, it can look to India, a country that made the transition sixty years ago and is arguably still going strong.
With the U.S. unquestionably tightly tied to the democratic system, it appears that the best way to spread democracy is by initiating it when the country is at its infancy. Countries that have been closely tied to their current beliefs are not easily uprooted, as proven in the China cable hijacking, a demonstration that would have surely caused the dismissal of the political party if done in the U.S. or in another democratic nation.
Carter, J. (2012, July 1). Democracy is Inevitable. The Cairo Review of Global Affairs.
ChinaToday.com (N.D.). The Communist Party of China.
Democracy. (2006, July 27). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Gurmann, E. (2012, March 5). Cutting the Wires of China State-Run Media. Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Kesavan, M. (2007, Aug. 15). India’s Model Democracy. BBC News.
Lynn-Jones, S.M. (1998). Why the United States Should Spread Democracy. Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
McDonald, M. (2012, March 3) 2008 General Election Turnout Rates. United States Election Project.
Newell, T. (2011, March 1). The Danger of Democracy in the Middle East: Free Election May Not Produce Freedom. Huffington Post.
Rummel, R.J. (1989). Freedom of the Press: A Way to Global Peace. University of Hawaii System.
The World Bank. (2012) India.
Varshney, A. (1998). Why Democracy Survives. Project Muse.
Telhami, S. (2007, Sept. 17). How to Not Spread Democracy. The Brookings Institution.