PJTT June 2012 Newsletter - On the Road to Democracy: Take It Slow
Tuesday, June 26, 2012
The Project on Justice in Times of Transition:
Putting Experience Together to Work for Peace
On the Road to Democracy: Take It Slow
Egypt’s transformation from military autocracy to budding democracy has captivated Western observers as a litmus test for change. But as Islamist parties gain favor in Egypt, it becomes increasingly likely that the other countries of the Arab Spring will follow this same path. As these countries grapple with how to integrate Islamic values into a democratic system, PJTT sought insights from Mohammed Bhabha, a senior official in South Africa’s African National Congress, whose experience as a constitution draftsman has lead him to advise countries such as Kenya, Indonesia, South Sudan and Yemen on navigating their political transitions. Bhabha, a practicing Muslim, discussed the need for contextual understanding, patience, and empathy as a new political culture of democracy takes shape in this region. In order to cultivate the trust and space necessary to build lasting institutions, governments and citizens must change the way they communicate and interact with one another – moving away from the hierarchical structure of traditional tribal communities toward an inclusive and egalitarian democratic system. Bhabha draws from his personal experiences and knowledge of the region to provide advice for countries embarking on democratic transition.
The Legacy of Tribal Identity
In the year following the Arab Spring, the question of whether Islamic and democratic values can coexist in a single political system has been asked again and again. Yet Bhabha disagrees with those who frame democracy and Islam as incompatible systems. He hones in on the meaning of an "Islamic system of governance” in order to illustrate his point. He notes, "If you ask any one person, ‘What is an Islamic system of governance?’ you will get that many answers. Nobody knows what it is.” What is happening, he explains, is that the tribal systems of government within Arab countries are being mistaken for Islamic systems. This is why non-Arab countries with huge Muslim populations - Indonesia, Malaysia, and India, to name a few - do not have governments that resemble those in the Arab World; these countries are not governed in a tribal tradition.
The tribal elements at play throughout the Arab world affect the understanding of government and the legitimacy of power. "Notions of ‘the state’ and ‘statehood’ have not quite evolved, even among individuals in these countries.” Bhabha uses Iraq as an example of state better described as a conglomeration of tribes: "Sunnis will never be loyal to a Shia majority government because their loyalty doesn’t lie with the state. They don’t understand Iraq as a country.” Eroding the long-held values of a tribal system in favor of democratic values will take time.
Bhabha believes that formal practices must pave the way to change – as the constitution did in South Africa – while still allowing the time for citizens to adjust to the new political culture. "It is the strength of the institutions that insure rule of law. It is also the respect of the institutions that contribute to its strength.” Bhabha sees the lack of trust in institutions as one of the biggest challenges facing Iraq and Afghanistan- two Muslim-majority states in transition. Since institutions form the foundation of political stability, creating a government without them invites failure.
Reconciling Sharia Law
Another challenge facing Arab countries is how to build democratic constitutions that adhere to sharia law. For example, in sharia law the family is the most basic unit of society, whereas in modern democratic systems it is the individual. Arab countries must also wrestle with how to integrate some of the more conservative elements of sharia law within a democratic constitution. Bhabha describes a "civil war of ideologies occurring within Islam” as a more liberal or contextual reading of sharia law clashes with a more fundamentalist interpretation. As a result of the United States’ unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Islamic fundamentalists have had no difficulty mobilizing support for their extreme views as they play on the fear, humiliation and "raw emotion” of angered Muslims across the Arab World. The mosques, Bhabha points out, are excellent grounds for political organization, as Muslims come to pray five times each day. Islamists with powerful messages are able to take advantage of their ready listeners and steer political will in extreme directions.
In this setting, holding democratic elections is not a wise course of action. The combination of fundamentalist sentiments and tribal ties will not result in democratic change. The United States came into the Middle East and "introduced democracy on the ballot paper, and what did it do? It legitimized the strongest tribe.” Since voting patterns were based on tribal allegiances, the tribes with the most people or the most resources gained power. "All we’ve done is legitimize the most powerful tribes, except we didn’t do it through wars but through paper. The means are more acceptable but the end is the same.” Institutions must be built and strengthened through significant public involvement if elections and other useful democratic processes are going to function well. Bhabha emphasized how essential it is for institutions to be established before elections take place.
The Importance of Institutions
Bhabha shares an example from South Africa that illustrates the nature of the democratic change he envisions – the kind that allows society’s beliefs on authority and accountability to evolve alongside their institutions. Since 1994, he explains, Muslim women have been taking advantage of the South Africa’s constitution, which is widely celebrated as being among the most liberal in the world. There is a burgeoning of academic success in the Muslim community there, with three women graduating from university for every one man. As women become more educated, they have started going to Constitutional Court to seek redress for their problems, not to their own religious leaders as was done in the past. "Let the people organically come to the institutions. The more educated the women become, the less confident they are in the traditional communities.” This is an example of an institution – the Constitutional Court – allowing people to gradually grow into it, rather than forcing itself upon people who are not ready for it. In South Africa, this process is in its 18th year. The path to democracy is not a speedy one.
Even today, South Africa struggles with the same overarching challenge of all transitioning countries: how to reconcile the values of traditional communities with that of a modern system. Bhabha points to the recent controversy over an unflattering painting by a white artist of South African President Jacob Zuma that highlights the boundaries of unfettered freedom of expression. The portrait, which depicts the President with his genitals exposed, evoked outrage from traditional African communities offended by the nudity and flagrant disrespect. In contrast to democracies, where leaders are readily lambasted and criticized, tribal and traditional values hold that denigrating a leader denigrates the community as a whole. Reconciling the inconsistencies between a modern system’s views of freedom of expression with those felt by traditional communities is part of the challenge of negotiating a democratic system.
"When there is a dissonance between our institutions and the values that a society holds,” Bhaba explains, "we must allow institutions to respect the present values while also accommodating the evolving values.” Rapid changes in political systems are jarring, he points out, and tribal communities deserve empathy and patience as they transition toward democratic governance. As people become more educated and more aware of "the world beyond the tribe”, society’s values will naturally move in the direction of a modern system. Bhabha sees this happening in South Africa as the country comes to terms with gay rights, abortion, and abolishing the death penalty.
Bhabha believes that democratic institutions should not be introduced in a rigid way, but rather "a way that will allow for the organic development of mediating the various interests.” For example, because an independent judiciary does not take the sensitivity of the majority of the country into account, "on a purely legal basis it could be a sound judgment, but then the communities would not accept it.” Returning to the case of the painting, the gallery agreed to remove it from the exhibition after strong outcry from the ANC and the traditional communities. While a court could have ruled in favor of freedom of expression, the agreement that was reached took into account the views and values of society.
More Challenges Ahead
Democracy need not be a "winner-take-all” model, Bhabha argues. He encourages people in the Middle East to come up with more "imaginative measures” that go beyond the ballot box. He suggests interim constitutions that allow a multitude of parties to participate and that take into account even the most extreme views. Bhabha finds that interventions are too hurried, "there is a rush to go to the UN and say we’re done.” He calls for more sustainable, inclusive solutions.
Bhabha, who had just returned from a business trip to Yemen that began with a meeting with the Prime Minister and ended with a hasty evacuation, sees great promise there. "In terms of receptiveness and responsiveness, Yemen is exceptional.” Bhabha offered counsel on the prospect of establishing a Truth and Reconciliation Commission: "transitional justice without a constitution looks like witch hunting.” He counseled Yemen to first create a constitution and grant reforms. Once that is done they can come to terms with the past; "there is no incentive for confession if there is no future.”
He also offered the Yemenis anecdotes from the South African experience to illustrate the parallel path his country had traveled. As cities are bombed and the death toll rises, it is natural for people to yearn for the safety of the known rather than the unknown. In South Africa, despite the injustices people suffered under apartheid, they craved the return to the familiar as transition brought an immediate outbreak of violence. Bhabha recommends that transitioning governments help their citizens understand that "what they are going to is better than what they have now.”
An important aspect of this is that governments in the region must change the way they communicate with their citizens by engaging them on the institution building process. In South Africa, the government took two years to collect citizen input on the constitution. Such efforts help build the trust needed for elections and other democratic institutions, as incorporating local values – be they tribal or Islamic – allows the process to unfold organically. Holding elections too soon, and without public involvement, will only play to the public sentiments that yearn for the familiar, and thus maintain the status quo.
The path to democratic change is rocky. He explained, "There are a number of vested interests that thrive on violence, so the bombs will go off… This is the price you must pay.” He warned not to let violence temper optimism. Bhabha advises citizens of the Middle East to focus on the process and include all parties in negotiating the constitution, no matter how small. His key message to Yemen, Egypt, Libya, and others embarking on the path to democracy: "Your journey has just begun.”
– June, 2011
For more information, please visit The Project on Justice in Times of Transition at www.pjtt.org