Democracy: 10 simple rules for successful transition from authoritarian to democratic rule

As we are deposing dictators (or aspiring to do so) all across the Middle-East, the Caucasus and Central Asia, the day after the party can make one feel a bit hung-over, and even despairing when looking at the daunting task ahead. Don’t worry, it has been done many times before you. In Africa, in Latin-America, and in Europe. Lessons have been learned. And trust me: transforming societies doesn’t have to be rocket science.

The benefits of democracy and the rule of law are not as universally accepted and self-explanatory anymore as twenty to thirty years ago. But the bad reputation these concepts have gained in recent years often stem from them having been implemented incompletely. In addition to that, the idea that a democracy governed by the rule of law is somehow at odds with, say, religion or culture, is utterly false. In the long run, truly democratic countries with a fair legal and judicial system, open society and open economy stand a much better chance of becoming stable, secure, prosperous nations with something to gain for everyone, than any other system.

Without any claim to infallibility, my years in international democracy, governance and media development have taught me these 10 simple rules for successful transition from authoritarian to democratic rule.

1. Take your time. Have all major political forces sign off on a technical government of non-political, authoritative experts that run the country for 3-4 years without parliamentary or other interference.

2. Clean up all legislation to ensure open, transparent, fair, non-discriminatory, inclusive, governmental, economic, social and legal processes. Incorporate human rights treaties and agreements.

3. Reform the bureaucracy, military, police and judiciary. Clear out obviously criminal and/or corrupt and inefficient officials from the very top on downwards. But leave everyone else in place, regardless of affiliation. They know how to run things.

4. Reform and retrain the judiciary and correctional system to restore trust in court independence.

5. Introduce unbiased and true education in all schools and in public campaigns about the country’s history, past faults and achievements, and integrate universal human rights and concepts of equality, non-violence and non-discrimination.

6. Reform the economy. Eradicate monopolies and oligarchies. Undo the close ties between government branches, officials and business enterprises, economic sectors. Create level playing field, access to economic activities for previously disenfranchised, non-connected individuals and groups.

7. Facilitate independent, pluralist media. Boost professional journalism colleges and trainings. Always remain responsive and accountable to journalists, even if they ask uneasy questions.

8. Facilitate a wide variety of civil society organizations. But fund only consortia of diverse, state-independent, non-ideological NGO’s.

9. Design an electoral system that ensures access to and participation in decision-making for all social groups, classes. Make sure that minorities, also those formerly in power, win something and feel they remain part of the process. Enforce a clean, free and fair voting process and result, pre- and post-election, even in the smallest and remotest of areas.

10. Invest in political party building. Facilitate effective campaigns that connect all parties and their ideas to the public. Train high quality future politicians that understand democracy is about trust, compromise, open communication and transparent decisions, sharing benefits between majorities and minorities, and long term gains for your constituency rather than short term ones.

Now, and only now: vote.

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Democracy or Human Rights: an unexpected and uneasy choice

Thinking of recent events in Tunis and Cairo, I can’t help thinking of one of my journalism students in Baghdad: Thiba. She, like others I know in Beirut, Istanbul, Casablanca, and Amman, is a modern, secular young woman. Thiba is a Muslim who considers her faith, and how she chooses to exercise it, a matter of personal choice. But she lives in the capital of Iraq. A place that, in many respects, has turned into a theocracy in a way that would make the mollahs in Tehran reminisce of the good old days. There are little personal choices left for Thiba. She does not belong to the rich, happy few that has the means to escape: so for her, conformity, peer pressure, and social conservatism masquerading as true religion dictate public life now. This was quite different under Saddam.

In the West, we often have a somewhat monolithic view of the Near East. We tend to think of it as one large traditional, pious society where everyone is content to follow the rule of Islam – or rather the reactionary, male-centered version that governmental and religious authorities choose to enforce. We tend to overlook the very real cultural war that is going on all through the region, between religious and cultural traditionalists on one hand, and liberal, secular, free-thinking individuals on the other. In some places this cultural war is palpable. In others, it is a silent war that seems all but lost to the modernists.

When it comes to the issue of democracy versus human rights, liberals and minorities in the Near East – whether Muslim or Christian, men or women – often face a hard choice. Under authoritarian rule, their social rights and privileges are to some degree respected. Although many dictators in the Near East came to adopt religious fervor as an integral part of their governing ideology in recent decades – along with nationalism and anti-Zionism – the secular Muslim elite and ethnic minorities feel protected from Islamist zealots, and Christians feel shielded from persecution by the other People of the Book. If you would ask a modern, progressive inhabitant of Cairo – someone that might have a world outlook surprisingly similar to yours in London or Amsterdam – whether he prefers democracy over Mubarak, you might be in for a very uneasy answer. It isn’t that he particularly likes Mubarak. But it’s still better than the potential alternative.

Many secularists in the Middle East have made a bargain: they have essentially given up on their political rights – including their right to vote in free and fair elections, a transparent government and an independent judiciary – in order to safeguard their social rights. On a rational level, they do see that true democracy would bring them both political and social freedom; but they find it hard to see that this stage of true democracy would ever be reached, once a newly installed fledgling democracy has opened the floodgates to the Islamists. This is the dilemma that many in Tunesia  – and other countries across the globe  – now face, and it partly explains the current stand-off in Tunis between those that want a smooth transition and those that fight for radical, swift, democratic change.

When it comes to our foreign policies, we in the West often make the wrong choices. We either support a nasty dictator, or we support those that claim to bring true democracy to their country, but often strand – willingly, or unwillingly – in some imperfect version of it that only brings more corruption and new forms of oppression. We should start to support the lone individuals that truly share with us modern values about freedom, equality, human rights.

A Despot removed, a Regime changed?

With President Ben Ali gone and the so-called Jasmin Revolution well under way in Tunesia, an interesting if somewhat baffling kind of wishful thinking seems to be taking hold of large sections of the media in both the Middle-East and elsewhere. The line of reasoning goes something like this: Tunesia will take a turn for the better, and here’s to hoping that Algeria, Jordan, Egypt and other countries will too. Some even muse that the ripple of change will spread from Tunesia not only through the Arab world, but to the rest of Africa, the Caucasus and Central Asia too.

Many believe that political change happens when the masses join forces and oust the brutal dictator that rules them. This view is somewhat romantic. More times than not, the ripple of change starts at the top, not the bottom. A dictatorship is never a one-man show. It’s a pyramid of many other powerful actors and factions. A despot is ousted by people that were once high up in the ranks of the regime themselves, or still are, and that inspire trust in the other members of the regime and the military. Albeit that simultaneous popular revolt can be helpful. The old King has outrun his usefulness and has become a liability for the other members of the ruling class. They want another King, and the powers that be hope that the new guy won’t change the state of affairs too much.

In the Middle East, in Central Asia, and in the Caucasus, that state of affairs is marked by a few recurring elements: the political elite and the state are one and the same. And the men that are in charge of the country, are also in charge of its main money makers: its companies and natural resources. The bureaucrats, the military leaders and their families and dependents profit from their combined hold on political and economic power.

As long as bread and oil are cheap, and taxes are not actually expected to be paid (because after all: the regime does not need taxes to enrich themselves) most people are content to accept their overlord’s political oppression, curbing of human rights, corruption and bad state of public services. As long as they are left alone when they keep their head down. It’s as it has always been and as it will always be, they’ll say. Added to that, true political opponents of the regime – of the kind that never was in power to begin with – typically do not inspire much confidence amongst the middle class and the masses. They are not often viewed as a credible alternative to the one that’s in charge right now.

For the most part, the countries that are in turmoil now do not have any form of democratic tradition, nor any reliance on the rule of law. One result is that, once the despot is ousted, public trust that someone who comes out of nowhere – a revolt leader for instance, or parties that have forever been in opposition without governing experience – could actually run the country is very low. Instead, the people would tend to rely more on some (former) number Two or Three from the regime. Because they would trust him to run the country smoothly, with support rather than active resistance from the bureaucracy and military, and because it’s better to have the devil you know, than the one you don’t know.

So, more likely than not, Tunesia and other countries will continue to be ruled by just another off-shoot of a corrupt and incompetent elite. And if he manages to soothe the public with price reductions and a symbolic measure or two, nothing will be heard from the uprising again.

Is this the only option? Of course not. It is possible that a former regime loyalist takes the reigns, but that he is a truly reformed man, who believes that only true political and economic reform will serve his and his country’s people’s long term interest.

Look for the signs. Who stays, and who goes from the Halls of Power in the upcoming weeks? Will oppressive laws be abolished quickly? Will the state loosen it’s grip on the economy and the country’s resources? What happens to the privileges of the elite? Is the unrest a case of the masses, or are the middle and higher classes involved too? It’s developments like these that would separate the reformer from the poseur. Until then, free and democratic countries and their leaders should be very careful about who they support in the political struggle that is unfolding. We don’t know who our friends are yet.