Can the military run a democracy?
According to Vidar Helgesen, "democracy can be shaped in many ways, but if there is one absolute starting point, it is civilian control over the armed forces." The picture shows potential presidential candidate Mohamed ElBaradei (L) during a meeting with Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, who heads the ruling military council. © AFP/Egyptian Military Press Office
Can the military run a democracy?
Last updated: April 30, 2013
Vidar Helgesen on the Egyptian election and democratization in the Arab world

"Democracy can be shaped in many ways, but if there is one absolute starting point, it is civilian control over the armed forces"

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The pace of change in the Arab world is such that looking back a year can seem like ancient history. Only in this last week have we seen a string of events across the region, each of which would have been sensational a year ago:

• A new government announced in Tunisia
• A new government taking office in Libya
• Egyptians presenting a manifest challenge to military rule as elections begin
• The President in Yemen agreed to step down
• Elections were held in Morocco (further to their reformed constitution)
• Demonstrations and occupation of the Parliament in Kuwait
• A scathing independent commission report on the brutal crackdown in Bahrain
• The Arab League adopted sanctions against Syria

All this in one week. All set in motion by courageous citizens mobilizing peacefully to demand greater participation in decision-making and greater influence over political processes. Their resilience and courage - in the face of set-backs and in the face of the opposition of those who feared change - has been a lesson for us all. And their commitment to continue to pursue those aims of greater freedom and democracy in the face of violent oppression, has provided inspiration to people suffering from oppression throughout the world.

Today is a particularly significant day for Egypt with polling due to begin. Viewed by many as a regional leader, Egypt has strived for a new beginning. As the protests in the recent week have told us, however, Egyptians are frustrated with the pace and direction of change. Many want elections because only elections can establish a legitimate body to turn the will of the people into real change. On the other hand they see an electoral process designed to perpetuate remnants of the old regime, for a parliament which would have its powers minimized by continued military rule. Now democracy can be shaped in many ways, but if there is one absolute starting point, it is civilian control over the armed forces. In light of this, the Egyptian elections will not democracy make – but they do present an opportunity to commence the real democratization process in Egypt.

From democratization experiences across the world, we have learned that democracy is often not what you find in the pot when the heavy lid of authoritarian government is lifted. Building sustainable democracy requires: firstly, dealing with the past; secondly, national dialogue on visions for the future; and thirdly, the intricate design of institutions needed to deliver on those visions. All these processes take time and carry risks of setbacks.

It is hard enough for people to unify against a regime which is broadly viewed as illegitimate – it is more difficult to agree on what should be built in place of that regime – and even more difficult still to ensure that what is built will be lasting and deliver sustainable democracy. In some cases, an entire architecture of political and social exclusion needs to be dismantled and replaced by new and inclusive politics.

In line with this, international support for sustainable democracy must have a long-term perspective – democratic transition is a home-grown process which has its own momentum and which cannot be forced into international timetables. This applies not least in relation to elections, where we have too often seen the integrity of the entire democratic process compromised when early elections are pushed by external actors. International support for sustainable democracy must also be non-prescriptive. It must accept that there will be setbacks and hurdles – transitions might sometimes take „one step forwards, two steps back‟. It is during these challenging times that national democracy actors need the support of the international community to allow them the space and time to develop their own legitimate democratic institutions and culture - in a way which reflects their unique national circumstances.

It is International IDEA’s firm conviction that there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution for the democratization and reform process underway in the Arab region. Since the beginning of this year, there has been a surge in requests for collaboration with International IDEA from several countries in the Arab region. We will seek to be a partner who is responsive to the leadership of those who are shaping the democratic future of their own country.

At the core of International IDEA’s work on democracy is the notion of sharing comparative knowledge. This means that country experiences from one region of the world may present highly relevant learning opportunities for countries undergoing democratic transition. In this spirit, International IDEA is proud to have Spain as one of its Member States. Spain itself represents an enormous success story of democratic transition – having gone from a military dictatorship to a proud democracy and itself now actively supporting democracy in many regions of the world - not least Latin America and, of course, the Arab world. This October Spain saw the final announcement by ETA of an end to its armed activity - representing a milestone and setting the stage for democratic politics to be conducted where violence tried to stop it. The Spanish democracy-building example is a very relevant one and we encourage you to continue sharing your experiences with others, not least in the Arab region.

Through International IDEA’s work in the field of democracy since 1995, we have maintained that we do not seek to define democracy, but we insist that democracy must build on two key principles: popular control over public decision-making, and equality between citizens in the exercise of that control. On this basis, a range of decisions need to be made on key elements in democratic transition – the integrity of elections and electoral processes; inclusive constitutions which set out the path for a country’s future; political parties and parliaments which legitimately represent the people; political systems which support economic and social development; and, the inclusion of women and men equally in decision-making. In discussing how to sustain the momentum of the democratic transition in the Arab world, each and every one of these areas is crucial.

This is an excerpt from IDEA Secretary-General Vidar Helgesen’s opening remarks at International IDEA Annual Democracy Forum “Sustaining the Momentum of Democratization in the Arab World”, Madrid, 28-29 November 2011.

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