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With the world’s attention turned upon the Mideast in the last week—political unrest in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, Lebanon, Algeria—a lot of words are flying around media and government about the hope democratic processes will take root in the sands of the Arab world. I hope this too. But I also know that democracy doesn’t just spring up full blown and ready to function flawlessly.

Actually, democracy comes with prerequisites. Certain beliefs must already be present in the cultural soil for democracy to germinate and grow. In our understandable wishful thinking about Egypt in particular we seem to have forgotten this critical consideration.

What does democracy require to make it possible?

--Belief in the Sovereign God who created, loves, is engaged in, yet stands outside, the world system, thus acts as ultimate accountability.

--Respect for human life and dignity.

--Affirmation of freedom of worship and religion, speech and expression.

--Belief in natural or human rights, the idea that human beings are endowed by the Creator, or at least for secularists vested by Nature, with certain unalienable eternal properties we call civil liberties or rights, i.e., life, and liberty of soul, mind, and body.

--Belief in law and order, including equality and fairness, meaning justice is blind, and the idea of property rights, meaning individuals own and are entitled to the products of their minds and hands.

--Existence of some reasonable level of literacy.

In the United States Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson included “pursuit of happiness” in his list of unalienable rights. While one might quibble with the philosophic concept of happiness, still, there’s a deeper even more important value embedded here. It’s the idea of self-determination, the belief each individual human being innately possesses the right to decide, to influence, and to craft their own future, which is to say in different words, to pursue happiness.

Middle East and North African cultures do not generally affirm these basic values, at least not consistently. Their religious presuppositions do not allow them to do so. Consequently, expecting democracy to flourish just because it’s established, or we wish it so, may be a false hope.

The United States tried to export democracy in the decades following WWII. We and other Western nations backed developing countries declaring their independence from colonial empires. Unfortunately, for the most part, our good intentions didn’t yield the results we hoped. Too often we helped set up a system and a leader, both of which soon fell to strongmen, tribal conflicts, or religious-ideological interests more aligned with the values of the local culture, but at odds with democracy and pluralism.

I wish for freedom and democracy to come to the Mideast, but I have my fears it will not, at least not soon. Too many other philosophic underpinnings are missing at this point.

The United States should step carefully, offering assistance but not leveraging results we think we want. We should have learned by now that what we want may not turn out to be what we hoped for.


© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2011

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