January 23, 2012

Tahrir Square One -Year Anniversary – Jan. 25, 2012

Early in 2011 Egyptian democratic activists challenged their government’s status quo, and their hard work paid off when Mubarak fell from power on January 25, 2011. Democracy has not looked so powerful in many decades. After this first anniversary, the question becomes ’what are the conditions of democratic governance at the one-year mark?‘

If we measure democracy in terms of elections, many commentators have noted that the rapid move to elections guaranteed the already well-organized Muslim Brotherhood an advantage at the early, formative stage of the transition to an electoral system. And the election results announced this past Sunday show why. The young activists whose organizing overthrew Mubarak gained only 7 seats in the People’s Assembly, while a new tech mogul billionaire’s party won over 7% and long-established Islamist and liberal parties won the rest of the seats.

But elections are never a sufficient condition for/measure of democracy. Multi-candidate elections were held under Mubarak in 2005, and they certainly did not produce democratic governance. Many other elections foundational to democratic claims in other nations are at best only a façade. This phenomenon where democratic elections come to be dominated by antidemocratic individuals and organizations is known by many names. One such name was coined by Jacques Rancière: “hatred of democracy”. In his book by that name he held there are many who profess democratic practice in law and policy but oppose it in concrete social life and experience. They are terrified of the confusion of the formless horde they claim is represented by those who demand equality and respect for difference, and will do everything they can to oppose such groups.

So how to practice freedom that contests “contemporary antidemocratic configurations of power” present when elections are held? Wendy Brown (States of Injury, 5, 7) argues for a democracy seen not in terms of elections or citizen rights but in terms of constituting and distributing power so that people may govern themselves by governing together. This means not accepting elections as sufficient, but only one unreliable sign of democracy that must be supplemented by power redistributed across differences, not power consolidated by the highly educated bourgeois men who now dominate the elected representatives of the Egyptian People’s Assembly. Redistributed power would show us the young people who took over Tahrir square, and the women like recent Nobel Laureate Tawakkol Karman and others from the Alliance for Arab Women who took to the streets to demand democracy in Egypt before and after Mubarak fell from power.

From this perspective the ongoing conflicts around the Tahrir Square based movements might be best understood as an ongoing conflict to guard against the death of democracy, in the terms developed by Ranu Samantrai. (AlterNatives, 53-54) The dissent of those being erased by the electoral system, whether in Egypt or England, Jordan or Japan, forestalls nationalist claims to unity and provides an impetus for the expansion of democracy. Such an expansion of democracy is urgently needed in many nations, if not all, in the view of what is euphemistically termed “minorities.” It is through such struggles that a nation may find an ethical way to respond to wrongs obliterated by mainstream media and the policies of elected representatives.

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