Every four years the world watches the political soap opera of the US presidential elections with a combination of amusement, bemusement and incredulity as the world’s most powerful nation, and the supposed flag-bearer of democracy, lays open its true nature. Although the polls are not due for over a year, the formal process began months ago, with Barrack Obama having announced the start of his re-election campaign in April. The contest among potential Republican candidates is in its early stages, but already the world is laughing at the ignorance and ineptitude of some of the candidates, particularly Rick Perry and Herman Cain, who have been guilty of many more appalling gaffes than have been seen around the world. At the same time, there is a pervading sense of fear that such a candidate could actually make it to the White House, considering that George W. Bush was actually elected twice and Obama is unlikely to be allowed to be re-elected. For many, the state of American politics has long been convincing evidence for the case against democracy. The problem is that this evidence is hardly new and yet little seems to have changed, in either the US or the rest of the world.
However, a number of recent factors appear to offer more concrete prospects of Muslims finally growing out of the easy myths of democracy. One is the economic crisis of Western capitalism and the various responses to it. In the US and other western countries — long the beneficiaries of the injustices of world capitalism, even though many people in all countries were individually victims of it — the growth of the anti-capitalist sentiment partially represented by the Occupy Wall Street and other similar movements is a sign that the impact of the economic crisis on the lives of ordinary people is having a political impact. The fact that at least some of the protestors are expressing anger not only at the exploitative and profiteering policies of the capitalist elites, but also at the political classes that kow-tow to them, may well have consequences for the nature of politics in many of these countries. Some of these consequences can be foreseen, such as the efforts of the political leaders to provide populist distractions such as spectre of a threat from Iran. Others will no doubt take us all by surprise. Nonetheless, it is inevitable that some of the gloss of democratic politics will be tarnished in the process, although predicting the end of democracy would be grossly premature.
In some European countries, meanwhile, the consequences of the economic crisis on the standing of democracy and democratic politics is taking a far more direct form. In Italy, the democratically-elected government has been replaced by a government consisting entirely of technocrats — professional “experts” with no political background or electoral backing. The problem is that the expertise of these technocrats is all rooted in the same capitalist assumptions and policies that have created the present crises. The IMF and other similar international institutions have a long record of imposing strict economic policies on developing countries in spite of the interests and desires of their people. One of the justifications for this was that it was such capitalist policies that made possible the benefits of democracy and the economic strength of western countries. Few expected ever to see developed European countries seeing their democratically-elected governments replaced by unelected technocrats determined to impose hardline policies dictated by capitalist elites. In Greece, the government was pressured to accept similar prescriptions by the leaders of Europe, with considerable evidence suggesting that the Greek military was preparing to take power under a coup if civilian politicians failed to accept the necessity of such measures, a prospect that was taken very seriously indeed considering that it is less that 40 years since the overthrow of the US-backed, right-wing military dictatorship and the establishment of democratic government. There are genuine fears that similarly drastic measures may have to be taken in countries such as Spain, Portugal and even France if economic conditions in those countries fail to improve.
Such developments in western countries are bound to have an impact on people’s perceptions of the myths on which democratic polities depend, not least the idea that regular elections ensure that governments are primarily answerable to the ordinary people rather than any other interest groups.
And this is bound also to have a knock-on impact on developments in other parts of the world, for example the Arab world, currently is the midst of the so-called “Arab Spring”. This political upheaval represented in this easy catch-all phrase is taking very different forms in different countries, from the supposed democratization in Tunisia, resulting in the victory of the En-nahda Islamic movement in elections in October, to the civil war encouraged by the West in Libya, to the attempts of the political elite in Egypt to manage the process of change to ensure that their interests are not affected. All, however, have two things in common: firstly, that the powers of the West are desperately trying to manipulate events to their own purposes; and secondly, all are being presented as popular movements in support of pro-Western democratic movements, which aim to establish governments whose only ambition is to be part of the Western sphere of influence.
Current developments in Egypt suggest that ordinary people in these countries are less than happy with this prospect. As Egyptians struggle to achieve real freedom, rather than the model offered by the West, the fact that democracy is facing new challenges even in the countries that have hitherto been its supposed shining models, can only make it easier for a counter-democratic discourse to emerge, offering a genuine Islamic alternative as a model for the entire Muslim world. Of course, the problems within the West are not sufficient; numerous other factors will also be essential, not least the vision and leadership offered by Islamic leaders in Egypt and elsewhere. Nonetheless, the fact that the model of democracy is suddenly looking a lot less stable and appealing than it previously appeared can only be a step in the right direction. As so often before, political realities on the ground may be providing concrete and convincing evidence of truths that the words of intellectuals and leaders have long failed to convey.