Iraq shows what happens when democracy is overrun by the Tyranny of the majority

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June 23, 2014 by Paul Goldsmith

As the situation in Iraq escalates, it is useful to see what we can learn about how it has come about. In particular, why is it that of those who have seen their regimes change (either through democracy or invasion) Egypt and Iraq have seemingly fallen backwards but Tunisia has taken so many major steps forward. The answer lies in the same reasons liberalism as an ideology has had so many problems with democracy.

‘Hold on’, you may be thinking, ‘liberalism has a problem with democracy? I though liberal democracy was exactly what the West wanted to happen in these countries’. Well, that is true, but the reason why liberals have been wrestling with concept of democracy across the centuries is because if democracy is not carefully applied it can crush minorities, and equal rights for all individuals is at the centre of all types of liberal ideologies. Uncontrolled democracy can too easily slip into majoritarian dominance – meaning a majority in a country can run the country in their interests and ignore (or even worse directly contravene) the interests of a minority. That is what happened in Egypt and Iraq, and precisely what has not happened in Tunisia.

This is the central argument against using referendums to solve issues. The “tyranny of the majority” was a term written about (although not in those words) by James Madison, one of the founding fathers of the USA in a letter to Thomas Jefferson as they considered the Declaration of Independence. Madison recognised the need for a majority in any routine votes – he asked when “a majority… united by a common interest or a passion cannot be constrained from oppressing the minority, what remedy can be found…?” Madison went on to express a hope that the democracy they were building in the USA would contain groups large enough and powerful enough, with enough “different interests and parties… that no common interest or passion will be likely to unite a majority of the whole number in an unjust pursuit.”

It was obviously not a problem they completely solved, as Alexis De Tocqueville in 1835 used the actual term “tyranny of the majority” in an essay on democracy in the USA. He described it as when which decisions made by a majority place its interests above those of an individual or minority group, constituting active oppression comparable to that of tyrants and despots. In many cases a disliked ethnic, religious or racial group is deliberately penalized by the majority element acting through the democratic process.

Lord Acton (he of the famous “absolute power corrupts absolutely” quote) noted in 1877 that “The one pervading evil of democracy is the tyranny of the majority..”

So, how has this affected those Arab countries I have mentioned? Well, Egypt is a useful starting point. In 2011 President Hosni Mubarak was deposed, and in elections that were regarded by international observers as free and fair, Mohammad Mursi was installed as President. Morsi was the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, who had at first promised not to field candidates in the Egyptian election but eventually entered and won fair and square. What SHOULD have happened then was for Mursi to lead the country through a democractic transition, creating a constitution that would enshrine equal rights for everyone. But it didn’t happen. Mursi decided that he would rule on behalf of those who had voted for him, and only those. He turned a blind eye to violence against coptic Christians, and then created a constitution that would have turned Egypt into a de facto Sharia state – using a referendum (not called a ‘device of demagogues and dictators for nothing’) to get that through. Now, I am extremely uncomfortable with what happened next, which has been a military coup of a democratically elected leader and the soon to be electorally confirmed ascendancy to President of Field Marshal Abdel Fatteh al-Sisi. So we have gone from rule by authoritarian military dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011 to rule by a potentially just as authoritarian military dictator Al-Sisi in 2014. I would argue this wouldn’t have happened if Muhammad Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood had not used their majority to tyrannise anyone who wasn’t in their club.

Let’s contrast this with Tunisia. They had their first free elections in October 2011. These were won by the moderate Islamist Ennahdha Party, who forged an alliance with two moderate secular parties. The story of Tunisia hasn’t been smooth since then – there have been two major political assassinations, a deepening of political polarisation between the ruling troika of parties, and some security threats from neighbouring Tunisia. But instead of a crackdown, Ennahdha agreed to stand down in favour of an independent government of technocrats (experts in the field of government decision making) – on the condition that all parties pledged to complete the adoption of the constitution and prepared for the coming elections.

That constitution has been a revelation – clearly guaranteeing equal opportunity, enshrining gender equality, pluralism, the rule of law and clear provisions for equal distribution for individuals and regions. It guards against oppressive and exclusionary tendencies, preventing the return of dictatorship. It creates rules for elections that hold to all accepted democratic definitions, ensuring parity of funding, excluding members of the armed forces from standing in them, and outlawing dual membership of government and the judiciary.

But the most important area is the treatment of members of the ‘old guard’ from the former ruling party. They are allowed to stand in the new elections – meaning Tunisia has skipped the process that many former one-party dictatorships struggle to avoid – that of “lustration” or purification of the newly built political system. Essentially, victims of the old regime have spared the country the risk of inflaming a dangerous ideological division by saying to those who used to rule them that they should be included in their democracy.

Contrast this with the behaviour of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki. He has ruled as an elected autocrat driven by parochial Shiite considerations and interests. Al-Maliki’s policies marginalize the Sunni Arabs and Kurds, and seem to aim purely to consolidate his monopoly of centralized autocratic power. We now have an Iraqi political system based on dividing powers and spoils according to sectarian and ethnic quotas. This clear tyranny of the majority has resulted in what we are seeing now – the victory of ISIS in Western Iraq almost welcomed by the Sunni Muslims who live in that area who seem to have accommodated the idea that ISIS’s fascist theocracy might actually be a better bet than Al-Maliki’s ‘democracy’.

The main point is that whilst a modern democracy cannot exist without free, fair and transparent elections, elections alone do not a democracy make. Democracy is a system of checks and balances, separation of powers, a constitution that respects and protects basic civil and political rights and freedoms of expression and assembly, the right to form political parties, the civilian control of the military, a free press, and an independent judiciary. There is such a thing as ‘electoral authoritarianism’ and such a thin as an ‘illiberal democracy’. Democratization is a long process. It is messy, and can be destablizing, particularly because of those forces in society that resist the most basic tenets of democracy.

I remember in 2004 working in my former job with some members of a newly installed Nigerian government. They were shaking their heads in wonderment at what they called the ‘naivety and stupidity’ of the Iraq invasion. They said that what the West didn’t seem to understand is that you cannot impose democracy on a society that isn’t ready for it and doesn’t know what to do with it.

Democracy can only make deep roots when adult citizens enjoy full civil and political rights. This normally requires the emergence of a strong middle class, the development of healthy free markets and a large educated population active in voluntary associations in a viable civil society. If you can build a democratic system based on political competition among political parties, creating political values and traditions built on compromises, and open to the prospect of political coalitions, you have a viable democracy.

In other words, you cannot have democracy without active democrats. Iraq and Egypt didn’t have them. Results: Chaos.

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