Democracy as a process

by Rhodri C. Williams

Democracy is on my mind this afternoon. For one thing, its July 4th and Philip Gourevich was kind enough to remind me that its about more than hotdogs and fireworks:

As our national day of celebrating our political system passes, I am also currently attending one of the most convincing exercises in homegrown open democracy anywhere in the world here in Sweden, while I simultaneously find myself preoccupied by the ongoing struggle to establish something tenable between the unattractive extremes of autocracy and people power in Egypt.

In Sweden, I am attending “Almedalen week“, an annual political gala in the picturesque seaside town of Visby. Sweden is a small enough polity that after a few years there, you recognize all the politicians and they are literally all here, from the xenophobes to the suecophiles, strolling around in their business casual uniforms, making speeches and gleefully networking. Coming from a country where the president has to cart around truckloads of bulletproof glass on foreign trips, it is a pleasant kind of shock to be this up close and personal with Sweden’s political elite, as well as a lot of leading journalists, diplomats and other functionaries.

There is plenty to find fault with in Almedalen, ranging from the way the week has morphed into a commercial free-for-all to the fact that Swedes of color are frequently notable by their absence. But for all that, Almedalen week is a remarkable experience, a sort of national pep rally for a democratic process that is deeply ingrained, civilly conducted, and fundamentally liberal (in the philosophical sense, Rush. Look it up.) Nothing much of import gets said or decided here, but everyone comes away with a fairly visceral sense of a system that is accessible and responsive.

Meanwhile in Egypt, we are seeing a brand new democratic process experience severe ructions. The commentators have been out in force, and there seems to be a  consensus that both sides are at fault, with the Muslim Brotherhood having vastly overplayed the hand it won in Egypt’s first free elections, and the opposition having responded by undermining the very democracy some of them had risked life and limb protesting for in 2011 (see the ICG’s statement here and Nathan J. Brown’s constitutional analysis here). For both practical reasons and more principled ones, there has been some reluctance to characterise what Egypt is currently experiencing as an unqualified coup. But it is undoubtedly a severe and early setback in a fragile process.

As I write this, a raucous group of Yanks (and their Swedish buddies) who are renting the guesthouse next door are doing a very poor rendition of ‘Star-Spangled Banner’. My own patriotism is feeling a bit less bruised now that I dumped this year’s load of IRS busywork into the mail (though Peter Spiro reminds that ever more US citizens abroad are unwilling to face a lifetime of pointless double-filing), and it is tempting to reflect on the progress of democracy. It is undeniably a pretty infectious idea that all those be-wigged gentlemen farmers invoked back in 1776. It certainly feels like the concept has found fertile ground here in Sweden, and it has made extraordinary progress in the last few years in the Middle East. But it is crucial to recall that it is a process, and never an entirely irreversible one.

PS – Anyone interested in watching my efforts to discuss the rule of law in Libya – in Swedish – here in Almedalen can tune in here: http://www.sommartorg.se/. The seminar will be carried live at noon, GMT+2 and will be available for streaming thereafter.

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2 responses to “Democracy as a process

  1. For a bit more on the Almedalen phenomenon by constructively critical anglophone observers see the coverage by ‘The Local’, including this screed on the event as a manifestation of middle class hegemony:

    http://www.thelocal.se/48950/20130711/

    And my friend Peter Vinthagen Simpson’s series of vignettes:

    http://www.thelocal.se/search.php?keywordSearch=almedalen+dispatch&search=Go

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