The case for freedom and being very careful what you wish for
The fallout from the Arab Spring has shown that not everyone in the world is ready for democracy. Simon Parker questions the notion of what we mean by ‘freedom’.
If asked to name the essentials of life, most people would probably list food, shelter, warmth and safety as the needs we share with all living creatures.
These four necessities for survival are largely a given in Western society today, leading people to strive for more: fulfilment, expression, leisure, freedom.
The last of these is ambiguous. If you have it, it is easy to take for granted. If it is denied to you, the thirst for freedom can cloud all other considerations.
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Take Egypt. Peaceful and prosperous for decades, its future stability is now seriously in doubt. The reason is simple: freedom. President Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule was characterised by corruption and his regime is credited with keeping 80 million of his countrymen in poverty. Accusations of his collusion in state brutality may remain in dispute, but even if he did sanction beatings, which seems likely, many argue in his favour that Mubarak did succeed in keeping his nation stable. The people had food, shelter, warmth and safety.
By contrast, post-revolution (or mid-revolution, depending on your point of view) Egypt is suffering on a number of fronts. Economic stability – much of it built on an established and professional tourist industry – has disappeared overnight. If people were poor before, many are now on the brink of starvation. Fear, both on a personal level and an anxiety of what is coming next, is prevalent in every city and village.
Democracy has brought misery to Egypt – so far, at least. Far from a golden dawn, the right to free elections has exposed inevitable divisions. In societies like our own, we have learned to live in peace with people who hold diametrically opposed and often abhorrent views to our own. In countries new to this political option – which is held up by so many in the West as an unchallengeable mantra – it's just too steep a learning curve.
Hence, instead of measured debate in Egypt – a characteristic of every bazaar and souk for generations – there is violence. Anyone who has visited Egypt and shared a glass of tea and a hookah at a roadside cafe will know just how they like to talk, to discuss, to argue and – most of all – to laugh at the absurdities of life. So it is sad to see a stable way of life that seemed, at least to an outsider, to have got a lot right, descend into chaos simply for the sake of a dubious political system.
Egypt may have its democracy and "freedom" – but at what cost?
Many Egyptians you speak to now are asking themselves if they are actually better off with democracy or whether life under a benign autocrat might, after all, have been good enough.
The pattern is being repeated across the Arab world, with the victors often opportunist extremists and butchers. The likes of Mubarak may have been unpalatable, but how will his successor, Mohamed Morsi, an apparent moderate who took office last June, be able to prevent the excesses of the butchers – particularly if the country's economic situation worsens.
Watching news reports of the latest protests in Cairo and Alexandria put me in mind of a friend who used to keeps birds, and the odd parallels between the human and animal world. This chap had a menagerie of exotics housed in large home-made aviaries covering most of his garden. He bred all manner of zebra finches, golden pheasants and other brightly-coloured species. The aviaries were festooned with roosts and a jungle of plants grew throughout. The captive creatures were warm, well fed, safe – and secure.
During a bad storm one winter, a section of the complex blew down and in the confusion several dozen occupants were scattered to the four winds. My friend did his best to gather up the escapees, but many appeared lost. Until, that is, they returned. As the storm subsided, there they all were, perched in nearby trees and bushes, fluttering around the outside of their pens – trying to find a way in. They'd tasted freedom – and didn't think much of it. Moreover, among the exotics were a couple of dozen chaffinches, dunnocks, sparrows and other natives who had taken up residence in the aviaries – precisely to take advantage of the food, shelter, warmth and safety that captivity afforded them. They too were waiting to get back in.
We are not small-brained sparrows, of course, but sophisticated humans who have evolved intellectually over millions of years. However, as we looked through the netting at those captive birds it was tempting to imagine they could teach us a thing or two about contentment.
An Egyptian reading this might accuse us in the West of being blasé about freedom. Political freedom, social freedom, sexual freedom – we have it all. But it didn't come overnight. It was slow and gradual, often the result of hard-fought battles. Perhaps the difference between an old democracy and a fledgling one is similar to the experience of those little birds. Having freedom suddenly thrust upon you is simply too much to cope with all in one go.