Documents on Democracy

Issue Date October 2002
Volume 13
Issue 4
Page Numbers 183-87
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On July 29, Egypt’s State Security Court resentenced sociologist and prodemocracy activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim, head of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, to seven years in prison. For more details on the case, see his “A Reply to My Accusers” in the Journal’s October 2000 issue. Below are excerpts from Ibrahim’s written statement, which he was not permitted to present in court:

One phrase summarizes and embodies the philosophy, spirit, goals and practices of the Ibn Khaldun Center, and that is “civil society.” Civil society is the space where citizens come together voluntarily, guided by their free will, to exercise their right to free speech, their right to disagree, their right to innovate, their right to try, and even their right to make mistakes. It would be impossible for us to propagate these values and practices in Egypt and the Arab world unless we first practiced them inside the Center, in its modest premises in the Mokattam hills.

I believe that the members of this Honorable Court who are over 45 will remember that 15 years ago they never heard the phrase “civil society.” This was not an expression used in spoken Egyptian or the Arabic language before the establishment of the Ibn Khaldun Center. If the Center has achieved a modest success, it is in the introduction of this phrase and the expansion of its common use and understanding in the Middle East. Indeed, this phrase is so important to us that the Center made it the title of its monthly magazine, its annual report, and its principal research program.

The expression became widespread, used by many layers of society, sometimes with understanding, sometimes with half-understanding or sometimes with no understanding at all. But the phrase became associated in the people’s minds with positive things, even if they were not completely sure of them.

Again, if members of our Honorable Court go back in memory 15 years, or to books, magazines and newspapers dealing with public opinion, [End Page 183] they will not find the expression “transparency” being circulated or known. Another of the Ibn Khaldun Center’s modest successes was to introduce the concept of transparency—meaning frankness and full disclosure in all public affairs that are important to the Arab world and the Arab citizen.

There was a signboard, seen by every researcher or visitor to the Ibn Khaldun Center, which said “We have no secrets to hide.” This is why our activity reports, funds, and funding sources were known and published, either in the annual brochure, the board of trustees’ periodic reports, or in the monthly magazine. . . . The trustees and researchers of Ibn Khaldun had no “forbiddens” since we operated with the methodology of and commitment to transparency. . . .

While the Center was physically closed on July 1st of the year 2000, the spirit and activities of Ibn Khaldun remain alive in the world, through those who were schooled in it—Egyptians, Arabs and other nationalities, and through those who had dealings with it—researchers, journalists and diplomats. This may help explain to you the worldwide interest in the case you are considering, and the seven thousand articles, news reports, and items of investigative journalism in the world’s major papers and on international radio and television.

Civil society as a space for liberty is an essential condition for initiative and creativity. Thus, it is an essential precondition for sustained development in its most comprehensive definition. The political dimension of this broader development is political participation, i.e., democracy, which includes fundamentally the holding of free and fair elections. The trustees and researchers of the Ibn Khaldun Center believe that the system of a civil society is a comprehensive system; so if freedom is its foundation, democracy is its mechanism of practice.

The continuation of economic development, in its limited material definition, cannot be guaranteed without both social and political development. Freedom is a unity and cannot be divided; only a free person is capable to participate, initiate, create and produce effectively.

The only explanation possible for the relapse of the economic reform that looked so promising in Egypt during the 1990s is the delay of social and political reforms. This was also the conclusion of the recent widely publicized United Nations report entitled Arab Human Development, issued in July 2002. This report was prepared by a group of Arab researchers, including five Egyptians. (Will the prosecutors pursue these five Egyptians who took part in publishing information that defames Egyptians and Arabs abroad?) It is the first internal report criticizing Egyptian and Arab social conditions, and was well received by Arab and foreign commentators because of its frankness and objectivity. . . .

Perhaps we are being persecuted because we have been pioneers in discussing openly and practicing what we preach about, and because we dared to say publicly what millions of Egyptians and Arabs think privately. [End Page 184] If this is the price of pioneering, the price of transparency for the sake of civil society and democracy, then it is a price that I accept.

The Arab World

The first-ever Arab Human Development Report, compiled by Arab scholars, was published in July by the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development along with the UN Development Program. Excerpts appear below:

Political participation is less advanced in the Arab world than in other developing regions. In many countries in Latin America, East and South-East Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa, freedom of association is less restricted, governments change through the ballot box and people’s groups have been encouraged to express themselves in various ways. Meanwhile, mass mobilization-type regimes still exist in a number of Arab countries, freedom of association is restricted in other cases, levels of political participation are uneven, and the transfer of power through the ballot box is not a common phenomenon in the Arab world. . . .

Civil-society actors encounter several external constraints in playing their role effectively. Bureaucratic constraints in the form of control of civic associations by public authorities present serious problems. The attitudes of Arab public authorities range from opposition to manipulation to freedom under surveillance. This explains why the question of the laws governing them has become an important rallying point for Arab civil associations. . . .

There can be no real prospects for reforming the system of governance, or for truly liberating human capabilities, in the absence of comprehensive political representation in effective legislatures based on free, honest, efficient and regular elections. If the people’s preferences are to be properly expressed and their interests properly protected, governance must become truly representative and fully accountable.

The institution of representative legislative power is the basic link between the governance regime and the people. In parliamentary (liberal) regimes, this link takes the form of freely elected representative legislatures that establish and refine the legal rules that govern different societal actors and, in particular, regulate control of government, or the executive power that is usually headed by the political party that obtained the confidence of the majority in the elections. This process of regulation is best guaranteed not only by the honesty and regularity of elections, as already noted, but also by the presence in legislatures of a free and effective party or parties of opposition to the party in charge of government.

Institutions that provide for a solid electoral system that permits the peaceful rotation of power, together with a legislature that transparently [End Page 185] reflects the will of the people, are the best guarantors of the interests of the people—including the protection of fundamental human rights, freedoms and dignity. . . .

United Nations

On July 24, the 2002 Human Development Report, entitled Deepening Democracy in a Fragmented World, was launched in Manila. UN Development Program Administrator Mark Malloch Brown’s address is excerpted below:

The central message of this report is a simple one: To promote human development successfully we need to put the politics back into poverty eradication. That means ensuring that the poor have a real political voice and access to strong, transparent institutions. . . .

Many detractors—including some prominent voices in this region—have long argued that democracy is a Western obsession that cannot provide the necessary stability and continuity for economic growth in poor countries. These are now yesterday’s debates.

As Minister Ramos-Horta has eloquently pointed out, ordinary men and women from all across Asia—and indeed Africa and Latin America—have made very clear by their words and actions that democracy and human rights are not an invention of the West. But despite huge progress, the needs and aspirations of too many of those people are still not being met—and they will not be met until we can entrench strong and deep democratic governance at all levels of society. . . .

In too many countries, governments act as if democracy stops when the polling booths close. And in some cases oppositions fail to respect results, taking their grievances to the streets rather than the parliament floor. The bottom line is democracy is not a panacea, but a process. Free and fair elections are necessary, but they are not sufficient. That is why what is now urgently needed is a “second wave” of democratization. One that both seeks to widen the democracy net to those parts of the world that are still lagging while deepening the practice of democratic government in those states that are struggling to make it work.

In practice that means building a parliament and judiciary that protect human rights and give scope for the cut and thrust of vigorous—but peaceful—political debate; a police force that provides safe streets and safe borders; decentralized power so that local people can monitor and mobilize to ensure schools with well trained teachers and hospitals with proper drugs and equipment; and a thriving civil society and a free press in the vanguard of attacks on corruption and mismanagement by government and business alike. . . .

Building real democracy is messy. It is slow. It is very difficult. But for human development, it is also indispensable. [End Page 186]


Amid mortar attacks by the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) that killed 19 people, Alvaro Uribe Vélez was sworn in as president on August 7. Excerpts from his inaugural speech follow:

Trust and solidarity have declined in our country. We look at our neighbors, and especially the State, with mistrust. Our attitude to solidarity has weakened. There is a disproportionate desire to serve one’s own interest, and indifference to the fate of the community. But this, as a sign of decay in social capital, is not born of the nature of being a Colombian, which is both civic-minded and humanitarian. The reason for it is the destruction wrought by violence, of political chicanery and of corruption, which combine to cause uncertainty, poverty and inequality. Colombia faces a series of grave difficulties. . . .

When a democratic State provides effective guarantees, even if it comes to do so gradually, any violence against it is terrorism. We do not accept violence as a means of attack on the government, or as a means of defense. Both are terrorism. The only mission of the legitimate force of the State is to defend the community, and that force cannot be used to silence its critics. Democracy is the only way in which ideas can compete. We are offering democracy, so that arms can be replaced by argument, and democratic security will be the instrument by which politics can be conducted unarmed, and with the right not to be killed.

The defense of the mayors, councilors, governors, and all other representatives of the people under threat, will be the bastion of that democracy. We will not allow the long-standing struggle of the people to elect their next authority to be frustrated by the threat of a bullet.


On July 9, African heads of state met in Durban to inaugurate the African Union (AU), which will replace the Organization of African Unity (OAU). The following is an excerpt from the speech given by the chair of the African Union, South African president Thabo Mbeki:

In the spirit of the Constitutive Act of the [African] Union we must work for a continent characterized by democratic principles and institutions which guarantee popular participation and provide for good governance. Through our actions, let us proclaim to the world that this is a continent of democracy, a continent of democratic institutions and culture. Indeed, a continent of good governance, where the people participate and the rule of law is upheld.