The Arab spring carries into summer. In several Middle Eastern countries ordinary people are organizing, protesting and even fighting to overthrow dictatorial leaders. They seek government by the consent of the governed. A Pew research poll conducted in April and May 2010 found that six in ten Egyptians favor democracy over any other kind of government. The vice-chairman of Libya’s National Provisional Council said in an interview with the Associated Press, “Libyans as a whole, and I am one of them, want democracy, not dictatorship, not tribalism.” The president of the Syrian Human Rights Committee, Walid Saffour, said, “The Syrians want their freedom, want democracy, want equality.”
One may debate the validity of these statements, but why wouldn’t the people of the Middle East want democracy? To all appearance, democracy has brought untold riches, power and happiness to Western nations. England, the cradle of modern democracy, built in the 19th century the most powerful empire the world has seen. Although that empire has since been dismantled, the democratic nations spawned by it, including the United States, Canada and Australia, have enjoyed the greatest prosperity in human history.
But is democracy really the answer to the Middle East’s woes—or even those of the West and the rest of the world?
The Middle East oppressed for millennia
The nations of the Middle East have had a very long history of domination by regional or foreign powers. From ancient times to the modern era, the region has been ruled by a succession of oppressive empires: Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek and Roman, followed by centuries under Muslim rule, including empires of the Arabs and the Ottoman Turks. When the Ottoman Empire was defeated with the other Central Powers in World War I, Britain and France received mandates from the newly formed League of Nations to oversee much of former Ottoman territory, and they divided up the land into several new states and propped up figurehead rulers, some of whom became despotic rulers upon independence.
Egypt gained independence from Britain in 1922, establishing a constitutional monarchy that lasted until 1953. The Egyptian republic that was then formed has been democratic in name more than practice, seeing only three presidents over the past 58 years. The recently ousted Hosni Mubarak ruled for 30 of those years. Small wonder that, despite regular elections, Egyptians do not believe they’ve had an opportunity to try democracy.
The stories of two other Middle Eastern nations now experiencing popular uprising show a similar governmental history. Syria gained independence from France after World War II in 1946, but three years later a coup installed military rule. In 1966 Hafez al-Assad assumed the presidency and held that office until his death in 2000. His son Bashar succeeded him and is ruthlessly holding to power still. Libya, which Italy took from the Ottomans in 1911, before World War I, established a kingdom when it gained independence in 1951. But a military coup in 1969 installed Col. Muammar Gaddafi in the seat of power, and he has remained ever since.
Whole generations of Arabs have known no other rulers or government than that which they are currently revolting against. They are convinced that democracy will provide a cure for their woes, but there is much to suggest otherwise.
First of all, straight democracy or majority rule is itself a form of tyranny—and among a Muslim-majority populace, this means greater influence for Islam and the oppression that accompanies it (see “Majority Rule May Spell Islamic Tyranny”).
Secondly, even where democratic government has been more successful—limited to choosing representation and referendums on key issues—there have still been serious consequences. Let’s note an example from one of the world’s greatest democracies.
Democracy’s disastrous effects in California
For many years, the American state of California served as an example of what people in the world strive for: a happy place to live with tremendous opportunities and a high standard of living. Yet in recent years it has been labeled dysfunctional and ungovernable. Its credit rating has dropped from the best there is to a level barely above that of junk bonds. One of the primary reasons for this dramatic change is California’s democratic government.
The cover of the April 23, 2011, issue of The Economist carried the title “Where It All Went Wrong: A Special Report on California’s Dysfunctional Democracy” (posted online April 20). The issue states, “California thus stands as a rare, and perhaps unique counterpoint to the many countries whose main problem is a lack of democracy” (“The People’s Will,” April 20, 2011). As this special report explains, California voters have often used ballot initiatives to overrule or bypass their state legislature, taking government into their own hands. This exercise of direct democracy on the surface sounds positive, but the results have brought the state to the brink of financial disaster.
The power of popular referendum is an important one for maintaining liberty, but this should be reserved for rare cases, such as ousting corrupt government, not as a routine way to govern.
The decline in effective government in California began in 1978 when voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 13. This ballot initiative deeply cut property taxes and amended the constitution to require a two-thirds majority in the legislature for the passage of any future tax increases of any kind. Halting confiscatory taxation would seem to be a wise move except for the fact that the people have also continued to vote for increased government spending.
In the decades since, one passed ballot initiative after another has required the state to spend minimum amounts on various measures, from teachers’ salaries to clean parks. Unfortunately, these measures rarely include funding for their projects. Just where is the money supposed to come from when Proposition 13 impedes legislators from increasing state revenues? A lack of foresight and wisdom on the part of voters too often makes a mockery of democracy.
The number of initiatives placed on the California ballot has steadily increased—from 22 in the 1970s to 74 in the 2000s. Qualifying such initiatives has become a commercial business, with professional signature-gatherers earning impressive wages for convincing voters to sign. Once such a “democratic” initiative makes it onto the ballot, big-dollar media campaigns blanket the state in huge propaganda efforts to convince the voters. Karen Bass, a former speaker of the state assembly, said that because of the process, “any billionaire can change the state constitution. All he has to do is spend money and lie to people” (quoted in “War by Initiative: A Case Study in Unintended Consequences,” The Economist, April 20, 2011). The inherent weakness in democracy, whether in the United States or in a newly constituted Middle Eastern government, is that it depends on the knowledge and virtue of the people, and both are too often lacking.
In December 2010, the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) conducted a poll among voters in the state and discovered that many were badly misinformed about vital governmental issues. Nearly 80 percent did not realize that the public school system accounted for the largest share of the state budget. Four in ten people thought that the prison system was the largest expense category, when it was actually the smallest. Similarly, two thirds of voters were not aware that the personal income tax provided the main source of state revenue—many believing most income came from transportation taxes, which actually amounted to only two percent of revenues. The report from the PPIC said, “Most Californians’ views about the budget are not based on an understanding of where the money comes from and where it goes” (quoted by Dan Walters, “Voters’ Ignorance About Budget a Big Factor,” The Sacramento Bee, Feb. 2, 2011).
More than 200 years ago, the Founding Fathers of the United States distrusted the ability of the masses of citizens to exercise good government. Thus, they established a representative republic rather than a pure democracy. In it, the people do not pass laws themselves but, rather, elect representatives who do so. Theoretically, those representatives will be well-educated people of high moral integrity. Moreover, the necessity of gaining approval by two separate houses within the legislature prevents the passage of laws too quickly, under the heat of passion. Such a system is cumbersome and inefficient—as most Americans know all too well—but it was designed to avoid the type of problems caused by reliance on democratic ballot initiatives. Unhappily, both the U.S. federal government and the California state government are still susceptible to abuse because they are both based on a flawed foundation: human beings.
For good cause, Americans have lost faith in their elected rulers, yet the example of California indicates that the general populace does no better when it attempts to govern directly. What encouragement can this give to people of the Middle East who dream of overthrowing dictators and establishing democracy? Are the people of Egypt, Libya or Syria currently better educated and trained for governing than those of California?
What will succeed?
Those behind the publication of this newsletter do not share the opinion of so many in the Western world who think democracy is the ultimate solution to the world’s problems and that it’s the best form of government possible. Of course, it has served to some extent as a check on human tyranny. As Winston Churchill wryly observed, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time” (House of Commons speech, Nov. 11, 1947).
What, then, is the solution to mankind’s need for an effective, stable and reliable government? If people cannot trust themselves to govern, and monarchy and aristocracy have historically failed, what will succeed?
The type of government we live under is important, as some types violate liberty while others allow liberty. But no governmental system of men is inherently successful.
The answer is not to be found in the particular form of government people might choose, but ultimately in who will govern. One of the best known prophecies of the Bible says of the coming of Jesus Christ to reign: “The government will be upon His shoulder” and “of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end” (Isaiah 9:6-7). We are also told of that time that “the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed; and the kingdom shall not be left to other people; it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand forever” (Daniel 2:44; compare Revelation 11:15).
Few people would object to government by God Himself when they properly understand it, but is that really going to happen? The authoritative word of God says that it will. For an explanation of the Bible’s teaching on what lies ahead for the nations of the world and the Middle East in particular, please request or download our free booklets The Gospel of the Kingdom and The Middle East in Bible Prophecy.
The Bible, while it stresses many principles of personal freedom, individual initiative and collective responsibility, does not teach democracy—though it also does not condemn democratic rule itself. Rather, it reveals that a world government ruled by Jesus Christ at His return is the real solution to governmental problems. It will succeed not ultimately because of the form of government to be imposed but because of the righteousness of the Ruler—as well as a miraculous change in the spiritual and moral nature of those governed.
The people of the world are watching the events of the Arab Spring, and many are praying for a positive outcome. Whether or not democracy takes root in the Middle East, this is all temporary. The ultimate solution to governmental problems lies beyond man’s control. But that solution will come—and soon, it increasingly appears. But you as an individual don’t need to wait to start submitting to God. You can experience the awesome benefits of His rule in your own life right now.