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Tunisian hope and Greek despair: A week in the life of democracy

The first free elections borne from the Arab Spring were held in Tunisia. Over 90% of registered adults voted. EPA/Zacarias Garcia

It has been a tumultuous week in the life and times of democracy in the Mediterranean. Seven days punctuated by joyous hope and its ugly opposite, sullen despair.

The promising news came from Tunisia, hopeful homeland of the Arab uprisings against dictatorship, where a well-organised free and clean election served as a moment of breathtaking joy for millions of citizens.

Designed to produce a caretaker assembly that will re-write the country’s constitution and govern until parliamentary elections are held next year, the turnout was massive. Over 90% of registered adults cast ballots. Consistent with the norms of monitory democracy, the whole process was strictly scrutinised by networks of “electoral observatories”.

Allegations of ballot rigging were rare and, except for local disturbances in the city of Sidi Bouzid, unrest was minimal and violence virtually non-existent.

Historic moment

Voters queued for hours to elect a party committed to protecting the rights of ‘women and men, religious and non religious.’ EPA/STR

The brave citizens of the country grasped that this was an historic moment, one of democracy’s great ceremonials, a public festival marked by the pause of deliberation, the calm of momentary reflection, the catharsis of ticking and crossing, each person counting as one, before the storm of result: a thumping lead (41.47 per cent of votes cast, 90 seats in a new 217-member assembly) for Ennahda, led by Rachid Ghannouchi, a party that immediately reconfirmed its public vow to protect and nurture the rights of “women, men, the religious and the non-religious”.

It is a promising beginning, not just because the result was clear-cut but because the self-discipline and solidarity of citizens was remarkable.

Elections were once described by the greatest American poet of democracy, Walt Whitman, as the great “choosing day”, a passing moment of suspended animation when “the heart pants, life glows.”

The deeper meaning of the vote

That’s exactly how it was for millions of Tunisians last week. A short video by Shehani Fernando and Mona Mahmood captures the mood beautifully.

Many citizens so bubbled with excitement that they didn’t sleep the night before casting their vote, often for the first time in their lives.

Many praised God for granting them the chance to choose freely. Others paused to remember the brave women and men whose lives were sacrificed or damaged by the struggle to overthrow the old police state.

Some likened voting to a wedding ceremony, a break with the usual daily routines, a moment when the whole country gathers together to celebrate a dream come true.

Others thought of the election as the birth of a child – the re-birth of the people of Tunisia.

More than a few, proving that the fugitive spirit of democracy has no “natural” affinity with state boundaries, saw their election as a cross-border message of hope, as an appeal to the citizens of Egypt to follow their example.

The originality of democracy

Tunisians were proud to able to exercise their right to vote, many for the first time. Topshots/AFP/Lionel Bonaventure

The Tunisian election will be read by mainstream political scientists as proof that elections remain the essence of democracy in our times.

This week’s joyous election proves nothing of the sort. In the age of monitory democracy it rather reminds us of something far deeper, more profound, the truth that the most original and radical feature of democracy is the way it puts paid to pompous power that supposes itself to be unquestionable, irremovable, as “naturally” given.

Understood simply as people governing themselves as equals, democracy has a revolutionary quality. It supposes that we humans are capable of inventing and harnessing special institutions to decide for ourselves as equals how we live together on Earth.

It all seems so straightforward, but the whole idea that flesh-and-blood mortals can organise themselves as equals into institutions that enable them to pause and consider and then decide this or that or some other thing: democracy in this sense was an extraordinary invention of breathtaking scope because it was in effect the first-ever human form of government.

The power of politics

All government is of course “human” in the sense that it is built and operated by human beings.

The extraordinary thing about the type of government called democracy is that it requires that we grasp that life is never merely given, that nothing that is human is built on stone, that all human institutions and customs are built on the shifting sands of time and place, and that if people are to acknowledge their equal vulnerability to the evanescence of human existence then they have no option but to build and to maintain ways of living openly and flexibly.

We can say that democracy is the most power-sensitive form of government ever invented. It calls on human beings to recognise that rule by others is not “natural”.

It beckons them to understand that we are not necessarily what some say we are, or what we think we are, and that within any political order who manages to get what, when and how should therefore be permanently an open question.

Democracy destroyed

Parts of Athens have been turned into battlezones now the country is in the grip of a financial crisis. AFP/Panagiotis Tzamaros

But what happens when the ability to question power and to organise with and against others is taken away from people, and democracy is broken up, wilfully destroyed? Look no farther for an answer than this past week’s events just a few hundred kilometres across the Mediterranean, in the city of Athens.

The awful news from the metropolis once thought to be the birthplace of democracy is that its citizens are weighed down by deep-seated disappointment and despair.

Several months ago, Athens began to resemble a stress-test laboratory where the spirit and institutions of self-government are pushed to the limit.

Street fighting had already turned whole sections of the city into burned-out battle zones, some of them permanently under police occupation, or patrolled by xenophobes and fascist thugs.

Most Athenians had grown ashamed of what was happening to their fair city. Massive debt, unemployment and government bullying and hypocrisy had made many angry, or irritable.

Robbed of their dignity, plunged into poverty, more than a few had grown convinced that much worse things were lurking just around the corner.

They were proven right. Not only has there been no good news; if anything, by last week, the situation had considerably worsened. The grim sense of despair that has settled on the city is captured in a video shot by a Greek acquaintance.

Syntagma Square in the Greek city of Athens symbolises the level of frustration and despair among its citizens. YouTube/MurpleJane.

The short film shows that Athens, its democracy dying, is not a pretty sight. Yes, a stranger in Syntagma Square plays the old Persian stringed instrument called the santouri. Is it perhaps a lilting voice of hope amidst the ruins? Maybe. But banks are closed, their windows shuttered or smashed. Even the pawn shops are gutted.

Penny capitalism is back. So are street beggars. Most public services are dysfunctional, or they have collapsed. The streets choked with rubbish are pitted with fires, even in places stained with blood.

Large crowds still gather before the parliament to hurl abuse at the whole political class. Some prefer petrol bombs, directed at the hated white-helmeted police. There are scuffles, tear gas, the crush and crunch of sticks, the clunk of rocks on reinforced shields, or against citizens’ heads.


Most Athenians, knowing that unlike their ancestors they cannot any more be rescued by the deities, or by a muse, meanwhile complain of being trampled into the ground, exhausted by feelings of mournful anxiety triggered by the perception that a way of life is being destroyed.

How can all this end? Where will things end? How much hopelessness and humiliation can a people withstand before they snap, or slump? Has the point been reached where rock-bottom hopelessness must turn into hope?

We can’t be sure. We do know that democracy continually teases and taunts people with the difference between its promises and its achievements. Gaps between its lionhearted possibilities and its sorry realities are chronic. Bitter laments and failures - improvement, perfectibility - are among its signature qualities.

We know as well that democratic hopes can triumph against harsh reality, as happened this week in Tunisia. In Greece, exactly the opposite trend has taken root. Sorry reality seems triumphant. The space between promise and actuality is widening. A huge majority of Greek citizens now associate democracy with what they do not have, or what they once had. Something must give.

State of war

Greek Deputy PM Evangelos Venizelos has warned his country is in a ‘state of war’ EPA//Orestis Panagiotou

To cap things off, last week, from inside a barricaded parliament, the deputy prime minister Evangelos Venizelos summarised the state of play. Head sunk between his shoulders, resembling a wrinkled bull about to unleash a terrible attack on his victim, Venizelos warned that the country had not yet reached “the worst phase of the crisis”. The state had to be rescued, he said. “Everything else means absolutely nothing…We are in a state of war”.

It wasn’t at all clear what he meant. Was he referring to the European-wide fight to stave off the insolvency crisis? Or to the need to clamp down harder on Greek citizens who are refusing to give their consent to his government’s unjust draconian measures?

Probably the ambiguity was deliberate, which raises the political question of whether democracy in monitory, representative form will manage to survive the hopelessness of the Greek moment. Such is the profound uncertainty of this deepening crisis that we can’t know.

Put more positively, what we can say is that with a lot of luck and quality leadership Greek citizens will get through this zero hour democratically, but only if they keep their nerve, toughen their determination and heed the call of radical hope from the far shores of the Mediterranean.

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