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The meaning of democracy

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Kay Wise

Principal Consultant

Tag: Security United Arab Emirates
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Around the world people talk a lot about democracy , usually assuming everyone understands what they mean.   The word democracy has always meant different things to different people throughout history.  Democracy in ancient Greece, where the term originated,  meant rule by the people. Rule meant direct democracy where every man could have his say.  But the ancient definition rests on two even more difficult terms, rule and people.

 In ancient Greece, people meant free men , which excluded women and slaves. In the United States, all men were granted the vote in 1870, fifty years before women in 1920.  In early Britain, lords and land owners could participate in government long before townspeople and commoners. So the term people can mean different things.  In a country like the UAE, people may mean Emiratis, those who were here or whose ancestors were here when the country was founded in 1971.

What does it mean to rule?  In ancient Greece the people made the rules by direct participation in government.  But in modern societies, rules are made by representatives (in the USA) or rulers (in the UAE).

Rule in the USA at the federal level involves an ornate political dance with trade-offs negotiated among  more than five hundred members of congress.  This means, in practical terms, that many thousands of Americans , each in a different situation, with different beliefs, different values, different professions, and different socio-economic statuses cede rule to a kaleidoscope of representatives that changes with each election.  Realities condition and limit the degree to which any one representative can respond substantively to the will of the people; witness current agonizing over how to change the country's health care system.   Furthermore, an ordinary American has basically zero chance of ever putting his or her personal case directly before the President of the United States. Despite these drawbacks, few would suggest that the United States is not a democracy. 

On the other hand, we all know that the UAE is not typically described as a democracy.  The laws are made by rulers' representatives.  But the ability of a ruler to respond to the needs of his people may in fact be greater than the ability of a representative in Congress, even greater than the President of the United States. For example, without agonizing debates in the court of public opinion, the rulers of the UAE have recently banned smoking in public.  While the Federal National Council is clearly subordinate to the rulers, it does exist to provide representative voices for Emiratis. Furthermore any ordinary Emirati may come before his ruler in the Majlis or at the FNC.

We therefore ask our experts:  What does democracy mean to you?   What should it mean?  To whom? 


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