In place like the Sudan, Hong Kong and Kazakhstan, resistance is being rallied against the all-powerful, often at the cost of protesters’ lives.
Democracy is going through the worst crisis it has known since the 1930s, a crisis marked by the thirteenth consecutive year of regression, under pressure from the démocratures [démocrature: a combination of democracy and dictatorship] and Jihadism, but mostly from the wave of populism that has hit the developed world. Vladimir Putin stated in the Financial Times that democracy and liberalism are “obsolete”, for they go against people’s deep-seated desire to defend their identity and security.
However, although democracy is contested by political regimes that deny freedom, it has not lost the match. Firstly, the démocratures also have their weak points. China under Xi Jinping will have trouble gaining and keeping the leadership of an innovation economy by bringing back a tight ideological control over its citizens, researchers and businesses. Russia under Vladimir Putin is conducting a policy based on power at the expense of demographic and economic suicide. Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s dream of a new Ottoman empire is coming up against the barrier of the collapse of its debt-based economic model. Experiments in populism, as in Italy, are failing to give citizens confidence in the future.
The desire for freedom remains alive and kicking, even within the spheres of influence of the démocratures. In Hong Kong, on 16th June, over 2 million of its 7.4 million population marched in protest against freedom-destroying draft legislation that would authorize the extradition of suspects to China. China’s development can therefore be reconciled with freedom, contrary to what Xi JIngping says. In Istanbul, on 23rd June, Ekrem Imamoglu won an unquestionable victory with 54% of the votes on a recount forced through by Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan had refused to accept the loss of the city, which generates 31% of the country’s GDP. The former Soviet Asia is not to be left out. There have been mass demonstrations in Georgia, Armenia and Kazakhstan demanding real independence from Moscow. In the Czech Republic, 250,000 people demonstrated in Prague on 23rd June, demanding the resignation of the Prime Minister, Andrej Babis, because they were convinced there had been fraudulent use of European grants.
In Algeria, there was a popular uprising to put an end to the scheduled re-election of Abdelaziz Bouteflika for a fifth term of office. The stand-off between the demonstrators and the military, led by General Ahmed Gaïd Salah, is still going on. Similarly, in the Sudan, there was a popular rebellion which led the army to remove President Omar el-Bechir from office on 11th April – after being in power since 1989 – and to the beginning of a civil disobedience movement against the Transitional Military Council, at the cost of 136 lives since the sit-in of 3rd June.
These protests are precarious, being at the risk of violent repression, but they de-legitimize the mythology surrounding “strong leaders” by proving that they are not all-powerful. They are driven by young people and the urban middle class – well-educated and connected to the Internet. They are organized through social media in a decentralized fashion which makes it difficult for leaders or any political strategy to emerge, but also makes them more difficult to repress.
Against a background of wars between civilizations, cultures and religions, political freedom – inasmuch as it allows people and nations to decide on their own destiny – remains a fresh idea in the 21st century. Instead of giving in to the demagogues’ sirens, democracies must pull themselves together. By showing that freedom is perfectly compatible with the fight against inequality and compatible with development and stability. By creating an inclusive growth model that is socially and ecologically sustainable. By re-asserting the rule of law. By renewed investment in security. But, above all, by regaining faith in the universal value of freedom and having the courage to defend it at a time when, in many countries, people are continuing to risk their lives for it.
(Column published in Le Point, 11th July 2019)