Mitrakos: Freedom for protestors comes with a price

Vasiliki Mitrakos

In the past four months, several countries in the Middle East and North Africa have been rocked by a series of protests, all calling for a change in government leadership and the establishment of freedom. But functional democracies are not established simply through majority rule and an electoral system. The preservation of a strong democracy requires the establishment of institutions, norms and restrictions that promote government stability. If the rebellious forces in these countries are successful and want to ensure their freedom against authoritarian governments, the new governments must incorporate restrictions on executive power and standing governments must aid in a more democratic transition without simply abandoning the country.

Many protesters in recent conflicts have looked to the U.S. for support in their struggle for freedom. While these protesters view the U.S. as a protector of freedom, they must consider that one of the most important features of our liberal democracy is self-imposed restriction to power. Egypt for example, though currently far from a stable democracy, has taken several steps to promote reform by establishing limits on presidential terms and redefining qualifications for potential candidates. For Egypt, this is a strong first step toward securing rights, stabilizing the government and promoting freedom. However, protesters in other countries like Syria, Yemen and Libya, where the same leader maintained power for more than 20 years are still struggling to topple oppresive regimes. Restrictions of executive power, particularly the duration of incumbency and regulation of the electoral process, are essential for the development of a democracy and reducing the probability of the establishment of an authoritarian regime.

The determination of protesters in their plight for equal rights and freedom is admirable, but there are consequences that may result if the standing government does not take a more active role in facilitating and regulating the transition to a more democratic society. In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad, whose family has ruled for more than 40 years, recently disbanded his cabinet and placed the minister of agriculture in charge of the country. Some Syrians may see the action as a positive step toward freedom, but without consent of the public, it is simply an illusion of progress. It is counterproductive for current rulers to simply step down without first establishing a foundation toward political development based on popular support. To prevent the transition from becoming anarchical, the current governments must reform the current government structure and make concessions on behalf of popular demands.

While the U.S. today is an example of a functioning democracy, we have had more than 200 years to formulate a “more perfect union.” From the Civil War to the struggles of African-Americans for equal rights, the U.S. has had its share of injustice and has taken decades to acknowledge the freedom and equal rights of all citizens. The establishment of freedom and more democratic governments in the Middle East and North Africa, where protests are prevalent, will be a similarly lengthy process. While most opposition efforts may not succeed in the near future, those that do must incorporate restrictions to the executive power and appropriate measures to enforce those restrictions.

Vasiliki Mitrakos is a Weinberg sophomore. She can be reached at [email protected]