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In Defense of Representative Democracy
( 2 )

It is quite clear to me that Libya is governed by a military dictatorship despite the noisy claims to the contrary from its same rulers for more than three decades. Many aspects of its laws, institutions, and practices fall very short of globally known and accepted democratic norms and standards. It is also absolutely false to try to dismiss Representative Democracy as a subservient tool of capitalist exploitation.

Freedom of expression:
One of the areas in which this Libyan democratic deficiency is most critically evident is the lack of respect for, and effective protection of, freedom of expression. I would even dare to state that freedom of expression in Libya is currently under siege and subject to extreme restrictions unparalleled almost any where else in the world!
The gravity of this undemocratic situation cannot be underestimated and its consequences are disastrous for the desperately needed progress of the Libyan society. Freedom of expression is considered the umbrella principle of real democracy that include freedom of conscience, that is, the right to hold any opinions or religious or other beliefs, as well as the right to assembly, demonstration and petition. It is inhumane to link the right of assembly to treason and to deny people the right to organize and form political parties and other non governmental and independent associations while the ruling elite have free hand to organize and mobilize politically, ideologically, financially and militarily.

I will focus my defense of Representative Democracy from this angle because I strongly believe that freedom of expression and information is the cornerstone of all public freedoms and of the whole democratic project. Without it no system deserves to be called democratic. For that reason and many others, advocacy of its restoration, full respect, and promotion in Libya has both a substantive and instrumental aspect. Substantive, because it is internationally accepted that full democracy cannot be realized without the corresponding full enjoyment of freedom of expression. Instrumental, because increasing the protection of this freedom encourages public debate on the improvement of Libyan democracy and thus the advancement of the whole society.

Briefly, the basic concepts of liberal democratic thought may be summarized as follows:

  • Human beings are born free and are equal in dignity and rights.
  • Among the fundamental and inalienable rights of the citizen are those concerning life, security, freedom of expression and liberty.
  • Sovereignty rests essentially with society (the nation) and the purpose of its political organization is, fundamentally, to guarantee the rights and liberties of individuals.
  • The legitimacy of government derives from the consent of the governed and NOT from any other foundation such as the so-called “revolutionary legitimacy!” divine origin of power or any other dynastic (family, tribal…) rights.

These propositions and others which have been formulated in the struggle for freedom are today widely accepted as essential to democracy. These notions revolve around the idea that neither political and religious authorities nor even judges are competent to determine the goodness or validity of ideas or opinions, which must compete freely; also, that the protection of free expression is meaningless if it does not extend to ideas or opinions that are generally abhorred. Furthermore, liberal thought, since its inception, has harbored a strong distrust of the bureaucracy of the state. For this reason, freedom of expression was conceived not only in its creative dimension but also in its preventive role as an indispensable instrument for keeping the powers of the government under the critical control of its citizens.

This will not be the place to narrate the complex evolution of democratic thought that runs from the first liberal ideas in human history till our times. However it is important to mention here that the original democratic concepts have inspired the struggle for independence in the Americas. In Europe, following the absolutist restoration, the democratic ideal was reaffirmed after the revolutions of 1848. In the second half of the 19th century, other ideologies emerged of socialist, social-religious or nationalist orientation, inspiring the creation of powerful political organizations that provided the framework for the expression of acute social demands and conflicts. These ideas were, and still are, effectively applied against direct and indirect colonialism, racism and all forms of dictatorship and fascism. In the midst of these incredible developments and transformations, protection of public freedoms was gradually extended beyond those groups dominant in society and evolved to reach slowly other social classes and groups and later to both sexes.

It is very hard to deny that terrible things have been done in the name of freedom and democracy and that some bad arguments have led our society away from true freedom down the dark alley of ignorance, intolerance, repression and backwardness. My strategy for understanding democracy is to relate it to human dignity. For just as it is harder to say what makes a just and democratic society than to list things that make it unfree. Put differently, while we cannot easily give a complete account of human dignity, we can easily point to cases where it is lacking or absent.

I will deal next with the essential components of Representative Democracy starting with the democratic legislative process.

To be continued.

Abdelrahim Saleh


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