The Common Good

Democratization: Another Mountain to Climb in Egypt

There is a Haitian proverb that says after every mountain, there is another mountain. We work to accomplish one goal, but the next goal is as difficult as or more difficult than the preceding goal. Such is the case in the first days of the post-Mubarak era in Egypt.

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It was thrilling to see the triumph of nonviolence protest. I saw a sign in Tahrir Square that said: "We shall overcome." I thought of the history of the civil rights movement, especially the Montgomery Bus Boycott that lasted a year. People walked for a year. But with every step they walked, they also forged new leadership, including that of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. They formed new coalitions and found themselves making more sophisticated demands. After the success of the bus boycott, there was even more work to be done and blood to be shed for the sake of equal access to public accommodations, education and housing, voting rights, and economic opportunity. A more energized woman's rights movement emerged along with the peace movement and various ethnic groups -- Native Americans and Chicanos -- began to take their demands to the street.

And so it shall be in Egypt. Democracy is a value in and of itself. It is an important element of just peace theory because it respects the voices of ordinary people in a society. It gives a population a peaceful way to express their ideas, to petition their government, to cast their votes for leaders who will work for their interests, for the peace and prosperity of their nation. If these leaders fail at this effort, the people can vote them out of office. Nations that enjoy democracy tend to be more peaceful because of the pacifying powers of democracy. But democracy in and of itself does not mean that a nation will be at peace with its neighbors, and the process of democratization is often a destabilizing force within a nation.

Let us never forget the lessons from our own civil rights movement -- that people who benefited under the old ways of doing things did not welcome the change. The effects of this are still evident in our politics. Those who were committed to civil rights were subject to violence both overt and subtle. The old attitudes simply adopted a different vocabulary.

Moreover, the George W. Bush administration went to war in Iraq under the influence of neo-conservative thinkers arguing the democratic peace theory. The theory says that democracies seldom go to war with other democracies, so for the sake of peace the United States ought to spread democracy around the world, even if it means going to war. Democracy in Iraq was supposed to cause a domino effect throughout the region. All the nations would become democracies, and all would be right with the world. This was tragically misguided thinking because democracy is not that easy.

Piki Ish-Shalom writing at the Harvard International Review online reminds us that democratization is "a long and complex internal process of socialization and norm dissemination." This is why democratization itself can be destabilizing, even if it comes through nonviolent means. In just peace theory, means and ends ought to cohere. Egyptians have a better of chance of climbing the next mountain of democratizing their country because of the way they made this first step. Filled with faith and with hope there is yet another mountain to climb. And those of us who love justice and peace are with them is spirit and in prayer.

Dr. Valerie Elverton Dixon is an independent scholar who publishes lectures and essays at She received her Ph.D. in religion and society from Temple University and taught Christian ethics at United Theological Seminary and Andover Newton Theological School.

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