From Democracy's Front Line

 

For members of the Class of '85, the concept of a career in "democracy promotion" meant a political campaign or government service. None of us saw the sweeping changes coming within a few years of our graduation as freedom spread across previously oppressed countries.

By Stuart Krusell '85
 

Rapidly expanding requests for assistance in making this transition redefined the profession. My own opportunity to engage in this exciting career came thanks to the Colby network. An informational interview with Liz Dugan '78, a vice president at the International Republican Institute (IRI), led to an offer to work in East Timor as it prepared for its first legislative elections. Since then, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Egypt, and Iraq (working with Jeremy Greenfield '00) have been added to the list. As I write this, I ready for my next assignment: Morocco.

In each of these countries I have been privileged to work alongside dedicated and extremely brave local citizens who put their lives and livelihoods on the line fighting for a better life for their neighbors and future generations. Echoes of Elijah Parish Lovejoy, in a variety of languages, are easy to hear.

For the past year, my work has taken me to the Palestinian Territories. During the 2006 elections, I visited a dozen or more polling stations. Each stop offered the chance to engage local voters in impromptu focus groups. A consistent question posed was, "What one message do you want to convey to people in the U.S.?"
 
"Tell them what you saw," was the reply.  "Tell them about how Palestinians held free and fair elections. Tell them that we are committed to democracy and to peace." It was the same answer every time.

Critics of policies aimed at encouraging democratic transitions discount such answers, citing the win by the Islamic Party, Hamas, as evidence that such efforts are doomed to failure, especially in the volatile Middle East. A look at the facts, and firsthand experience, offer a more hopeful view.

While the rules of the election gave Hamas a significant victory in terms of seats, the reality is that the vote was far from a mandate as Hamas garnered only 44 percent, with Fateh getting 42 percent and other parties making up the rest. Exit polls conducted by IRI's partner, Birzeit University, revealed that 43 percent of those voting for Hamas did so to end corruption, while only 19 percent stated religious reasons.

Far from being a radical endorsement of Islamic rule, the Palestinian people sought a government that was more responsive to their needs. Sadly, Hamas has shown itself to be less than democratic and representative, preferring to offer more blame than solutions to the critical issues facing it. Governing is not the same as opposing. If the democratic process continues emerging, failure to deliver will dampen Hamas's appeal.

Contrary to the opinion currently in vogue, democracy promotion is not solely a U.S. initiative nor is it being imposed; it is a goal of people from across the globe who understand the fruits of freedom. I have witnessed the impact of a Romanian who suffered under Nicolae Ceausescu speaking to Iraqis and Egyptians. The message resonates because both sides understand suffering and share the desire for democratic reform as the best way to end oppression.

People in the Middle East are no less capable of wanting democratic rule or being able to exercise it than others across the world. Their history may make them all the more willing to hear the call of freedom. What they need is long-term support and patience as they struggle to emerge from years of oppression. Democracy is not simply a matter of holding elections or the results of a ballot or two.

As many a Colby government or history major will tell you, few expected the U.S. experiment in self-rule to be a success when it began more than 200 years ago. A civil war, civil rights battle, and other significant, painful challenges are reminders that democracy is a process based on ideals?a process that can get fairly messy. Countries from South Africa to Indonesia, from Brazil to India, can attest to this reality.

The challenges and opportunities surrounding democracy promotion will likely be as dynamic and unpredictable for the Class of 2010 as they have been for my generation. The debate will be spirited and vital to creating a peaceful future. Colby will undoubtedly give those students the same great preparation for engaging in that debate.

For me, every conversation with a Palestinian civil society leader, Iraqi party leader, or Cambodian farmer has been an exhilarating reminder of Colby's, and my own, founding roots. As members of this community, we have been fortunate to enjoy the fruits nourished by those roots. We should welcome the chance to share with others the knowledge and tools necessary for nurturing their own roots of freedom.

Stuart Krusell '85 is the International Republican Institute's director of operations for Morocco.
 
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