Withdrawing Consent

One of the foundations of modern society is the belief that governments’ legitimacy is derived from the consent of the governed — a concept championed by political philosophers of the 18th century European Enlightenment, such as John Locke. It was Locke’s treatises on government that inspired the Declaration of Independence by the thirteen American colonies in 1776, as well as the Constitution that established the United States of America as the first modern republic in 1787.

The exact nature of the consent, however, has been a point of contention ever since. Today, the prevalent position among the governments is that any government whose country is not in a state of active rebellion is presumed to have at least the tacit consent of the populace. Furthermore, as a demonstration of that consent, just about every government in the world organizes elections and pays lip service to democracy.

What happens, however, when the governed begin to believe that the government no longer cares about their consent, or lack thereof?

A Simple Method

With the end of the Cold War, a number of policymakers in the West fell prey to a seductive belief in the "end of history" — the notion, first proposed by Francis Fukuyama, that western liberal democracy has decisively triumphed over every other form of government. Yet the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century have proven over and over that this belief was not just mistaken, but dangerously so.

As political forms go, democracy is fairly straightforward. Direct democracy, as practiced by ancient Athenians, decided on the issues. As polities became bigger and populations more numerous, in its modern form democracy became representative: the voting populace would elect representatives from the ballot, and whoever won the most votes would form a government. That government has to follow through on its electoral promises, or be thrown out of power in the next cycle in favor of someone else — in theory, anyway.

The modern West has elevated democracy from a simple method of decision-making into an arcane form of political religion. Yet, ironically, it was the West that undermined that concept of "democracy" the most.

Vote Till You Get It Right

During the Cold War, the U.S. would often use force or proxies to overthrow democratically elected governments — e.g. in Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and Chile. In Iran, the CIA was behind the 1953 coup that deposed the popular Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh and restored the autocratic Shah; the resulting anti-American sentiment was used by the Islamic regime that came to power in 1979, and the animosity has been mutual ever since.

More recently, the way the European Union has managed its process of transformation from a free-trade zone to a megastate is replete with examples of selective democracy. When the proposed EU constitution was defeated in referenda in France and the Netherlands, the Brussels bureaucracy simply re-framed it as another treaty, to be ratified in national parliaments. The only EU member obligated by its own laws to put the matter to a referendum was Ireland. In 2008, the Irish voted no. So the EU had them vote again, in 2009.

Democracy for Democratic Democrats Only

Last, but not least, there is the matter of the elected government in Serbia. Slobodan Milosevic, routinely denounced as a "dictator" in Western Europe and America, actually held elections and did not ban opposition parties. In October 2000, an American-assembled and NED-financed coalition of opposition parties claimed to have won the presidential vote, and organized massive demonstrations in the capital. Before the votes could be counted, the ballots perished in the fire set by the protesters in the national assembly building. To avoid bloodshed, Milosevic conceded the election to challenger Vojislav Kostunica.

Since then, the outcome of each election in Serbia has been heavily influenced by EU and U.S. envoys in Belgrade, who exerted tremendous pressure to ensure that "pro-Western" presidents and cabinets ended up triumphant. Over and over, popular will at the ballot box was subverted in favor of outcomes blessed by Washington and Brussels. On one such occasion, in 2007, Philip Cunliffe observed:

"…what counts as democracy is what the EU decides is democratic, and the democrats are those who are anointed by the international community, regardless of who actually receives the votes."

The culmination of this "logic" was the formation of the current Serbian government, in June 2008, composed of two coalitions that campaigned on opposite platforms. Needless to say, that government is considered properly "democratic" even though not a single person ever actually voted for it. Worse yet, its actions ever since have clearly indicated that the only consent it cares about is that of Brussels and Washington, rather than the people of Serbia.

From Carthage With Rage

In early January, a young Tunisian unable to get a permit for selling his vegetables on the street set himself on fire in desperation. When a crowd gathered to protest the tragedy, the police opened fire. The ensuing riots snowballed into a revolution, and President Ben Ali fled the country.

The Tunisian "Jasmine revolution" seems to have inspired riotous expressions of popular discontent in Algeria, Yemen and Egypt. Al-Jazeera’s coverage of the Egyptian unrest was accompanied by an interesting photograph of a protester wearing a Guy Fawkes mask, reminiscent of the 2006 film V for Vendetta. Meanwhile, the Lebanese rioted over the announcement that their next PM would be an oligarch with Hezbollah support, while clashes between the government and opposition supporters in Albania have resulted in at least three deaths.

At first glance, this appears to be just the sort of spontaneous eruption of democracy that Bush the Lesser and his backers proclaimed would result from their "liberation" of Iraq. Yet the U.S. government reaction has been devoid of enthusiasm. Publicly, both Secretary Clinton and Emperor Obama have paid lip service to democracy and human rights. In practice, though, they continue to back the governments currently in place.

Ben Ali was an ally of France and the U.S., while it is unclear what road his successors may take. Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak is likewise an ally, and a recipient of massive U.S. aid. Plus there is a danger that he could be succeeded by the Muslim Brotherhood, a militant Islamic movement. The prospect of having Iranian-backed Hezbollah actually in charge of the Lebanese government gives both the U.S. and Israel a fit. As for Albania, U.S. and EU envoys have pleaded with both sides to stop the violence and reconcile. The Albania Empire needs is an exemplar of pro-American sentiment, a stalwart NATO member and a preferred tourist destination, not a violent haven for political corruption and heinous crimes.

Spring is Coming

Whether the unrest around the Mediterranean ends up escalating to revolutionary levels or calms down after Imperial soothing depends largely on the motivation and determination of the demonstrators. Unlike the staged "revolutions" in Ukraine, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere (which were based on the template field-tested in 2000 in Serbia), the revolts this month appear to be spontaneous and genuine. Their outcome, therefore, is hardly predetermined. In addition to poverty and frustration with corruption, another factor in Egypt and Lebanon is the popular outrage over the content of the "Palestine Papers," published just days ago by Al-Jazeera. The Middle East seems headed to a spring of discontent.

So do other places. There have been riots in Europe already, with people protesting government policies — or lack thereof. Popular discontent in the U.S. had found an outlet in the "Tea Party" phenomenon. More and more it is becoming obvious that politics as usual simply doesn’t cut it anymore.  The real question is, what will?

Author: Nebojsa Malic

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo. As a historian who specializes in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia, and Serbian politics. His exclusive column for Antiwar.com debuted in November 2000.