World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2013

  • Is Democracy Winning?

    Thursday 24th January 2013 - 2:45pm - 3:45pm

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  • Two years after the Arab Spring, is democracy making progress in North Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere in the world?

    This session was developed in partnership with the BBC.

    Key Points

    • Democracy is winning in North Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere, but it has a long way to go.
    • Arab society is winning because the people will not give up the fight for their human dignity.
    • Concerns about human rights persist, particularly the rights of Egyptian women who participated in the revolution but are marginalized in the country’s new constitution.
    • Threats to fledgling democracies include the rise of terrorism, collapsing state institutions and political parties that have no commitment to democracy.


    Two years ago, participants at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting were mesmerized by the events unfolding at the dawn of the Arab Spring. At this session, participants debated whether the changes that have swept the region since then have created opportunities for freedom, political pluralism, human rights and justice or whether the dark shadows cast across Mali and Algeria are portents of new ominous realities ahead.

    Panellists agreed that democracy is winning; however, they did so with cautious optimism. Amr Moussa, Secretary-General of the League of Arab States (2001-2011), pointed out that the President of Egypt is in office due to elections and a democratic process. “But what we need is sustainable democracy,” he said. He pointed to the role of the opposition, the demonstrations and the anger of the people across the Arab world. “We want better, we want more and we cannot move from the past without looking to the future. Democracy is not only the ballot box,” he said.

    If this session had been held two years ago, no one would have dared to imagine elected presidents in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen, Ahmet Davutoḡlu, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Turkey, reminded participants. “They have achieved a lot. The psychological threshold of the people is very important. This is a historical process. Democracy is the best system in the quest for human dignity. Arab society is winning because they are fighting for their dignity and they will do it for ever. But there is a long way to go.” 

    Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Geneva, insisted that democracy “will not fail” in the Middle East and North Africa because these areas have emerged from decades of dictatorship. “When there is tremendous change, there will never again be a situation where dictatorship will prevail,” she said. Pillay reminded participants that international observers of recent elections in the region were all deemed to be fair.

    However, Pillay spoke out about against the Egyptian constitution at the time because of its lack of respect for international conventions. Moussa pointed out that the country’s opposition walked out of the constitutional talks because of the lack of recognition for women’s rights. This point was taken up from the audience by Barbara Stocking, Chief Executive GB, United Kingdom, who noted that women reporting from Tahir Square were elated. Today, their hopes have been dashed. When inquiring what the international community and NGOs can do to support women’s rights in the region, Pillay called for sustained assistance. “Activists and NGOs need to learn to articulate this for themselves and convince their governments to give them a voice in the decision-making process,” she said.

    The fundamentals of democracy are self-determination, the right to vote, liberty, institutions that protect individual rights, independent judiciaries, a free press and free commerce, said Thomas L. Friedman, Columnist, Foreign Affairs, The New York Times. “These have yet to take hold. We have self-determination, the hardware of democracy. What we need is the software, liberty and institutions that guarantee individual rights. A new democracy will only be healthy if it is checked by a free press and a healthy opposition. We don’t have that yet in Egypt.” For democracy to be sustainable, there must be trust, he added. Democracy came to these countries abruptly, “without a Mandela or a midwife” to mediate between communities that have lived in fear of each other. 

    Friedman pointed out that every leader in the world is in a “two-way conversation with his people” and that people have lost their fear. “When I was in Tahir Square, I felt like I saw a tiger that had been living in a small cage for 50 years. The tiger will not go back into the cage. Don’t try to ride the tiger or he will buck you off or bite you. He’s been fed every lie in the Arabic language,” he said.

    In a debate sparked by whether Islam and democracy are compatible, both Moussa and Davutoḡlu vigorously defended the position that Islam does not make it difficult for democracy to flourish. Davutoḡlu pointed out that the Koran teaches human dignity. “A basic truth of democracy is human dignity,” he said. Pillay agreed. “I don’t see Islam or any other religion as a threat to democracy. There is a myth that people in the Middle East and Myanmar are different and don’t have the same aspirations to human rights as other people in the world. It’s people who believe in that myth in a skewed monopoly of resources and wealth by the elite who locked up the tiger.”

    Davutoḡlu pointed to the threats in the region in the wake of the Arab Spring, including the rising influence of Al Qaeda and collapsing state institutions unable to deliver services to the people. “We can debate the politics of democracy, but the reason it is in trouble is the rise of extremism and parties that have no commitment to democracy,” he said. 

    The wide-ranging debate exposed the myriad challenges facing people trying to build fledgling democracies from the ashes of dictatorships – in the Middle East, North Africa, Myanmar and elsewhere. “The journey to democracy will remain difficult and unpredictable and is far from guaranteed,” concluded Nik Gowing, Main Presenter, BBC World News.


    This summary was written by Dianna Rienstra. The views expressed are those of certain participants in the discussion and do not necessarily reflect the views of all participants or of the World Economic Forum. 

Session objectives

Are democracies best equipped to deal with the increasingly complex challenges of the globalized world?

This session was developed in partnership with the BBC.

Moderated by

  • Nik Gowing Nik Gowing
    International Broadcaster, United Kingdom

    Thirty years as a leading international TV journalist. 1978-96, Foreign Affairs Correspondent, ITN, ...


  • Navi Pillay Navi Pillay
    UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Geneva

    BA and LLB, Natal University, South Africa; Master's in Law and Doctorate in Juridical Science, Harv...

  • Ahmet Davutoglu Ahmet Davutoglu
    Minister of Foreign Affairs of Turkey

    Degree in Political Science and Economics, MA and PhD, Bogazici University. With International Islam...

  • Amr Moussa Amr Moussa
    Secretary-General of the League of Arab States (2001-2011)

    1957, LLB, Cairo University. 1957-58, Lawyer; 1958-72, at several departments, Ministry of Foreign A...

  • Thomas L. Friedman Thomas L. Friedman
    Columnist, Foreign Affairs, The New York Times, USA

    1975, degree (Hons) in Mediterranean Studies, Brandeis University; Marshall Scholarship, St Antony's...