Democracy is an icon of those who aspire to the best of political and civil rights.
Like other icons, however, it is tricky to sort out the symbol from the realities.
Virtually all countries describe themselves as democracies, but few measure up.
Political scientists who concern themselves with the nature of democracy focus on free competition of candidates and political parties, freedom of media and criticism, transparency and accuracy of vote counting, and the capacity of opposing parties and candidates, upon winning elections, to replace incumbents peacefully.
Also important are levels of education that facilitate widespread and intelligent participation, a lack of grinding poverty or extreme gaps between wealthy and poor that would invite demagoguery, vote buying, or actions to keep large number of residents from voting.
Democracy can be a flag to wave against something that appears undesirable, but has little to do with democracy, per se.
It''s one of the accusations against Israel, both with respect to its Arab minority and stateless Palestinians.
The first is grossly inaccurate. Israel''s Arab minority does not fall below the minorities of other democracies in their political or civil rights, or the extent to which they suffer discrimination.
Ten percent of the present Knesset is Arab, while the Arab percentage of the population is 21 percent. Comparable data show African-Americans also underrepresented in Congress, but with a slightly higher percentage relative to their population (eight percent of Congress as opposed to 14 percent of the population). Minority representation in the British and French parliaments falls way below these measures for Israel and the US. The minority percentage in the French parliament is less than 2 percent, compared to 10 percent in the population. The non-white percentage in the British parliament is four percent, compared to 18 percent in the population.
If Israel''s Arab MKs don''t get more goodies for their constituents, it is because they insist on playing the game of miserable outsiders, rather than joining majorities in exchange for benefits.
In previous notes, I have provided data showing that the relative economic status of Israeli Arabs does not fall below that of African-Americans, and that health indicators are substantially better for Israeli Arabs than African-Americans.
Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza have chosen on several occasions to reject opportunities to advance toward a statehood recognized by Israel. Sectors of the Palestinian leadership remain committed to hostility, incite their population to hatred, and show varying levels of encouragement, participation, and celebration of violence against Israeli civilians. They also promote international campaigns that vary between gross exaggeration and bizarre claims about the behavior of Israelis and Jews.
It is also true that Israel and the Palestinians have reached a level of accommodation that appears to work. It is not perfect. Palestinians feel they are deprived of having a state, or the right of many to return to what they see as the homes of themselves of their families. Israelis may feel a lack of the security associated with clear borders recognized as such by all international actors.
However, indicators of individual security suggest that Israelis do not suffer more than residents of countries--most prominently the United States--thought to be recognized and secure. And while Israel''s borders are fuzzy, especially in the West Bank, and lack international recognition, they are not more porous than those of other countries that are open to illegal immigrants and smuggling.
None of Israel''s neighbors come close to measuring up to Israel''s performance as a democracy or a provider of decent social services to their populations.
Egypt provides an interesting case for the examination of democracy, and its use as a description of realities.
On the one hand, no one should claim that Egypt has ever measured up to western standards of democracy or civil rights.
As defined by recent election results, Egypt has violated the norms by the present incumbent having ousted the Muslim Brotherhood led government that clearly won the previous election.
Former Commanding General al-Sisi has won the most recent election, but with a suspiciously high percentage of the vote (more than 95 percent), and a low turnout reflecting the Muslim Brotherhood being declared illegal and its demand for supporters to stay at home. All that gives him a failing score on the electoral dimension of being democratic.
On the other hand, al-Sisi can claim to have violated the simple nature of democracy for the larger good of having a regime that is moderate when judged in the context of other Muslim countries. Supporters use the image of violating democracy in order to realize moderation against the regime led by the Muslim Brotherhood, which had begun moving toward Islamic extremism.
His opponents object to keeping the Muslim Brotherhood out of politics, and the large number of death sentences imposed on Muslim Brotherhood activists. Yet the vast majority of those sentences were imposed in absentia, and are not likely to be implemented.
One can argue until the camels comes home about the moderation of Egyptian regimes pre- and post- that of the Muslim Brotherhood. Barack Obama''s Cairo speech of 2009 stands as the work of a naive outsider, which made its contribution to the continuing disasters of Arab Spring. Demanding democracy and equality in the Egyptian capital was out of keeping with Mubarak''s moderation compared to other Muslim-dominated regimes. Obama''s Nobel Peace Prize does not stand well in comparison to more than 160,000 deaths and several million refugees associated with Arab Spring''s Syrian manifestation, or what may be 100,000 deaths in its Libyan manifestation.
In this part of the world, outside of Israel, "democracy" is more often used as an empty boast or as a club to use against adversaries than as a description of reality. In the case of Israel, it is accurate as a description of reality, but that does not keep it from being used as part of the anti-Israel blather.