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Creating Participatory Democracy (Or Trying, Anyway)

November 22, 2016

democracyIn hindsight, the biggest problem with the extraordinary protests in Tahrir Square was the lack of a coherent plan for creating democracy once Mubarak stepped down.

I hear that all the time from journalists, Egyptian friends, fellow academics and friends. Certainly it is heartbreaking to watch documentaries about the uprisings and listen to excited young protesters insisting that once the regime falls, democracy will spontaneously flourish.

Much the same has been said about Occupy, #BlackLivesMatter, Indignados and other social movements that insist they are expressing popular democracy but have failed to articulate clear plans for change.

Buried in the logic of this critique is the assumption that protesters should have clearly articulated goals. This assumes that they are heterodox voices trying to change the existing system to make it more democratic.

But is creating positive social change within the existing system what protesters are actually going for? Or could these protests mean something else? And if so, what?

One way to find out is to ask them.

Armine Ishkanian of the London School of Economic and Marlies Glasius of the University of Amsterdam interviewed core activists in street protests in Cairo, as well as in London, Athens and Moscow in order to understand what these protesters expected of “democracy.”

In their article “What does democracy mean? Activist views and practices in Athens, Cairo, London and Moscow,” they found that most of the protesters they interviewed rejected representative democracy as insufficient.

Instead, the protesters believed democracy meant having a voice, and a responsibility to use that voice by participating intensively in political decision-making.

Activists saw themselves as engaged in prefigurative politics by fostering democratic practices within the movement and, ultimately, in society, but also raised concerns about internal power dynamics reproducing existing inequalities and exclusions.

But while the members of contemporary social movements may see themselves as sites of democratic prefiguration, this is never a straightforward process. Contemporary social movements are always also sites of struggle between experimental and traditional forms of organizing, and between inclusive aspirations and exclusive tendencies.

The authors argue that the insistence by activists that citizens have both a right and a duty to participate directly in political process (as opposed to merely voting for representatives who will do that “for” them) is too often treated by political scientists and policymakers as a threat to democracy and democratization.

They suggest, in the light of these interview, that policy specialist instead see these activities as an opportunity.


Ishkanian, Armine and Marlies Glasius. 2016. What does democracy mean? Activist views and practices in Athens, Cairo, London and Moscow. Democratization 

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