I recently had the chance to watch an inspiring documentary film. It's called A Whisper to a Roar, and it tells the stories of pro-democracy campaigners in five authoritarian countries (Egypt, Malaysia, Ukraine, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe). The movie offers some vivid stories of courageous political struggles. I especially liked the interviews with female Egyptian activist Esraa Abdel Fattah and the Venezuelan student campaigner Roberto Patiño -- both remarkable people who clearly have an interesting future ahead. It's the self-sacrifice and idealism of figures such as these that give the story its lift.
The producers of A Whisper to a Roar clearly wanted to deliver a message of hope to those of us who would like to see more freedom in the world. According to the film's website, "the core message of the work is that the thirst for freedom and accountable government is universal and that democracy is not just a Western concept." On balance, that's a statement that I'm inclined to accept (even if I find it a bit too vague for my taste). But if that's what the film was supposed to prove to me, it hasn't succeeded. The film would like us to believe, essentially, that the good guys will always win in the end, since that's what all of us want. It's not just clear that reality is ever quite so straightforward.
It's striking is that none of the countries so optimistically profiled in the film has yet to embrace full-blown democracy. The vicious Robert Mugabe is still president of Zimbabwe today (even though, as the film shows, he was pushed into a power-sharing arrangement with opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai). The authoritarian regime in Malaysia remains in place (though it could be facing a strong electoral challenge from Anwar Ibrahim in an impending general election there). President Hugo Chávez is still in power in Venezuela. Viktor Yanukovych, the authoritarian leader humiliatingly defeated by opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko in the 2004 Orange Revolution, is now president of Ukraine.
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In Egypt, demonstrators are locked in a battle with the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government -- a democratically elected administration that, many Egyptians worry, is now on its way to curtailing some of their recently acquired freedoms via a new constitution drafted largely by Islamists and rejected by secular democrats. (The movie ends in the summer of 2012, so it touches upon some of these developments. Its take on Egypt is accordingly colored by the euphoria following the fall of Mubarak, and not yet compromised by the Brotherhood's power grab this autumn.)
In at least three cases, it should be noted, the leaders in question won power in competitive elections. The Brotherhood moved into power with the blessing of Egyptian voters. Yanukovych, who capitalized on the corruption and internal divisions of the democratic coalition that defeated him five years earlier, trounced his opponent in 2010. Chávez also convincingly won reelection in his latest presidential poll two months ago, fending off the strongest opposition challenge in recent memory.
Democracy, it would seem, is not inevitable. Sometimes people even vote against it.