Different Meanings Of Democracy For West, Middle East

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The chants, chaos and cries from the streets of Cairo and other cities in Egypt this week revive questions for historians and political scientists that politicians have to answer with practical policies. Host Scott Simon speaks with Dr. J. Rufus Fears, a historian and Classics scholar at the University of Oklahoma, about western concepts of democracy and the events now sweeping Egypt and the Middle East.


The chants, chaos and cries from the streets of Cairo and other cities in Egypt this week revive questions for historians and political scientists that politicians have to answer with practical policies.

Are freedom and democracy cultural creations or something intrinsic in all human beings and societies? Are they western ideas concocted from the Magna Carta - with nods to Rousseau, Jefferson and John Stuart Mill - or universal values to different people mean different things with the same words?

J. Rufus Fears is the David Ross Boyd professor of Classics at the University of Oklahoma, where students are known to camp outside of his classroom to get seats to his lectures the way some people do for Bruce Springsteen concerts.

He joins us from Norman, Oklahoma, snowed in this weekend. Professor Fears, thanks very much for being with us.

Dr. J. RUFUS FEARS (Classics, University of Oklahoma): Very glad to be with you.

SIMON: So to try and understand this in its most concise way, is democracy a universal human value?

Dr. FEARS: No, democracy is not. It is not a value in the Middle East, it is not a value in the historical civilization of China, it is not a value in the historical civilization of India. It is developed in Greece and no people have ever had a true democracy who were not touched in some way by the genius of the Greeks.

SIMON: What are some of your thoughts as you see these pictures from Egypt?

Dr. FEARS: Well, freedom is not a universal value. And many people, in many places, at many times have chosen the perceived security of a strong ruler - an authoritarian ruler, even a despotic ruler - over the awesome responsibility of self-government. That has been the choice of the Middle East, that is to say autocracy, since the birth of civilization in the Middle East in Iraq and Egypt 5,000 years ago.

SIMON: So as you take a look at whats happening, does that give you any pause to refresh your view? Or how do you see it?

Dr. FEARS: This is how regime change occurs in the Middle East - again, going back 5,000. A tyrannical ruler will ultimately so outrage the people through high prices for food, in particular, and oppressive taxations, and open corruption that these demonstrations will begin.

Our first great work of literature, "The Epic of Gilgamesh," describing a situation in Iraq around 2700 B.C., has just the same story. The people rise up against a strong ruler and force him into exile. And that is the history of Egypt from, say, pharaonic times onward. And that will be the outcome of this particular crisis.

SIMON: Having been familiar with some of your teaching and writings, you're an enthusiast for the Romans in many ways.

Dr. FEARS: Yes, I am.

SIMON: Well, tell us what we might be able to learn from them. One of the things you mentioned is that their society actually had a surprising amount of social mobility.

Dr. FEARS: Yes, the Roman society had quite a bit of social mobility. You could be born a slave and rise to be a multi-billionaire, in today's terms. The Romans also offer us a good deal of information about how Egypt should be governed. The Romans believed in not trying to impose their own values. Roman emperors were crowned as pharaohs. Roman emperors rebuilt the temples of the Egyptians gods. And they saw to it that the Egyptian peasants, on the whole -the ordinary Egyptians - were well-fed.

And the Romans learned from history. They knew they would go the way of all great empires and what mattered was the legacy that they left behind.

SIMON: But at this point in the 21st century, what we do make of cries for democracy?

Dr. FEARS: Cries for democracy are generally a subterfuge for simply a change of government. We've seen this all so frequently in Latin America.

Now, freedom can be defined in three different ways. Freedom can be national independence, which is universal. It is political freedom, the freedom to have meaningful elections. And it's individual freedom, the freedom to live as you choose as long as you harm no one else.

In this country we've achieved a remarkable mixture of these three forms of freedom. That is not true in many other parts of the world. So cries for democracy can simply be a desire to have a legitimate form for a totalitarian government.

SIMON: So the call is for a change of government through democracy, but just once.

Dr. FEARS: Democracy simply means the rule of the people. And the rule of the people can vote for an authoritarian regime, a totalitarian regime. Democracy is no certainty - offers no certainty for a liberal government that respects the rights of individuals.

SIMON: Professor J. Rufus Fears at the University of Oklahoma, thanks so much.

Dr. FEARS: Thank you. It's my great pleasure to talk to you.

SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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