Democratic Sustainability: A People-Centered Approach

Layla Saleh

Keeping a sharp eye on the people as agents with localized traditions, identities, experiences, and needs, is a key mandate of investigating and promoting democratic sustainability in the Arab region.

March 23, 2023

In the ongoing debate about interpreting, measuring, and assessing processes of democratization, democratic sustainability takes a dynamic view. One distinctive feature of this approach is its pointed emphasis on the people. For it is they who are the aspirants, architects, and constituents of democracy as a system that seeks to more equitably distribute power and resources. This commentary briefly considers points of emphasis in the people-centered framework that is democratic sustainability: agency, the locale, and rights. It is no coincidence that the Arab region’s recent democratic openings have been forged in the fire of popular revolutions and uprisings. Democratization pursuits are meaningless unless they revolve around the admitted complexities of the people.


If Orientalizing discourses trivialized the political presence of Arab publics, the 2011 revolutions expunged any notion that the people were listless, acquiescent subjects. Instead, through their traveling Arab popular mobilization (al-hirak) , the people vociferously demonstrated that theycould and did live, breathe, dream, demand, and do politics.  Cries for freedom and dignity echoed from Tunis to Sanaa.’ Countless masses congregated in public squares throughout the region. Courageous multitudes braved state repression, many jailed, tortured, and displaced, and killed for daring to denounce dictators. Steadfastly dedicating their time, energy, intellect, and sometimes personal wealth, politically engaged activist-citizens across the Arab geography have displayed impressive creativity and innovation. Tunisians and other Arabs have challenged authoritarianism (and new democratic governments) in demonstrations, protest songs, and art; cobbled together elected local councils amidst the grind of war; and mobilized fellow citizens in national election campaigns. Constitutions, single party structures, convoluted bureaucracies, economic policies, and dreaded security apparatuses can no longer guide our understandings of Arab politics. Democracy is axiomatically rule by the people, for the people. As both an analytic framework and a continuous normative project attuned to the continuous adaptation of processes, institutions, ideas, and cadres, democratic sustainability must continually look below, to the people. Not just what the people want (al-sha’b yureed), but also what the people do, what they learn and unlearn. The aim is far from lumping all people into an undifferentiated monolith. Rather, it is to shift attention from elite and institutions to the people at the heart of democratization’s progresses and setbacks.

Local culture and knowledge

As argued elsewhere in this Portfolio, democratic learning/unlearning are conjoined processes pivotal to interpreting and enhancing democratic sustainability. Related to the skills, practices, attitudes, and orientations that they inculcate through activism, or those that they seek to shed from authoritarian legacies, are long-standing social imaginaries and cultural repositories. Traditional-experiential knowledge bases of democratic learning, then, are anchored in deep histories constructed by people in their social, economic, cultural (including religious), and political modes of being and acting. Reams of scholarship and literature sparkle with the insights and discoveries of eminent learned personalities. Encounters with selves and others, including European colonizers, are transmitted through memories and narratives over generations. People breathe life into these living social imaginaries that are endlessly adapted and refashioned, colored by new experiences with colonialism and modernity, nationalism and capitalism, new nation-states and international entanglements.

Democracy and democratization have never been abstract projects devoid of normative leanings. Instead, they are value-laden enterprises tinged by the material and immaterial sensibilities and outlooks of the locale. It stands to reason, then, that the diversity of peoples across the world inflect their respective quests for democracy with specificities of imaginaries and experiences. Universal longings for emancipation, autonomy, decent subsistence, dignified living, equality before the law as neutral arbiter, and recognition by compatriots and fellow human beings do not translate identically across time and space. Arab (or any other publics) are no proverbial clean slate upon whom can be simply imposed entire political and economic systems wholesale. Even under the banner of democracy. Cross-cultural pollination is a blessed reality of a globalized world. However, the intermingling of people, ideas, and goods should not crowd out local identities, histories, traditions, and expectations. Hence, unpacking democratic sustainability takes us back to the locale, and the people.


Local socio-cultural imaginaries and experiential repositories come are also replete with specific challenges and needs. As the business of self-rule, popular accountability, and human freedom, democracy and democratization should aim to institutionalize systems that serve and satisfy the people. A combined appreciation of local context and the people, some of whom drive democratization and arguably all of whom await its palpable fruits, undergirds our conception of democratic sustainability. People’s rights—to employment and subsistence, a clean environment, community affirmation, and self-realization—are key tenets for measuring the shortcomings and the improvable dimensions of democratic sustainability. Development is tied up with human freedom itself, as Amartya Sen famously put it. Democracies, especially nascent ones, that do not deliver the social and distributive goods of adequate schooling, jobs, healthcare, and clean natural ecologies will continually fail the test of democratic sustainability. Tunisia’s recent relapses are a case in point. Many other examples litter the textbooks of democratization. Thus, identifying people’s needs and treating them as rights, constitutional, international human, or otherwise, is a necessary ethical, policy, and research ventures for all invested in the durability and quality of democratization.

The daunting tasks of interpreting, evaluating, and promoting democratic sustainability comprise the core Demos-Tunisia’s undertaking. Placing the people front and center is vital. Turning to peoples’ will and capacity to act; local (if cross-pollinated) imaginaries, traditions, identities, and experiences; and individual-collective needs as rights is a ‘road-map’ suggested here. Delineating who and what matter for democratic sustainability is one place to start. Bottom-up, we take our cues from the people.