The United States has historically played an important role in promoting democracy to countries across the globe. But has the role of the U.S. as a leading advocate for democracy diminished following the recent U.S. election and insurrection on the U.S. Capitol?
Four democracy activists hailing from Lebanon, Mali, India, and Russia convened on Zoom to offer their perspectives on the need for the promotion of democracy in their home countries. The activists — Shaili Chopra of India, Anna Dobrovolskaya of Russia, Kondo Moussa of Mali, and Mohamed Najem of Lebanon — are alumni of the Draper Hills Summer Fellows Program at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.
Najem, who is the executive director of a digital rights organization called Social Media Exchange, discussed how the discovery of oil in the Middle East gave power to conservative leaders who do not allow elections, freedom of expression, or freedom of assembly.
The leaders who control the oil are now trying to gain control over data and the internet as well by presenting their countries as a “safe haven” for tech companies, he said. For example, Google is building new data centers in Saudi Arabia, and much of the flow of information from the Middle East will be passing through and stored there, he noted.
“This is a red flag for many of us already,” Najem said. “How can you be working for companies that promote the freedom of expression in countries where there are no elections and no democratic processes?”
Chopra — founder of SheThePeople.TV, India's only women's channel — said that while India has technically been a democratic nation for 72 years, citizens are beginning to rethink and question the country’s democratic values, similar to the reckoning that is taking place in the U.S. following the events of January 6.
“Democracy has been put through a test here in India as well, whether it's about religious choices, whether it's about freedom of expression, or whether it's about the control over data,” Chopra said. “I think we have a democracy in motion that is constantly seeing some rethinking at this stage.”
Moussa, who founded and runs the Mali chapter of the Accountability Lab, said that Mali was one of the stronger democratic nations in Africa until a military coup in 2012, during which soldiers overthrew the government and looted the presidential palace.
The coup drew condemnation around the world — the EU suspended development operations in Mali, and the World Bank suspended aid to the country, for example — and led to growing instability in the region.
Moussa said he’s optimistic that the Biden administration will bring a “new era of cooperation,” in which the U.S. is able to help African countries with less-established democracies to become stronger.
Dobrovolskaya, who is the executive director of the Memorial Human Rights Center in Moscow, said that Russia has never seen protests like the ones in recent weeks following the poisoning of Alexei Navalny.
More Russians than ever before are taking to the streets to protest against injustice and to support activists and political prisoners, she said, but added that protesters are facing increased repression from the Kremlin as time goes on.
“The most important part of any democratic process is fundamental human rights,” Dobrovolskaya said. “And if we see autocracies threatening democratic countries around the world, we need to remember that a country first becomes autocratic toward its own citizens. It’s only later that it becomes dangerous for citizens of other countries.”