Johnson: The feel of democracyWritten by Dan Johnson | | email@example.com
Only recently did I realize that there is a genuine “feel” to democracy. And it is a very good feeling.
For nearly three years my wife Elaine and I have lived and worked in the middle of the Middle East, in the United Arab Emirates. While I divided my working time between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, we lived in one of the older neighborhoods of Dubai called Deira. Our apartment was located next to Dubai Creek, long used as a port for hundreds of dhows that haul tires, jelly, paint, used cars, lumber, refrigerators and a host of other products to port cities scattered along the coasts of the U.A.E., Iran, Pakistan, India and Africa. The seamen represent all of these nations and our neighborhood reflected the multinational character of the port. It is an interesting and exciting place to live.
Most of the workers in the U.A.E., particularly those in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, find these cities fascinating on many fronts. The vast majority of expat professionals and laborers are there by choice and enjoy the many attractions and points of interest in these two famous cities that have become well known around the world. Like the thousands of expat workers, I came to truly enjoy and learn from our new lives in Dubai. I had the very good fortune to work with many Emirati nationals and my duties brought me into almost daily contact with the nation’s government, business and education leaders. I came to feel “at home” and enjoyed our lives and work in the Middle East as much as anyone could.
The past six months were particularly interesting as we watched Arab nations throughout the region strike out against their old dictatorial regimes with the objective of taking the next step toward democracy. Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Libya and Bahrain erupted one after the other, making their claims for greater freedoms and a stronger voice in the affairs of their nations. Rumors of protests in Saudi Arabia, Oman and other nearby nations circulated on Iphones and Blackberries carried by nearly everyone in the country. The numerous 24-hour television news channels were bringing every detail of these protests and revolutions into our homes and offices. Many of my co-workers were from these countries and their concerns became our concerns as they worried about parents, spouses, siblings and friends back home.
Returning home to Toledo this summer having completed my term as a university provost in the U.A.E. brought with it a new feeling. As I disembarked in Chicago from the long, direct flight from Abu Dhabi and walked into the busy concourses of O’Hare International Airport, I breathed an involuntary sigh of appreciation and literally felt the atmosphere of democracy that people in many Middle East countries — young and old — are striving to bring to their countries. Many are giving their lives to “feel” the atmosphere of democracy that we experience every day. It is not until you are away from it for a while that you recognize that wonderful sense of freedom and the meaning of citizenship in a true democracy.
I remember talking to my Emirati friends this spring about the protests and revolutionary movements in the Middle East. One particularly good friend, a well-known professional person in the U.A.E. told me that he didn’t “need” democracy to feel fulfilled. He and his fellow Emirati nationals have everything they need and want. What more, he asked, could democracy give him that would add to the quality of his life?
I didn’t answer his question but I thought about him and our conversation as I walked through the O’Hare concourse to my gate for the final leg of my flight to Toledo. What a good feeling it was to sense the atmosphere of democracy in this great American city and to know that as a citizen I am a stakeholder and a shareholder in this great country. I have a say in who is to lead this nation. My opinion and voice were registered in the selection of our representative in Congress, our governor and mayor. I had never felt it before just like I did that late afternoon in early May, but I sure felt it then. This is a “feeling” that my good friend will never experience.
Will my friend miss this feeling of democracy? Probably not. How could he “miss” something he has never had? I’m not sure I would have ever been aware of this feeling had I not lived without it for a period of time. I think I shall always be grateful for the opportunity to live and work in the Middle East.
For me, this Independence Day is special. It has a fresh meaning and a special “feeling” linked to our nation’s history and democratic way of life. It is not a perfect country but I understand now more than ever why young people in many countries of the Middle East are willing to give their lives to have what we have. There is a “feel” to democracy … and it is a very good feeling.
Happy Fourth of July!
Dan Johnson is director of global initiatives, president emeritus and distinguished university professor of public policy and economic development at the University of Toledo. Dr. Johnson was recently provost, chief operating officer and chief academic officer at Zayed University in the United Arab Emirates. Email Dr. Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org.