Democracy in any country is a constant work in progress

'Will Arabs be able to form real democracies?" Answering that question requires more than a simple yes or no.

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'Will Arabs be able to form real democracies?" That question, or some variation on it, is one I am frequently asked these days. Answering it, however, requires more than a simple yes or no.

For starters, one must understand the false assumptions about what constitutes a "real democracy", as well as the often naive misperceptions about how democracies emerge, function and evolve.

Democracies are more than an election, and it's not the first election that matters, but the subsequent ones that matter more.

I was in Yemen in 1993, having been invited to speak there on democracy and elections. The country was about to hold its first post-unification parliamentary contest and the air was as thick with politics as the city's walls were with posters.

As I visited the headquarters (or more accurately, qat chewing sessions) of each of the competing political parties and heard their election strategies for winning this contest and their plans for the future of the country, I also listened to their complaints.

"The ruling party keeps tearing down our signs," went one common concern. "They are paying people to vote and telling them for whom to vote," went another. There were many more.

Having been involved in politics and elections since my childhood, none of this was new to me, and I told them so. "That happens in Chicago all the time," I would say, not to mention in many other places.

A US State Department official who was present at one session complained to me afterwards about these comments. I rejected the criticism, arguing that I could not pretend that America's democracy was a flawless model to be emulated, like a swimsuit-wearing pinup - a sort of "Cindy Crawford of democracies". Because holding the US up as perfect is not only false, it sets the bar too high, beyond the reach of others.

The issue is not the flaw in an election, but whether or not processes were being put in place to impartially adjudicate complaints and take action to correct problems before the next election.

Unfortunately, this did not occur in Yemen; each election after the first was less, not more, open. This, in turn, undermined confidence in political processes in general, and democracy in particular.

All of this illustrates a key point: democracies aren't born, they are made over time.

Early in President Bill Clinton's term in office, I was invited to the National Archives to hear the president address how he planned to "mend, not end" the nation's Affirmative Action programme.

Waiting for the speech to begin, I was struck by the murals that surround the ceiling of the building's main hall. They portray scenes of the "Founders" who were, of course, all white men of means (mostly landowners, merchants and professionals). As I looked at them, I thought to myself: "Did these men, many of whom were slave-holders, have any idea what would become of their fledgling and imperfect enterprise?"

It is important for us to remember that when, in 1788, the vote was taken in Virginia to ratify the newly drafted Constitution of the United States, it passed by the thin margin of 89 to 79. Those numbers reflected the limits on the franchise in the new democracy.

Only white men of wealth were entitled to vote. Nor should we forget that it took another seven decades before slavery was abolished; six further decades before women were given the right to vote; and even longer still before the franchise was fully extended to African Americans.

The point here should be clear: America's democracy was not born perfect. To the contrary, it was extremely imperfect. But equally important to recall is how this democracy has continued to grow and expand.

Even now, after evidence of wide-spread problems that called into question the results of the 2000 and 2004 presidential contests, and the Supreme Court decision that opened the doors for unlimited amounts of undisclosed corporate funds to play a role in elections, it is painfully clear that the US still faces real challenges to its democracy, and much hard work remains.

So what lessons can new democracies gain from the American experiment?

The first is that while the shape and pace of the new democracies that may emerge in Arab countries will vary depending on customs and conditions, the test of their vitality and their validity will be in their ability to self-correct, change and expand.

And second, while elections and expanding political participation are important, it is also imperative that governments respect basic human rights and freedoms. These include providing citizens with the right, individually and collectively, to redress grievances; protecting them from abuse at the hands of the state; and creating an independent judiciary that guarantees due process, rule of law and protects individual rights.

If new democracies do this, they will be starting ahead of where the United States started its enterprise.

James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute