If you want to find out whether a country is really democratic or not, all you have to do is visit a polling centre. If the voters enter the voting booth voluntarily and without fear, it means that the country is democratic. If a clerk or policemen is watching the ballot box as people vote, it means that the country is just pretending to be democratic.
There are, of course, other means to know how democratic a country is. In the respectable western world, people tend to choose from a group of candidates while in Arab countries, which pretend to practice democracy, people mostly participate in referendums, not elections.
Many Arabs, for instance, have been forced — in the past five decades or so — to vote in so-called plebiscites designed specifically to give superficial legitimacy to incumbents or to presidents who attained power by hook or by crook.
They are actually of no democratic value, because even if 5 per cent of the population takes part in the referendum and votes for the president unanimously, he automatically wins 99.99 per cent of the vote.
It is as simple as that.
As we all know, democracy is not democracy if people do not have the right to vote freely and secretly for a candidate of their choice. It is no wonder that in democratic countries the voting booth is termed the place where the fate of the government or president is decided.
One wouldn't be exaggerating if one says that the real logo of democracy is not elections, but the voting booth, in which voters cast their votes secretly.
Liberty of choice
The booth tends to protect the voter's political privacy and freedom of choice as democracies attach paramount importance to liberty of choice. It is no wonder that the British have over the years rejected the idea of carrying identity cards as they consider them an affront against their personal freedom and a breach of democracy itself.
Secrecy is sacred as far as democracy is concerned. That is why one can sometimes never even ask members of one's own family how they voted in the elections. I remember asking a British friend one day if he voted Labour or Tories. He was terribly cross with me and told me that "it was none of your bloody business."
For a person coming from Syria, the British friend's reaction was quite shocking and difficult to understand. I have always been forced to vote under pressure and duress right in front of the ‘hound' guarding the ballot box.
In other words, we Arabs, have never been used to voting secretly and freely. If we compare secret and free voting in the democratic world with the way we vote in some Arab countries, we will be definitely shocked by the difference.
I have never seen a voting booth in all the referendums that I have participated in.
Even if there is one around, you would not be able to use it, as the watchdog of the polling centre would single you out for interrogation by the security services.
A true citizen living under Arab dictatorships is supposed to be one who says a big ‘Yes' in the voting slip right in front of everybody, notably the watchdog monitoring the voters.
In these countries, it is a sin to use the voting booth. And if you want to prove your loyalty to the regime even more, you could prick your finger with a pin so that you can shed some drops of blood on the vote for the sole candidate in the fray.
Rigging the ballot
Funnily enough, the referendum in a certain Arab dictatorship once turned out to be 117 per cent in favour of the re-election of the dictator. It turned out that many of the people who ‘voted' for his excellency were long dead. How did this happen? Some of the goons working for the president got hold of the old identity cards of thousands of dead persons and used them to vote in the plebiscite.
This is not a joke. The security apparatus also happened to stop people in the streets and ship them to the nearest polling centres against their will to vote ‘Yes' for the president. And woe be to those who did not show up at the ballot boxes, as this is usually regarded as punishable offence.
And if you still think this is a joke, read this: A certain Arab citizen in one of the dictatorships once voted ‘No' for the president. When he got back home, his wife asked him if he voted, he said: "I did vote with ‘No'. She fainted on hearing this. When she regained consciousness, she begged her husband to go back to the ballot box to change the vote, and he did. But to his surprise, the policeman guarding the box assured him that he had changed his vote from the ‘No' to the ‘Yes', the moment the citizen left the centre.
The policeman warned the hapless man not to repeat his mistake in the next referendum to be held seven years down the line.
Dr Faisal Al Qasim is a Syrian journalist based in Doha.