DAVOS, Switzerland — Governments that call themselves democratic often fear democracy in practice, leaving it up to their people to seize the initiative, as last year's Arab Spring revolutions across the Muslim world have shown.
That was one conclusion from a lively "democracy debate" hosted Thursday by The Associated Press at the World Economic Forum. It explored the recent failure of democratic governments to meet people's economic needs, how political Islam will function in democratic systems, and the pressure on the world's newest democracies when they still lack stable institutions and traditions of human rights for all citizens.
The discourse brought together the leader of the Islamist party elected in Tunisia's first democratic vote, the foreign ministers of Brazil and Pakistan, a U.S. Republican congressman and the director of Human Rights Watch. All wrestled with the question "Is democracy up to the challenge of the 21st century?"
When regimes are under siege from mass uprisings, when once-cozy power brokers are brought down amid charges of corruption, cronyism and economic failure and when even developed democracies seem paralyzed by extreme partisanship, participants debated whether democracy itself was working.
At this annual summit of the world's powerful and well-connected, moderator Michael Oreskes, AP's senior managing editor for U.S. news, challenged participants to respond to an Occupy Davos protester's sign: "If voting could change anything, it would be illegal."
The answer from the panelists: Western-style democracy is still a valid model for the world, as long as it draws in all segments of society and takes social equality as a central tenet.
"We haven't got any choice" other than democracy, said Rachid Ghannouchi, founder of the Ennahda party that won Tunisia's first free elections last year. He spoke of a centuries-old "dream" of democracy in the Arab world that finally has the opportunity to emerge.
But he cautioned that huge risks remain.
"The process of elections is not enough to achieve democracy. Democracy needs a very rich civil society," he said. "Democracy without social justice can be transformed into a mafia."
Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota said democracy will remain strong as long as everyone has a voice.
"If democracy is the rule of the majority and the majority is poor, then democracy has to be about social inclusion," he said.
U.S. Congressman David Dreier, a Republican from California, said activism such as the Occupy movement needs to be a part of the democratic process.
"We can't say to people, 'be patient.' We need to figure out how to address this," he said.
Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, criticized some countries for having democracy at home but failing to condemn other governments that violate basic democratic principles. He singled out Pakistan, which he said never votes at the United Nations to condemn repression — "unless of course it's about Israel."
"Imagine yourself a pro-democracy protester, sitting in Homs or Hama (Syria), seeing President Assad's military shooting at you. What do you need? You need someone to put pressure on Assad to stop shooting. And this is where a number of the world's leading democracies, including some represented here, have really let the Arab Spring down," Roth said to applause.
But Patriota offered a counterpoint, saying going to war to protect democracy is wrong as well.
"There is something profoundly wrong when those who should be setting an example seem to establish a link between military intervention and democracy," he said.
Hina Rabbani Khar, Pakistan's foreign minister, said those doing the preaching to countries like hers often have a mottled record themselves when it comes to supporting democracy.
"Some of the most mature democracies all over the world ... have been much more supportive of non-civilian dictatorships in Pakistan, than they have ever been of civilian democratic dispensations."
Because Pakistan has been in and out of military dictatorships since its founding in 1948, she said it should be still seen as a new democracy.
"A lesson that should be learned is that every country should be able to reach its own mature stage," she said.
Ghannouchi spent much of the debate defending his belief that there is nothing incompatible between his mainstream Islamist party and democracy.
"If the democracies can succeed in this part of the world, I think it will be in favor of the whole of the world," he said. "The Arab Spring proved that Islam is an element of democracies in this part of the world."
Khar also passionately defended Islam as a basis for democracy.
"In my mind, Islam is clearly the most misunderstood and also the most misrepresented religion in the world. ... I think Islam actually goes for the most democratic ways of governance that anybody has."
She argued Islamist democracies will able to deliver on people's social and economic needs: "That's really at the heart of the debate that we're having. The expectations aren't being met."
Her unvarnished defense of Islamist politics — including that women's rights are protected under Islam — left at least some members of the audience cold. Raghida Dergham, senior diplomatic correspondent for Al-Hayat newspaper, said she and some around her were furious at the "lovefest."
"We were dripping pain, watching this," she said.
Roth underscored the role that social media plays in enabling mass protests.
"It allowed people to sort of stand up and be counted, without literally standing up," he said. "It allowed them to just sort of join a Facebook page and suddenly when there are so many fans of that page, people began to get confidence that even if only a percentage of those people show up in Tahir Square, I may be safe."
"The Arab Spring was made, in part, by the media. But not the traditional media — by the new media," he said. "I convey my salute to the people of Facebook and Twitter. ... I think new media — Internet, Facebook, Twitter — was the leader of this revolution."
Associated Press writer John Heilprin contributed to this report.