Thursday, July 11, 2013

Egyptian democracy

Egypt's military ousted Egypt's democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi. Too much of the talk swirling around this event has trivialized the matter by attempting to parse the word coup, especially among people and organizations opposed to Morsi's Islamist policies and ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Democracy reduced to majority rule quickly ceases to be a form of government under which I want to live. Unimpeded majority rule offers no guarantee of individual rights and freedoms. That is, rationales for majority rule too easily justify a tyrannical rule by the majority that tramples and abrogates the rights and freedoms of the minority. (cf. Ethical Musings: When democracy becomes tyranny)

In Egypt, Morsi and his political party, the Islamic Brotherhood, sought to impose their version of Islamic law. This would have greatly disadvantaged liberal and moderate Muslims, women, Christians, secularists, and many others. Morsi won the presidency with a majority of the votes cast in a reasonably fair election. However, more people – at least by some respected estimates – have protested his efforts to enshrine Islamic law at the expense of democracy than voted for him in the last election.

A written Constitution provides a critical check on majority rule. Egypt elected Morsi without a written constitution and has since been struggling to draft one. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood want a constitution that would subordinate democratic elections to Muslim law. Opponents want a constitution that would place people, regardless of religion, on more of an equal footing and ensure the protection of individual freedoms and rights.

The U.S. Constitution is far from perfect. I've written several posts recently expressing concern that the presidency is becoming too powerful and, with the tacit collusion of Congress, monopolizing powers that the Constitution distributed among three branches of government. (for example, cf. Ethical Musings: The Future of the American Experiment)

President of the American Civil Liberties Union Susan Herman in her recent book, Taking Liberties: The War on Terror and the Erosion of American Liberties, shows how the judiciary has contributed to the executive branch's centralization of power through a series of decisions that broadly limit individual rights in the name of fighting terrorism. Security without liberty is worthless (Ask a maximum-security prison inmate if you think I'm wrong!).

Hopefully, though I'm far from sanguine about its probability, Morsi's ouster will lead to Egypt developing a constitutional democracy that protects individual freedoms and rights. The U.S. required several iterations before adopting a viable constitution, including a loose federation of rebellious colonies that had no written agreement that bound them together and the post-revolution Articles of Confederation.

I also hope that the U.S. will stay out of Egypt's internal affairs. We're wrong to send them billions of dollars of military aid, the price of their agreeing to peace with Israel, allegedly intended for defense but in fact used to position the military as the arbiter of Egypt's future. Paternalism – in this instance, thinking that we know what is best for Egypt – is ugly and immoral. Viewing Egypt as a means for accomplishing U.S. national interests, implicitly dehumanizing Egyptians by not regarding them as worthy of respect in pursuing their own interests, is also ugly and immoral.

The much-heralded Arab Spring is longer and messier than American politicians like. No nation can impose democracy on another; only a nation's citizens can successfully demand and then sustain democracy. The process is likely to require much more time with more numerous intermediate steps than pundits or politicians predict or prefer. The best assurance of Egypt's long-term friendship (which is also the most Christian policy!) is to treat Egyptians with honor and respect by giving them the time and space to sort out their internal issues.


Ted said...

"No nation can impose democracy on another; only a nation's citizens can successfully demand and then sustain democracy." You hit the nail on the head, so why do we keep trying and losing.

George Clifford said...

Good question, Ted.

v said...

Democracy was established in Egypt with a narrow margin (51%), giving Morsi the mandate to rule. When 49% of Egypt did not vote for him, the notion of majority rule is uncomfortable to accept. We thought Democracy is the last word in human political evolution. Are we seeing a churning for a new political system in Egypt or is it simply a movement by the people who are anxious over the religious and indiv freedoms?

George Clifford said...

Democracy is not the last word in human political evolution (I like that phrase you used!). Without a constitution that establishes in law basic human rights and liberties, democracy can quickly become a dictatorship of the majority at the expense of the minority. Jim Crow laws ensured that this happened in the post-Civil War South. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were quickly moving in the same direction in Egypt, using their democratic majority to enforce an Islamist version of Islam on all Egyptians.