Democracy in Egypt – A Warning Label

July 5, 2013 § Leave a comment

This week’s developments in Egypt illustrate the dangerous side-effects of a dose of democracy.  In this essay I will offer my reaction.

Warning Labels

When medicine is prescribed for a patient, it comes  with a label or a pamphlet containing advice  about potential hazardous side effects that must be understood and preventive measures that should be taken.  I think if democracy is adopted as a form of government, it should be accompanied by the same kind of cautionary warning.

The Medicine

Empowering the governed to escape the oppression of tyrants, oligarchs and vestigial neocolonial puppets looks like a trend toward freedom.   Recent technological leaps in the realm of communication and social networking have been like a  dam-breaking flood that has loosed centuries of pent up rage and frustration as well as the exhilarating thrill felt by rebels who  perceive  the possibility of toppling a citadel of power theretofore thought to be impregnable.

I find it interesting and, in a way, encouraging that, when these cultural and political seismic events occurred, the model of choice for the rebels has often been the American Declaration of Independence and our form of government generally, though imprecisely, known as democracy.  [The conservatives are technically correct in insisting that the United States, as its name implies, is, in fact a republic, not a democracy like Athens.  The distinction, however, deserves notice only from academic purists and has not prevented America from being identified as a democracy.  After all, Athens had a  large component of slaves who did not participate in its “democracy”.   Except for New England town meetings , true democracy is, and has ever been, a rare form of government.]

Our Declaration of Independence has, as stated, become the inspiration for many, in the words of Emma Lazarus, “yearning to breathe free”.  It has proved far more popular and influential than its main competitor for rebellious inspiration, the Communist Manifesto.  Personally I find the latter document to be a stirring affirmation of economic justice, worthy of comparison with our Declaration of Independence.  Its focus, however, on the oppression of capitalism, does not fit the aspirations of rebels whose enemies are not private property and capitalism, but the oppression of government.  For that kind of oppression, there is no better license for rebellion than these radical words of Jefferson:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights,governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”  Ideas are the true weapons of freedom and justice and those words, expressing those ideas, are a powder keg waiting for a lit fuse.

Democracy’s Side Effects

When, following a rebellion, a new government is formed based on the outcome of a democratic election, there are some inevitable and serious side effects.  The losing side or sides, representing significant fractions of the population to be governed, are at risk for unjust treatment at the hands of the victors.  In the Middle East, the Near East and some parts of Asia, where Islam is the religious choice of large segments of the population, there is a long history of violent conflicts between different sects within that religion.  The Shiites and Sunnis as well as sects within those two branches of Islam have intermittently killed each other, either based on fear of future violence or revenge for past violence.

Of course, Islam is not unique in this regard.  Jews and Christians , in the past, have engaged in similar violent conflicts.  One part of the twisted and brutal ideology that led to the Holocaust was based on Christian antisemitism that had been latent in varying degrees for centuries in Europe.  The Crusades represented the self-righteous hostility of Christian Europe toward Islam in the Middle East.

This kind of irreconcilable hatred based on religious belief should be part of democracy’s warning label.  Democracy means that government will be administered by representatives of the faction that wins the most votes in an election.  Every election will involve only a plurality of the population.   Thus it will almost always be true that  elections will be won by less than a majority of the population to be governed.  When there are more than two competing groups vying for votes, the winner may represent only a fraction of that population.

These two facts:  First, that religious conflicts are often impossible to mediate peacefully; and Second, that democratic elections, even when they are fair and honest, will seldom empower a majority of the governed population; strongly suggest the first necessary warning:

“Enforcement of religious conformity must not entrusted to a democratic government.”

If this warning is not heeded, government becomes a vengeful mob and those whose religious beliefs are challenged and discounted become outraged.   Maintenance of order, a basic function of every government, becomes impossible without brutal suppression of dissent.

This first warning implies a second, correlative,  warning:

“Limits on the power of government must not depend upon or be subject to the outcome of democratic elections.  Those limits must be enforceable in courts whose impartiality and integrity are accepted by a majority of the total governed population .  And the procedure for  securing the judgments of those courts must involve an adversary process implemented by lawyers free to advocate all sides of every issue.”

This corollary warning, if vigorously enforced, will obviate resorts to violence by those who feel victimized and harmed by governmental policies.  They will see that their protests are fairly and fully presented to judges whom they trust.  They will not feel hopeless if their arguments are not successful.  They will realize that their interests may prevail  in future elections and that changed circumstances may demonstrate the validity of their positions.  The enforcement of government’s limits will assure them that they need not fear their government.  They will be able to trust it to protect them from their neighbors who may disagree with some or all of their beliefs and preferences.

The third warning insures the effectiveness of the first two:

“Freedom of expression must be guaranteed to all, regardless of how repugnant to elected officials or to most of the population that expression may seem.”

Democracy cannot safely be adopted unless competing views are not only tolerated, but vigorously protected.  If majority views are the only ones allowed, democracy becomes as oppressive, if not more oppressive,  than government by a dictator or an oligarchy.  The losers in democratic elections must be free to continue efforts to persuade potential voters in future elections to approve the policies they favor.  Otherwise, they are left with no alternative but violence and disorder.

The Egyptian Constitution

A friend of mine, Nivien Saleh, an Egyptian scholar, has translated the 2012 Egyptian Constitution into English.  Here is a link:  Constitution

I confess that I have not read, much less studied this long document.  I have, however, read enough of it to understand how fundamentally it fails to pay attention to anything I have advocated in this essay.  Far from omitting religion from the proper concern of government, it proclaims Islam as the “State religion” of Egypt. True, the next section provides:  “For Egyptian Christians and Jews, the principles of their religious law will be the main source in regulating their personal status, matters pertaining to their religion, and the selection of their spiritual leadership.”  (emphasis added)  This section, to me has a sinister unstated premise:  The State is granting to Christians and Jews an exception  to the general application of the State Religion.  I have no idea what “Christian Law” or “Jewish Law” consists of.  The Bible’s book of Leviticus contains a lengthy description of laws observed by Jews thousands of years ago but, so far as I know, the State of Israel does not countenance slavery or punish blasphemy with a death sentence.  [‘See Leviticus 24: 10-23.]

Part One, entitled “The Elements of the State and Society” contains three sections:  “Political Elements”; “Societal and Moral Elements” and “Economic Elements”.   The second of  these sections, in  Article 11, declares:  ” The state promotes morality, decency, and public order, as well as a high level of education and religious and patriotic values, scientific truths, the Arab culture, and the historical and civilizational patrimony of the People.”(emphasis added)   This kind of language, to one knowledgeable about historical experiments involving government prescribed morality , prompts an intuitive reaction that, roughly translated, is “According to who?”

So far as concerns freedom of expression, Article 215 establishes a “National Body for the Press and the Media” and empowers that agency as follows:  “The permissions and standards it creates ensure that the different media abide by norms of professionalism and decency, preserve the Arabic language, and observe the values and constructive traditions of society.”  In other words, “We will be watching you and you better behave in a way that does not offend our ideas of “decency” and “constructive traditions of society”.    Keep in mind that some elements of Islam believe it is not only permissible, but obligatory to kill a man who draws a cartoon depicting Mohamed.

Conclusion and Summary

I think President Morsi’s  brief and limited tenure was predictable when he permitted a religious faction of Islam to en-graft religious doctrine into the fabric of government.  I doubt that the Egyptian people who successfully ousted Mubarak  will be content to be ruled according to Sharia law or to conform to religious strictures that  do not fit their beliefs.  The successful effort to end the oppression of Mubarak was a hopeful sign to me.  I hope it will finally be followed by democracy in which warning labels are heeded.

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