A fat month ago, I typed up a blog post about Mohamed Morsi’s power grab, and how the ‘temporary suspension’ of democracy could be enough of a wrench to lead to its permanent destruction. The circumstances were similar on my end as well. I had taken more than a week off blogging, assured myself that the problem was under control, and promised to return to a regular blog schedule post haste. And here we are. It’s been nearly two weeks since my last blog post, and the situation in Egypt has worsened dramatically. Thousands of protesters have been marching in the streets, violence has erupted between protesters and police, dozens have died in the conflict. What looked at first like a resolvable democratic compromise is appearing more and more to be leading up to an irreconcilable standoff between supporters of Egypt’s Muslim Islamic Brotherhood party and the secularist minority. It seems that this can only end in two ways: (1) Morsi transforming his presidential office into a theocratic dictatorship; or (2) The secularists ousting the leader and starting afresh, as they did two years ago under Hosni Mubarak.
There’s one awkward catch however: technically Morsi does seem to have a mandate from the people of Egypt. The current upset, arisen as a consequence of Constitutional changes to essentially make the Egyptian Constitution more in accordance with Sharia law, was not unilaterally imposed upon the people by the president. President Morsi fairly won election by the people of Egypt. And he fairly amended the Constitution through direct referendum by a majority of Egyptian voters. From what I understand, he has more or less operated within the confines of the democratic electoral institutions that brought him to power. The problem here is that the secular minority doesn’t like the outcome of natural democratic process.
So, who’s to blame here? Is Morsi a villain for changing the government to be more Islamic, when he’s from an Islamic party that explicitly has an Islamic partisan agenda? Or are the secularists to be blamed for causing instability through rioting, when really they ought to just wait their turn until the next election when they can have a chance to try to get the pendulum to swing back their way?
Let’s think of the problem another way. Suppose that the Democratic party managed to win a monopoly on the presidency, the judiciary and the legislature–as a consequence of more Democrats turning out to vote. Let’s say they use their majority support to call for a Constitutional amendment to ban guns, legalize marijuana everywhere, write in a constitutional right to have an abortion, another right to marry whoever one pleases, and a federal requirement that all public schools must now teach classes on Atheism. If a majority of Americans were in favor of these sweeping changes, would it be legitimate? I think that most democratic citizens, Republicans and Democrats alike, should say no. For, constitutional democracy is not just about majority rule, it is also about protecting minority rights (from majority tyrannies). This is one reason why ‘separation of church and state’ and ‘freedom of religion’ are often seen as such a fundamental protection in the American system. But it seems that we may have an internal contradiction. For arguably, separation of church and state, and the tolerance that it fosters leads to a more secular democratic culture, like the one we see so pervasively in the United States. It seems that religions like Islam require a degree of intolerance in order to thrive. Therefore, religious freedom protections of the kind advocated for by the Egyptian secularists appear to be directly at odds with survival and propagation of Islamic culture. It seems that more of one may necessarily entail less of another. Does this mean that Islamist democracies are doomed to fail? Maybe not… but if they’re going to survive, it seems that they have to be more willing to make political compromises, even at the risk of watering down the culture that they value so strongly. It makes me wonder, can there be such thing as a non-pluralistic democracy?