Can Democracy Save Egypt?

Posted on February 21, 2011

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There is an interesting article on the Witherspoon Institute’s Public Discourse site by Egyptian journalist Yasser Khalil, who took part in the recent protests in that country. ‘The question that now hangs over Egypt,’ he argues, ‘is whether real freedom is possible, or whether the country inevitably will fall under authoritarian control or the rule of Islamic extremists.’ Reading the article, it is clear that he views the advancement of freedom and the ‘transition to liberal democracy’ as two sides of the same coin.

A cynic once famously defined democracy as ‘two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch’. Whilst amusing, this definition should also give pause for thought. Practically speaking, democracy is a system of government which seems to work best under specific conditions. A generally high standard of education – for example – is arguably essential for healthy democracy, as it ensures that the public are able to engage with issues being discussed by politicians, and to understand opposing points of view, rather than simply to make decisions based upon tribal or familial identification with particular parties.

Democracy seems to flourish where a population is homogeneous, which diminishes the problem of ‘wolves’ versus ‘lambs’. If people do not share common values, the way is open for much turmoil as opposing groups battle to impose particular ideological visions. This can be seen increasingly in political discourse emanating from the U.S. which seems ever more confined to opposing ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive’ camps that are unable to engage with each other and seem consequently to be growing ever farther apart. There are exceptions, such as India, but it might be argued that India’s unique experience of democracy stems from its unique cultural situation. Generally, democracy works best where people share a common vision, especially when it is rooted in common religious and cultural traditions. Khalil says that in Egypt it ‘is crucial that the pro-democracy activists move quickly to engage the population and gain support in parliamentary and presidential elections, and that they spread liberal principles in the society through media, public events, and face-to-face encounters’. What, we might ask in response, will the end result of such proselytism be if these liberal principles are not dear to Egyptians, but simply imposed by educated elites?

Protesters in Tahrir Square, Cairo

Crucially, the image of the wolves and the lamb highlights the fact that it is dangerous unequivocally to conflate ‘democracy’ with ‘freedom’. Democracy is simply a system of rule by the majority, but freedom involves recognition of rights which may never be violated, no matter how many are in favour of doing so. The U.S. Declaration of Independence, for example, makes no mention of ‘democracy’, but does speak of ‘inalienable rights’. Without glossing over the evils of many dictatorships, we ought to be realistic about the ability of ‘democracy’ to protect fundamental rights and freedoms. Democratic systems have given us much that is good, but have also presided over slavery and racial segregation in the U.S., legalised the killing of unborn children throughout most of Europe and North America since the 1970s, and, arguably, made possible Nazism in 1930s Germany. Many European democracies practically shut their doors on some Jews fleeing Nazi-occupied territories, whilst one or two dictatorships behaved rather better in this respect.

Perhaps it might be more accurate to say that democracy itself has given us nothing either good nor bad. It is a tendency of modernity to think that we can create an ideal world simply by designing perfect institutions. When things go wrong in society, we tend not to look to ourselves and our failings, but rather to blame ‘the system’. People around the world clamour for free and fair elections, opposition parties, a separation of powers, a free press, an independent judiciary, and so on, thinking that these venerable and carefully designed institutions will overcome the wickedness of the human heart. By themselves, they certainly will not. Of what use is a free press without honest journalists? Where will justice be found if judges – though free from political interference – are unjust? All these institutions work well only if people are virtuous. Everyone loathes a wicked dictator. Lacking virtue, he is dominated by passion and base instinct. He governs badly, since, among the virtues he lacks are important qualities essential to good governance: prudence, justice, humility, magnanimity, and so on. Yet, if a people as a whole lacks virtue, democracy can, in important respects, turn out just as bad as a bad dictatorship. Just as a dictatorship will tend to be a bad one if the dictator is vicious, so will a democracy, in which political sovereignty rests with the people as a whole, be bad if those people tend towards vice. Instead of Barack Obama’s cry for ‘change now!’ in Egypt, the first cry should be rather ‘virtue now!’. We all hope that Egyptians advance towards the freedom they so ardently desire. But if and when they get there, successfully keeping it sweet will result not from the political system they now choose, but from the moral worth of the Egyptian people.

(Photo of Tahrir Square Protest © Mona Sosh. No endorsement implied)

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