Though we do not know how the current situation in Egypt will ultimately turn
out, the reality created following the overthrow of president Hosni Mubarak in
February 2011 was predictable, and raises a dilemma faced by supporters of
democracy in any state where they are a minority.
The dilemma is as
follows: can one sustain a democracy in a situation where the majority is, at
best, not committed to democracy, or at worst favors a non-democratic system?
The Muslim Brotherhood regime under Mohamed Morsi, which was overthrown last
week after only 13 months in power, was undoubtedly unpopular in
Egyptians unhappy with Morsi included secular liberals concerned
Egypt was on the way to becoming an Islamic state; devout Muslims of various
denominations for whom Morsi’s regime was not sufficiently Islamic; the masses,
who realized that the Muslim Brotherhood has no real solutions for Egypt’s grave
economic and social problems; and most important of all – the military, which
for over 60 years was the effective ruler of Egypt, and feared that if the
Muslim Brotherhood were allowed to continue to rule, it would gradually reduce
the power of the existing military elites, and replace them with new Islamist
Though we are still nowhere near the end of the current process,
one thing can be said with certainty: as in the case of the overthrow of
Mubarak, though the secular liberals might have ignited the demand for change,
they do not constitute a majority among those seeking change, and their agenda
is not that of the majority of Egyptians.
The only reason things appear
to be moving in a direction which they favor is the military, which is committed
to its own vested interests – not to democracy.
Both the American
administration and the UN have expressed concern about the use of force to
overthrow a democratically elected president and regime. In fact, the only
democratic aspect of the current situation is the fact that a majority of
Egyptians were dissatisfied with Morsi.
However, if anyone thinks that
somehow democracy will emerge from the current mess, he is dreaming.
is likely to emerge, if there is no counter-revolution, is a system similar to
that which existed in the days of Mubarak, only without Mubarak (who was a
benevolent dictator at best), or, if the Muslim Brotherhood somehow manages to
recover from the shock it is in, and hits back – an even less liberal Islamic
regime than that run by Morsi.
It is easy to conclude that Islam and
democracy do not go hand in hand, at least when Islamic forces take over in
countries with a Muslim majority. The situation today is that in quite a few
countries where Muslims are a majority, there are Islamic regimes, and little or
no semblance of democracy. However, all the countries that experienced the so
called “Arab Spring,” and whose leaders were ousted, were non-religious
Furthermore, Egypt is not the first case of a Muslim
country in which free elections brought about an Islamic victory, which was then
forcefully overturned by the military.
This happened in 1991 in Algeria,
when the electoral victory of the FIS – a fundamentalist religious party –
caused the army to intervene, crack down on the FIS and prevent any but moderate
religious-based parties running in subsequent elections.
Turkey it is yet to be seen whether the military will decide to act, if the
country’s democratically elected Islamist prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan,
will move further away from the secular state introduced by Turkey’s first
president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
There are really two questions involved
in this issue.
The first is whether there are inherent causes in the
Muslim world which prevent Western-style democracy from taking root, or whether
it is simply a stage in the sociopolitical development of the Muslim countries,
which will eventually give way to a more enlightened stage, as it did in
Christendom several hundreds of years ago.
The second question is whether
there is something inherent in religious regimes in general that makes them
reject democracy. I believe that the answer to this question is unequivocally
Religions, by definition, offer an absolute and rigid truth
which is backed up by the word of God, and anyone who does not accept this truth
is viewed as a “captive babe” (tinok shenishba) at best, and a sinner or heretic
at worst. Pluralism and personal freedom are rejected a priori.
the haredim (ultra-Orthodox) in Israel gain the support of a majority in Israel,
does anyone doubt that Israel will no longer remain a democracy? The halacha
might be a very sagacious, and well thought-out body of laws, but democratic it
Back in the mid 1980s, when the Knesset debated the bill which
conditioned parties being allowed to run in elections on their not rejecting
Israel as a democratic Jewish state, the haredi parties voted against,
explaining (off the record) that they realized that their desire to turn Israel
into an halachic state placed them in a problematic position, and would open the
way to their being prevented from running in elections under the proposed law.
As it was, the bill was passed, and thanks to a very liberal interpretation of
the law by the High Court of Justice, no haredi party was ever prevented from
running in any elections.
Even though the percentage of haredi voters is
evergrowing, and likely to continue to grow, the prospect of their turning into
a majority, and introducing an halachic state, is remote. However, the prospect
of Israel eventually ceasing to be a democratic state because a growing number
of its Jewish citizens – both secular and religious – pooh-pooh the country’s
democratic foundations for chauvinistic reasons, openly advocate discrimination
against the country’s non-Jewish population, and regard all liberals as “enemies
of the state,” does exist.
At the moment anti-democratic forces in Israel
can still be stopped by democratic means, because those who want Israel to
remain a democratic, pluralistic state are still a majority. But if, Heaven
forbid, they turn into a minority, they too will face the dilemma faced by
Egypt’s liberals today: to let the state lose its democratic character because
the majority so wishes, or to use force to try to prevent the anti-democratic
majority from ruling.
One of the fallacies of the advocates of democracy
is the assumption that given a free choice the majority will always opt for
democracy. Time and again history has proved this assumption to be fallacious.
The Nazis in Germany gained power in 1933 following democratic elections, as did
the Communists in Czechoslovakia in 1948. There was, in fact, no democratic way
of preventing these two victories, and it took a military defeat in the case of
West Germany, and the collapse of the Soviet Union in the case of
Czechoslovakia, for democracy to be restored.
In the case of the Muslim
states the main problem is that few of them ever enjoyed true democracy, so that
one cannot speak of democracy being restored. At best true democracy might
eventually develop, in Egypt and elsewhere.
The writer is a retired