Think about it: Reflections on the situation in Egypt

Can one sustain a democracy in a situation where the majority is, at best, not committed to democracy; at worst favors a non-democratic system?

July 7, 2013 21:54
A supporter of former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi during a rally in Cairo July 5, 2013.

Morsi supporter yelling arms up July 5, 2013 370. (photo credit: REUTERS/Suhaib Salem)

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 Egypt.

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 ones.

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.

What 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 dictatorships.

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.

In present-day 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 positive.

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.

If ever 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 is not.

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 Knesset employee.

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