Undoing democracy – democratically

There are instances whereby the framework of democracy can be used to undermine its most fundamental characteristics.

Israeli-Arab man casts his vote elections voting 370 (R) (photo credit: Ammar Awad / Reuters)
Israeli-Arab man casts his vote elections voting 370 (R)
(photo credit: Ammar Awad / Reuters)
In 2004, during its transition to democracy, a civilian education campaign was to be held in Iraq. Under the heading “What Rights do Citizens Have in Democracy?” Stanford Professor Larry Diamond, then a senior adviser on governance to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations Independent Task Force on US Policy Toward Arab Reform, outlined four basic elements of democracy.
Those basic elements are “a political system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections”; “The active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life”; “Protection of the human rights of all citizens”; “A rule of law, in which the laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens.”
In line with Prof. Diamond’s “basic elements of democracy” are Sir Karl Popper’s, considered by many as one of the greatest philosophers of science in the 20th century. In his book The Open Society and its Enemies, one of the Popper’s primary assertions is that a major issue is not “who” rules a democracy, but “how” the democracy is ruled, highlighting the importance of checks and balances in the constitution and in practice, such as mechanisms that protect the rights of minorities.
But democratic principles do not always safeguard democracy. In fact, there are instances whereby the framework of democracy can be used to undermine its most fundamental characteristics.
The Egyptian national referendum over whether or not to ratify the proposed “draft constitution” is such an instance. On the one hand, a referendum where citizens have the ability to fairly cast their vote is a democratic process. On the other hand, the constitution being voted upon does not include – and undermines – a number of “basic democratic principles.”
Since the draft constitution was unveiled on November 30, the mainstream media as well as leading NGOs have voiced some of the major problems in the charter. Under the title “Reading Egypt’s Draft Constitution” Robert Mackey’s New York Times blog “the Lead” provided commentary on influential Egyptians tweets. For example, Heba Moreyaf, the director of Human Rights Watch in Egypt, tweeted: “So basically every single right expression, religion, non-discrimination must comply w stuff like ‘the true nature of the Egyptian family.’” Moreyaf was referring to Article 81 of the charter, which states: “These rights and freedoms [of the constitution] shall be exercised insofar as they do not contradict the principles set out in the Chapter on State and Society in this constitution.” In that chapter, Article 10 states, “The state and society shall commit to preserving the true nature of the Egyptian family.” Furthermore, Article 11 states, “The state shall protect ethics and morals and public order.”
ONE RESULT of those clauses is the state possessing the ability to limit the rights set forth in the constitution under the pretext of protecting social ethics, morals and public order.
As Moreyof goes on to tweet, “you don’t have a choice if you are choosing between a constitution that fails 2 protect basic rights.”
A widely cited report published by Human Rights Watch International on “Section Two Rights and Freedoms” of the Draft Constitution identifies some of the other major constitutional problems.
Regarding freedom of speech, Article 45 of the constitution states: “Every individual has the right to express an opinion and to disseminate it verbally [i.e., orally], in writing or illustration, or by any other means of publication and expression.”
However, contending this clause are Article 31, which states that “the individual person may not be insulted,” and Article 44, which prohibits “insult or abuse to all religious messengers and prophets.”
Furthermore, Article 43 deals with the right to freedom of religion. The article begins by stating: “Freedom of belief is an inviolable right,” but it then goes on to define religious belief as Islam, Christianity and Judaism, stating: “The State shall guarantee the freedom to practice religious rites and to establish places of worship for the divine religions, as regulated by law.”
As the Human Rights Watch Report states, the problem is that no mention is made of minority groups such as the Ahmadis, Bahais and Koranists.
When we compare this to Canada’s highly regarded Charter of Rights and Freedoms, we see that the wording of the Canadian charter offers few such loopholes through which the government can limit the rights of citizens.
For example, Section Two of the Charter guarantees that, “Everyone the following rights:” “a. the freedom of Conscience and Religion;” “b. Freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press...” “c. freedom of peaceful assembly” and “d. freedom of association.”
While the controversial points of the Egyptian constitution are being analyzed, one of the significant points is that this may become a case where the democratic process leads to the undermining of democratic values.The writer is CEO of the an international political consulting firm. He previously worked in the Canadian House of Commons. His forthcoming book is titled Multiple Modernities in the Contemporary Scene.