The Dilemma of Egyptian Democracy

Anti-Morsi PosterOn the same week as we Americans celebrated the Fourth of July – and with it, our liberty and independence as a free nation – the Egyptian military deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, appointed an interim leader – head of the Supreme Court Adly Mansour – and called for new elections.
Which raised an interesting philosophical dilemma for all who are concerned with freedom and liberty in the world – is this right?
First, a bit of background:
Mohamed Morsi was elected President of Egypt just one year ago, in June 2012, as the head of the conservative Islamist Muslim Brotherhood’s party, in Egypt’s first real elections in over 30 years, following the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in the protests of the Arab Spring.
Morsi, and the Muslim Brotherhood party he represented, were, by all accounts, fairly and democratically elected – garnering 51.7% of the vote in the final run-off.
And yet, a mere five months after the elections, Morsi granted himself essentially unlimited power to “take any measures necessary to protect the revolution” as well as the power to set a new Constitution free from any judicial review – essentially, allowing himself to set any laws he pleased, with no possibility of legal challenge (these acts were later reversed, following public protest).
Morsi’s government then went on to draft a new Constitution, establishing the principles of Islamic Sharia (Islamic religious law) [as] the primary source for legislation” (Article 2). (For a wonderful detailed discussion on what is meant by “the principles of Islamic Sharia, see EgyptSource.) It is notable that as a result of the level of infringement on individual liberties contained in the new Constitution, Christian and more liberal members of the Constitutional committee resigned en-mass in protest.
The new Constitution further restricted freedom of worship to Muslims, Christians, and Jews only (Article 43) – allowing for the persecution of Baha’i, as well as Shi’a and Sufi Muslims – and prohibited “undermining or subjecting to prejudice all messengers and prophets” (Article 44) and “insulting and defaming any person” (Article 31) – both of which severely undercut basic freedom of speech, and can be used to prosecute any action deemed potentially “offensive” to, say, (picking an example completely at random), the Prophet Mohammad.
In addition, the new Constitution explicitly removed clauses that had set a minimum age for girls to be married off and that criminalizing the trafficking of female minors, and explicitly called out that the equality of women will only be enforced “without violation of the rules of Islamic jurisprudence” – i.e., not at all (Article36).
And now, following renewed mass protests on the streets of Cairo, Morsi and his party have been summarily deposed, and temporarily replaced by Adly Mansour – Morsi’s recently-appointed head of the Supreme Constitutional Court, and a long-time respected jurist. Former head of the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Mohamed ElBaradei, has been appointed interim Vice-President, and new elections are (officially) expected within seven months.
So we have a democratically-elected, Islamist president putting forth a highly questionable Constitution, being removed by the (more secular) military, and replaced with generally respected national figures, who have in the past shown a relative commitment to the rule of law – so is that right or wrong?
When we in the West talk about “democracy,” we generally mean “liberal democracy” – committed to the protection of individual rights and the promotion of liberty – not merely the ability to vote.
So what happens when a population chooses to be oppressed?
When people by honest, democratic, popular vote choose to vote rights or liberties away from themselves?
Are some rights more basic, more sacrosanct than that?
Are some individual rights so basic, that they should not – cannot – be taken away by mere popular vote alone?
Should we be able to simply vote to, say, reinstitute slavery? Or force genital mutilation on girls?
In the United States, we have certain “inalienable rights” – the famous “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” We have a Constitutional Bill of Rights – written explicitly to protect the weak and the powerless from the tyranny of the majority. We cannot, for instance, take a majority vote of 51% of Americans to ban synagogues, or Catholic churches, or mosques.
So what happens when a people freely votes in a government that is set to oppress them? Committed to taking away their rights?
And I’m not talking about their right to buy beer on Sundays. I’m talking about basic human rights – the right to worship in any manner of your choice, the right to speak out for or against any idea, or the right not to be married off at the age of 9 – all rights that Morsi’s Islamist government has acted to suppress.
But can people really vote away their own freedom?
Or should we remember that straight “majority-rules” elections, with no protections for basic rights, are just like the old joke about “two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner”?
Perhaps some things – like marrying off 9-year-old children against their will – should be beyond the reach of majority vote?
So when there is a basic conflict between democracy – the people’s vote – and liberty – the people’s freedom – which one should win out?
Is it right to forcibly remove a freely chosen oppressor – in the name of providing greater freedom for the people?
Here is a thought exercise I would like to suggest:  we arrest and imprison men who beat their wives – even when their wives seem inclined to remain with their abusers. And does anyone out there think this is wrong?
Is there a point when we are inclined to say that someone has committed a violation of another’s freedom so basic, that even the victim’s assent is insufficient justification, and the violator must be stopped in any case?
An additional wrinkle to be considered in this case, as well, is the history of such “elections” and subsequent “interference” within the Muslim world.
For instance, to take just one example, Ayatollah Khomeini’s government was essentially “elected” in a national referendum – back in 1979. And so he, and later his immediate successor, Grand Ayatollah Khamenei, have ruled as Supreme Leader of Iran uninterrupted ever since– in a model of “democracy” sometimes referred to as “one man, one vote – one time.”
Likewise, in modern and relatively-secular Turkey, ever since 1923, the largely-secular military has stepped in multiple times – not to take power for themselves, but to remove what they consider to be overly-Islamist leaders – in what they consider to be their role as guardians of the officially-secular state ideology. This tendency, while questionably democratic, has contributed a great deal to the secular, relatively-Western, and relatively-free character of modern-day Turkey. And the military has continuously been the one state institution viewed most favorably by the Turkish people.
So I will leave you with just the one question – if a leader is freely elected, immediately moves to restrict the people’s basic freedoms and liberties (in the name of true faith, of course), and is subsequently deposed – is this democratic? Undemocratic? And more importantly – is it morally right?
[Image: Wikimedia]