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Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

In Egypt, accepting democracy despite its risks

by Michael De Dora
A recent political cartoon presumes to depict the current situation in Egypt as a potential transition from an autocracy – the 30-year rule by President Hosni Mubarak appears to be coming to a close – to either a theocracy or a democracy. It illustrates the question that many are currently asking: in which direction will this important Middle Eastern country swing?
As it turns out, Egypt already has slivers of both theocracy and democracy. Its Constitution is rather Islamic (though it does not require all laws to perfectly conform to Sharia), but its penal system is secular, and the people have some power (hopefully, more when Mubarak leaves). What many people fear is that under new democratic reforms, the Muslim Brotherhood will gain power and move Egypt toward a stronger Islamic orientation, resembling a theocracy (1, 2). This has even led several people to question whether we should really want Mubarak out of power.
Yet while this concern is understandable, it should not be used as an argument against the full embrace of democracy in Egypt. Yes, the process through which Islam might take a stronger hold over Egyptian law would be democratic. But the fact that the Brotherhood might take more control – or more generally, that religion might influence law – is not a problem with democracy. It is a problem with religious belief. At the same time, some religious influence is not enough to turn a country into a theocracy. Consider the U.S.: we have our fair share of religiously based laws, but we are not a theocracy. In the same way, an increased role for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt wouldn’t necessarily make for a theocracy either.
Let me be clear: I reject religious belief as a basis for public policy (or anything else for that matter). It is unsupported by reason and evidence. Furthermore, in a pluralistic society, its precepts cannot be forced on people who are non-religious or of a different religious persuasion. I believe that only a secular governmental foundation can securely provide natural human rights and freedoms everyone can accept and support, and I think that our discourse and policies should reflect this secular orientation.
But I also recognize that democracy does not guarantee a secular society or politics. Democracy only guarantees people the right to speak and act their minds, and the power to create, revise, update, and change the laws as they wish. Thus, whatever social dynamics are at play will alter the foundations of government. The legal and political landscape will look different depending on what the citizens believe. If the people are religious, the laws will reflect that.
Fortunately, there are two constraints on this dynamic. One essential constraint is provided by a Constitution (or other founding document). The U.S. has a firm secular grounding that makes theocracy near impossible. Unfortunately, Egypt does not, and this should be of concern. The other constraint is we the people. We are bound to disagree with attempted or actual changes to our society and laws, but we need not sit back and accept the changes we dislike. In a democracy we all have the opportunity to state our case in the public square, and to have a say in the makeup of our government. This is both our right and our duty.
So the real problems in Egypt are not the possibilities opened up by democratic change, but its Constitution, and the beliefs that help underwrite its support. We should not lament the freedom to believe and act and influence our (or any) government. We should not be overly cautious about democracy because of the consequences that may follow from its exercise. Instead, we ought to work to preserve or foster a secular foundation, and fight pernicious ideas that may undermine democracy at their roots. Through this process, back and forth – and hopefully forward – our social, political, and moral compasses change. But there is no guarantee things will go our way, as an unknown future is a cost of an open society. I happen to think liberty is worth it.


  1. So the real problems in Egypt are economic ones und demographic and not the possibilities opened up by pseudo-democratic change

  2. I agree with you that we (foreign interests) shouldn't pick and choose who gets democracy and when. I am really curious to see how the US and Israel will react if the majority of Egyptians choose an Iran-type government. Or even more interesting (and more likely) regarding policy would be if the country is split 60-40 or 70-30 between those favouring a theocracy and those not. Will the US and Israel try to bolster the sizeable minority? Lets all pray to sweet baby Jesus it isn't a 50-50 split!

  3. We Americans must resign ourselves to the fact that if a nation has a democratic form of government, that nation does not thereby become another America.

  4. Michael: I think your article would be more informative if you actually included the perspective of the Egyptian people, including the motivations and make-up of the current (largely secular) pro-democracy movement. The only viewpoints you currently link to are those of the Israeli government and the GOP. The idea that the latter especially somehow genuinely does not want a theocratic government in the region is laid bare by the simple fact that Saudi Arabia receives strong support in largely the same circles and is arguably one of the most brutal and repressive of all regional regimes.

    Furthermore, I think that saying people in Egypt have "some power" tells us very little and is probably misleading. Also, saying that Egyptian problems are simply because of the constitution is a gross oversimplification of the sociopolitical situation.

  5. Hi Michael,

    You've written a much-needed article, and agree with you that an open society is worth the risks and, of course, is much better than the alternatives, which all seem to lead to tyranny in one form or another.

    Let's hope that Egypt's open society doesn't freely decide to become a closed one.

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  7. "Democracy only guarantees people the right to speak and act their minds"

    I don't know that a democracy guarantees this at all. You are describing certain freedoms, which a given democracy may or may not grant all of its people, particularly the minorities in that society

  8. @Simon, your points are well-taken.

    However, I didn't mean to imply that all of Egypt's problems are due to its Constitution (or its rate of religious belief). Rather, I meant to state that secularists should be bothered less by the possibilities of democratic reform and more by the religiously inclined Constitution and the beliefs that underwrite it. Clearly there are other things to be bothered about. They were just not the subject of the essay. I hope this helps.

  9. @CC, noted. I suppose I was discussing the democratic ideal that we are constantly striving for. But of course there are both internal and external factors that may prevent people from having all the freedoms that democracy promises.

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  11. Michael: I really don't know that I agree with that. It's kind of difficult to take a constitution as a serious factor when the country has a dictatorial regime that is run by cronyism, censorship, torture, and active sabotaging of elections.

  12. ccbowers: I agree--some outcomes can be unjust even if they are delivered by a "fair process." And thanks to Arrow's Theorem and other paradoxes of democracy, there can't even be a democratic process that perfectly reflects the "view of the people." It's a strong argument for preferring a constitutional republic to direct democracy. When your (alleged) republic doesn't come anywhere near representing the people, it can provide a good argument for overhaul (or overthrow), with all the risks of getting something still worse.

    I don't think I can agree with the claim "that religion might influence law – is not a problem with democracy. It is a problem with religious belief." Religious belief is pervasive enough and deeply enough engrained in human thinking that it is going to be a factor in decisions made on the basis of direct democracy, anywhere. The natural tendency seems to be to combine religious and political authority, in the absence of a secular elite that develops a barrier between them, constitutional or otherwise.

  13. Certainly the risk of a true "democracy" turning theocratic is much greater than that of a properly constructed constitutional republic.

    I am wondering how many people really understand the differences, but myself, I don't want to live in a "democracy".

  14. What do the following have in common? Iran, Gaza, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Algeria, Zimbabwe, Cuba, and Russia?


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