Egypt's future? A democracy -- sort of

The engine of politics is chugging and sputtering as Egyptians prepare for their first post-revolution election. The outcome may not look like a western democracy, but the key is to keep the engine running.

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    A horse carriage sits idle near a busy road along the Nile river in Cairo.
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Democracy is a factory. People go in one end – people with ideas, beliefs, prejudices, and certainties – and then all the processes for regulating human behavior come into play, from parliamentary procedure to debate etiquette, political jockeying to secret balloting. Out the other end emerges a modified amalgam that tries to balance fairness with principle, majority rule with minority rights.

These factories operate in every culture. Egypt's is the newest one, the one that seemed impossible to imagine less than a year ago. Egypt today is where an entire society is trying to make the machine of democracy work. It faces myriad problems. The military is the power behind the scenes. Does it really intend to yield to a civilian government? What are the intentions of the Muslim Brotherhood? Will the old Hosni Mubarak party try to regain power? Will the vast majority of Egyptians – culturally and religiously conservative as they are known to be – tolerate uncensored media, artistic expression, secular lifestyles, religious diversity, and all the other elements we associate with democratic societies?

Writing in The Political Quarterly, Amitai Etzioni, who directs the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies at George Washington University, sums up the Middle East moment this way: “[A]ssuming that the new regimes will be democratic – and not just nominally – can they also be religious? That is, Muslim? And if so, will they respect individual rights? And if not, what should be the position of the United States towards what ought to be called ‘illiberal democracies.’ ”

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Perhaps the best way to look at Egypt is to look first, and realistically, at democracy. In each country it is different. Dr. Etzioni points out, for instance, that the great democratic hallmark of separation of church and state is followed in France and the US (though “In God We Trust” is on US currency, so ... ) but not as much in Britain, Germany, and other democracies. His point is that democrats need to be both pragmatic and principled when considering other cultures.

Pragmatically, if only liberal secularists have our backing, “the result will be that we lose,” says Etzioni. Islamic groups are organized and disciplined thanks in part to their years operating underground. Liberal groups weren’t crushed, but they were stunted. (Dan Murphy, a veteran Christian Science Monitor correspondent who lived in Cairo from 2003 to 2008, recalls how in cafes before the revolution Egyptians could quietly debate politics “but were always looking over their shoulders to see if somebody sitting nearby was reading the newspaper upside down.”)

Egypt is probably going to tilt more Islamic when the votes come in. The key, says Etzioni, is to support Egyptians searching for a path that is both religious and democratic.

Such pragmatism is not abnormal in foreign policy, though it can seem cynical, especially if illiberals suppress other groups or smash human rights. Etzioni draws the line at moves that threaten life. Thus he supported the NATO intervention in Libya after Muammar Qaddafi said he would track down opponents and kill them. He thinks the Syrian regime has crossed the line with violence against its people. Torture and ethnic cleansing also are reasons to withdraw support.

But beyond that, he says, we should tread lightly. In Afghanistan, he points out, the US-led occupation required that one-quarter of parliamentary seats go to women. Such quotas are not required in the US. (When I phoned him, he also pointed out, only half-jokingly, that even antipolygamy laws might not hold up in today’s US legal climate.)

What emerges from the Egyptian factory may not be pretty. The main thing is that the doors stay open and Egyptian democracy continues to evolve.

 John Yemma is the editor of The Christian Science Monitor. To comment on this column or anything else in the Monitor, please e-mail editor@csmonitor.com.

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