Egypt's big lesson in democracy

Egypt adopted a postrevolutionary constitution this week. But the Arab nation has only begun to understand that democracy isn't only majority rule.

AP Photo
Members of the constitutional assembly speak during a session at the Shura Council building in Cairo, Egypt, Dec. 26. The official approval of Egypt's disputed, Islamist-backed constitution Tuesday held out little hope of stabilizing the country after two years of turmoil and Islamist President Mohammed Morsi may now face a more immediate crisis with the economy falling deeper into distress.

As many married couples learn the hard way, the greater good can be found simply by listening to each other. That lesson in selflessness is also true for democracies, such as the fledgling one in Egypt, a nation now pivotal to the success of the Arab Spring.

On Tuesday, Egyptians officially began life under a mostly democratic constitution, nearly two years after the Tahrir Square revolution. But this remarkable feat for the Middle East was hardly a model in how opposing sides in a democracy should listen to each other. In fact, the US State Department issued a stern warning to President Mohamed Morsi about “the urgent need to bridge divisions, build trust, and broaden support for the political process.”

Many of the steps on the way to the Constitution – whose bright spot includes regular elections – ignored the interests of Egypt’s various minorities, from liberal secularists to Coptic Christians. The dominant Muslim Brotherhood, whose party has won three national votes, fell for the notion that the majority should always get what it wants – a mistake that has been the undoing of many democracies.

“Democracy requires much more than simple majority rule,” said a US State Department spokesman, Patrick Ventrell.

Mr. Morsi, who resorted to temporary tyranny in order to railroad the Constitution, conceded in a speech Wednesday that he had made mistakes “here and there.” Only after his victory did he display greater sincerity toward including the opposition in the government.

 “There is no alternative to a dialogue that is now a necessity,” he told Egyptians.

While the new charter passed with 63 percent of the ballots, voter turnout was low. Only 1 in 5 of eligible voters endorsed the draft document, reflecting a general disgust toward Morsi’s heavy-handed majoritarian rule. The Constitution itself includes vague protections for minorities while giving broad authority to unelected Islamic council.

Egypt is still learning that a republican democracy is merely a means – and the best one, at that – to define the public good. This requires a careful balancing between majority rule and minority rights, something that many Americans also fail to understand.

Constitutions, by their very nature, are a way to set down operating principles to run a society, such as basic freedoms, that majorities cannot violate. They are humanity’s way of acknowledging a higher good than temporary individual or collective wants. They are an institutional force to find common ground.

America’s founders set up many obstacles to majority rule on purpose. George Washington, for example, defined the role of the Senate – where the two votes of tiny Rhode Island equal those of California – as the saucer to cool the hot tea of populist bills passed by the House. A president’s veto can be overridden only by supermajorities in Congress. And the Supreme Court stands guard to keep the majority from stepping on minority rights.

Democracy would also fail if a minority could also command a veto power in every case. Each country must find a solution to the tension between its majorities and minorities as well as between a constitution and the results of elections.

In Egypt’s case, the dominant Islamists have only begun to accept legal protections for non-Muslims based on a concept of citizenship for all. For Islam’s sake, this is the right course. A recent Pew Research Center poll found a majority or substantial minority of people in the Middle East and North Africa believe it is possible to interpret Islam’s teachings in multiple ways.

And as democracy advances in the region, a international group of leading Muslim scholars is leading an effort to define an Islamic basis for citizenship and the rights of minorities.
 Democracy cannot consist only of two wolves and sheep deciding what to have for dinner. Listening to others in a democracy helps raise individuals out of themselves in hopes of grander visions of the common good. If Egypt can succeed in that, others in the Arab world may follow.

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