Any democracy should help define a people’s identity as well as reconcile their differences. Even established ones have difficulty with either purpose. For Egypt, its newly minted democracy failed on both. That is what triggered this week’s popular uprising that pushed the Army to oust a president, Mohammed Morsi, who was elected only a year ago.
Whether the ouster is called a coup or a protective necessity, either way the events in Cairo on Wednesday serve as a lesson on why many democracies have faltered in recent years. People are less trusting of elected leaders. They hold differing views on religion’s role in governance. And they are disillusioned over government’s ability to create jobs. And with the Internet, mass movements are better able to challenge leaders.
Egypt’s revolution in 2011 as part of the Arab Spring held the promise of creating a democracy based on political trust, religious tolerance, and economic talent. The country had two recent models in nearby Tunisia and Turkey. In both, the military has been kept in the barracks by the ability of civilian groups to trust each other enough to create a consensus over democratic essentials, such as minority rights and a clear separation of powers.
And in each, Islam-based parties have a healthy respect for the secular principles of democracy while government allows free expression of religious views in politics. This is what Columbia University scholar Alfred Stepan calls the “twin tolerations” necessary to reconcile Islam and democracy.
Since 2011, Egyptians failed in developing such mutual trust between differing groups. The youthful pro-democracy activists could not unite in the post-dictator era while the Muslim Brotherhood broke promise after promise to its opponents, using its dominance in rural Egypt to win elections.
Mr. Morsi, once a leader in the group, violated the most basic democratic principles by assuming absolute power over the judiciary. And the Brotherhood took a winner-take-all approach that locked out minority views or political opponents, especially in writing a constitution and in government appointments.
The corrective abilities of democracy were in jeopardy. Egypt was heading toward a hybrid democracy – common now in many countries – in which “elected autocrats” rule by curtailing rights and opponents.
Egypt has a second chance now to get it right. It must have a more inclusive process in writing a constitution, one that better ensures rights for women and minorities, especially Coptic Christians. Moderate Muslims and secular democrats must work together to form stronger civil and political organizations. The Brotherhood needs to assess its mistakes rather than remain bitter or challenge this new opportunity for Egypt.
Both sides need to forge an Egyptian identity based on the core values of democracy: trust, tolerance, and the protection of minority views. Winning elections and majoritarian rule aren’t enough to safeguard the will of minorities to continue to have a stake in democracy itself. Such minority rights are entirely consistent with the Arab people’s strong desire for karama (dignity).
Egypt can still have an Islamist-led civil state as Turkey and Tunisia do. But its politics over defining an identity for all Egyptians must operate on consensus, one rooted in the universal principles of democracy. Adherence to those principles will help reduce mutual fears and build political trust.