Egypt Presents an Awkward Moment: Does the U.S. Really Favor Democracy?

First of two articles. Originally published at

What is democracy? Does America favor it? What just happened in Egypt? Is there something incompatible about Islam and democracy? If so, is Turkey the exception that proves the rule, or perhaps disproves the rule? And if not, is David Brooks a bigot for suggesting that some shortcoming in the mental abilities of Muslims makes them unfit for democracy?

Except maybe for the last one, these are pretty profound questions, way above my pay grade. And yet, the current chaos in Egypt raises them all and various assertions about these deep democracy questions are being made all over the airwaves and beyond without much serious challenge. After stewing about them, reading about them, interviewing about them, herewith -- in a short series of today and Tuesday -- a few thoughts backed by a few facts.

Democracy is a form of government, fairly rare in the Mideast, in which the government gains the consent of the governed through free and fair elections. It's sometimes called majority rule with minority rights, which sounds pretty good but raises a bunch more questions. One category of questions revolves around the many ways of assembling electoral majorities (and many systems, including the U.S. system, do not require a majority vote to hold high office, including the presidency). Another category of deep democracy questions starts with absence of any one definitive list of minority rights that must be respected, or how they are to be preserved against a determined majority.

Americans are justifiably proud but also perhaps occasionally a bit arrogant about the long-running success we have had with maintaining democracy at home. Despite some bumps and blotches and the many imperfections of our system, we have had two and a quarter centuries of regular elections, just one Civil War and no coups d'etat (even the fictional one, in Seven Days in May, was foiled because Kirk Douglas realized that his loyalty to the commander-in-chief outweighed his loyalty to his disloyal commanding officer.) We sometimes call ourselves the arsenal of democracy and tend to exaggerate the credit we deserve for the huge expansion of democracy around the world since we established ours.

We have played a role in bringing democracy to many nations, but we tend not to boast so much about the many instances in which the United States has overthrown democracies abroad when the citizens of other countries elected leaders we didn't like. Our general talking point is that we are the friend and ally of all those around the world who seek to democratize. We even have on the books a law that requires a cutoff of U.S. aid to any nation in which a coup d'etat overthrows an elected government.

That is awkward at the moment because the Egyptian military just overthrew the elected government led by Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, but the Obama Administration is loath to follow through on the cutoff of aid. It is, of course, possible to construe the coup d'etat in Egypt as something other than a coup for purposes of that law. Among the principles for which the United States purports to stand is the "rule of law," but it is very handy to reserve the ability to reconstrue a word in a law that might otherwise be too constricting on a democracy- and rule-of-law-loving nation.

Democracy in principle

Personally, in answer to one of the questions I asked myself at the top of this post, I would say that historically the United States has strongly favored democracy in principle but not always in practice and seldom put its pro-democracy impulses ahead of its desire to see areas in which we have "vital interests" (most of the world, and definitely including Egypt) run by people with whom we enjoy cooperative relations.

The United States has a long-standing cooperative relationship with the Egyptian military, and the U.S. had a long cooperative relationship with President Hosni Mubarak, notwithstanding Mubarak's lack of democratic credentials.

In general, the United States has been unenthusiastic about what are often called "Islamist" political parties, which promise, if elected, to be guided by Muslim religious principles and perhaps even impose Islamic religious law ("Sharia law, rooted in the 8th century") on the nation. (I say "in general" because of such notable exceptions as Saudi Arabia, which imposes an extremely strict version of Sharia on its population, but which has enjoyed mutually beneficial relationship with the United States -- and especially the U.S. oil industry -- since 1945.)

The United States was nervous about the 2012 electoral victory of  Muslim Brotherhood candidate Morsi, notwithstanding the fact that Morsi received a majority vote mandate in what was the closest Egypt has ever come to a free and fair election.

(I note that Morsi's election is being described as free and fair. The efforts of those who want to justify the coup by suggesting that Morsi shouldn't have won have relied on the argument that the reformist camp botched the deal by fielding too many candidates, which resulted in the final runoff being between Morsi and Mubarak crony. There's truth in this, but it doesn't really undermine the legitimacy of the election. More troubling -- but for some reason not mentioned much last week -- is that the Supreme Presidential Electoral Commission disqualified 10 of the 23 original field of candidates without divulging the criteria they used. In fact, Morsi was not originally his party's candidate but was put on the ballot after his party's better-known first choice was disqualified by the commission.)

Let that last bit stand for the proposition that it's tough to really grasp the free/fairness of other people's election without knowing the full background, the totality of the circumstances and the details of the system (relatively few Americans probably grasp the full complex workings of the Electoral College system or the -- recently revised -- Voting Rights Act.)

Free and fair election

We can get hung up on these vagaries of the 2012 Morsi election or we can focus on the clear fact that this was the freest and fairest election in Egyptian history, considering that Morsi's predecessors generally didn't allow anyone to run against them at all.

It's possible, if the reformists had gotten their act together, one of them would have been elected and (without pausing too long to consider what we mean by "reformist" but acknowledging that we like the sound of the word) that Egypt might have evolved in the direction of a stable democracy, setting a wonderful example for other Arab states.(Egypt is the biggest Arab state and one of several that sometimes asserts its leadership of the Arab world).

But that didn't happen. Instead, Egypt got Morsi, who got mixed and often negative reviews over the course of his first year. It's not clear how much of the spark for the mass demonstrations demanding the removal of Morsi were about neither democracy nor religious freedom but about the continuing poor performance of the Egyptian economy. Various Morsi alleged failures and alleged deviations from proper democratic conduct are now being cited, mostly to justify the demonstrators who took to the street demanding his removal and the decision of the military to oust him. But as I try to nail down some of those alleged deviations, the plot thickens.

For example, Morsi at one point during his year in office rejected the power of the judicial branch to rule on the legality of his decrees. This is cited as evidence of his lack of respect for democratic norms. If that's all you know, it seems like a good case. But the judges who were preparing to overrule some of Morsi's decrees were holdovers from Mubarak's regime. What kind of democratic legitimacy did they have over Morsi who, whatever else, had just been elected? The judges had already dismissed the parliament (which was dominated by Islamists) and were rumored to be preparing to dismiss the (also Islamist-led) special assembly that was supposed to draft a new constitution. What kind of constitutional basis did the judges have for that action? And, although Morsi's statement that the judges had no authority over his decrees is being cited as evidence that he lacked respect for democratic norms, it should be noted that he backed down and acknowledged that the judges had such authority.

I have little sympathy for an Islamist Party or Islamist agenda, just as it troubles me when U.S. legislators rely too heavily on the Old or New Testaments for legal principles that they seek to impose on modern Americans. But to locate the point at which they have exceeded democratic norms and need to be removed from office by some means other than losing their next reelection bid is much more troublesome.

Eventually we have to come to this mind-numbing question: When, if ever, can it be a good thing for the development of any democratic system for the military to take action to remove the elected government?

The subordination of the military to the elected civilian government may not be one of the top three characteristics of a developed democracy, but I would have said it's pretty high on the list, until I learned of the role military intervention has played in maintenance of democracy in Turkey.

In tomorrow's installment, more about Turkey and the David Brooks column that stirred up a lot criticism.