07/15/2013 01:01 pm ET Updated Sep 14, 2013

Egypt, Religion, and the Dilemmas of Democracy

Except for the large number of Egyptians who had become increasingly frustrated by the disappointing administration of President Mohammed Morsi, no one seems particularly happy over what happened last week when the military stepped in to remove Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president, from power. The high hopes that so many in the world had for a flourishing democracy in this ancient civilization now seem dashed, at least for the moment. Unless this time the army can manage to make sure that again its intervention doesn't turn into yet another form of what former U.S. representative at the UN Jeane Kirkpatrick called "authoritarian government" (at least when they were friendly to the U.S.), then it seems likely that Egypt will revert to its ancient pattern of being ruled by dictatorships ranging from those led by the pharaohs of old to the more recent line of military presidents like Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak.

The present problem lies, I think, in a widespread misunderstanding on how democracy can be made to work, at least when it comes to democracies in the contemporary world. "Rule by the people" -- which is what the word "democracy" literally means -- is never an easy task or achievement, even when the demos, that is, the people, share a similar background, ethnicity, culture, or even the same religion. When they don't, as is the case in Egypt, which despite the fact that most all Egyptians happen to speak Arabic and about 90 percent of the population is Muslim, is nevertheless made up of a population of diverse racial origins and ethnic backgrounds, democracy becomes almost unworkable unless the power of the majority vote or rule is carefully restricted by strong guarantees designed to protect individual human rights, especially among the minorities.

Apparently, this lack of understanding is the problem in Egypt, although the new constitution insists there must be freedom of religion for all monotheists -- at least for Muslims, Christians, and the few Jews left there since Nasser's time. Nevertheless, it appears that laws, regulations, and policies under the Morsi administration seemed to be tilting more and more in favor of Islam as interpreted by the Salafist fundamentalists and to be strengthening the power of the Islamic Brotherhood, even to the point where not just the sizeable Christian minority began to feel increasingly threatened, but even the more moderate Muslims, especially those whose livelihood largely depends on the revival of the foreign tourist trade, had begun to complain. Thus Egypt was becoming increasingly polarized between those whose idea of democracy seems to have been a Sunni version of Iran's Shiite "Islamic Republic", against those who believe that democracy can only survive where freedom of religion means freedom from the domination of or even the influence of religion of any sort.

As reluctant as we may be to admit that these latter -- whom the Islamicists are calling "secular liberals" -- may be right, can there be any other path to finding a solution?

I believe that there is, and would point to America's own experience to indicate the way. Despite the population of the 13 colonies that rebelled against Great Britain to form the United States having been overwhelmingly Christian, the fact is that they were strongly divided along sectarian lines. These were often opposed to one another, most of them all but outlawing deviations from whatever denomination each colony or state had established as its official religion or church. The solution of America's founding fathers was by-pass this whole quagmire by appealing to no religion in particular, even to a generic "Christianity", but simply to what they called "Nature's God" who created all "men" as equals, with their basic human rights to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Then, to make these fine and stirring words mean something in law, they eventually passed, at the very beginning of the Amendments to the U.S. Constitution's "Bill of Rights", the First Article which makes sure that "Congress shall pass no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."

Not that these statements or laws have settled all questions on a practical level even in the U.S. In 1862, the US Congress passed a law to ban polygamy after one religious organization, the Mormons, had revived the practice. But today, one would have to be delusional to believe that marriage is any more stable, whether plural or monogamous, than it was in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1919, a largely religion-inspired law was passed to ban the manufacture and sale of all alcoholic beverages. It not only failed, but within a decade had fueled a major crime-wave. Likewise, today, attempts are being made in various states to interfere with a woman's ability to have an abortion by means of laws that are more restrictive than those established by the U.S. Supreme Court back in 1973. These new laws, in some cases, resemble those prevailing under Islam.

So, should Egypt, where Muslim men are still allowed to have more than one wife at a time but where, if the Salafists were to prevail, imposition of strict sharia law would ban alcohol consumption, or would continue to allow abortion, but even then only during the first four months of pregnancy and only to save a mother's life, do the same? That is, I think, up to Egyptians - including Egyptian women, who are most likely to be affected by the consequences of such decisions -- to decide. But if and when they do so, perhaps they need also to look at the bloody chaos in their one-time ally, Syria, and think twice before they vote to impose religious ideals or standards as the law of the land.