Elections Are Not Democracy

by Andrew C. McCarthy

A lesson from Egypt.

The democracy fetish would be worth having if it were about promoting real democracy. Instead, as illustrated by media coverage of the military coup that ousted Egypt’s popularly elected Muslim Brotherhood president, we’re still confusing democratic legitimacy with legitimate democracy.

The latter is real — a culture of liberty that safeguards minority rights. Attaining it is a worthy aspiration, but one that requires years of patient, disciplined, and often unpopular work. The former is an illusion — the pretense that if a Muslim country holds popular elections and elects totalitarian Islamists, voila, it has a “democracy,” and progressives the world over will regard it as such.

The confusion is nowhere better illustrated than in neoconservative commentary, where two most admirable premises — the transcendent power of freedom and the imperative of confronting evil — are seemingly at war with each other. Thus do the Wall Street Journal’s editors recount the rise and fall of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, elected Egypt’s president just a year ago, in the flush of Spring Fever:

His election was the best feature of his rule, which had descended into incompetence and creeping authoritarianism. Mr. Morsi won the election narrowly over a Mubarak-era political leftover, but he soon reinforced fears that the Brotherhood would use its new power to build an Islamist dictatorship. He tried to claim near-absolute powers by decree to force through a draft constitution written by Islamists and boycotted by everyone else.

No, not exactly.

Morsi did not “force through a draft constitution.” He submitted a proposed constitution to a popular election — the same process that the Journal maintains was “the best feature” of Morsi’s rule. In that popular election, the constitution drafted by Islamists was approved by a whopping two-thirds of Egyptians — a fact conveniently omitted by the Journal’s editors. The constitution was not “boycotted by everyone else.” The constituent assembly was boycotted by non-Islamists when they realized they did not have the numbers to stop sharia supremacists.

Doesn’t that sound a lot like the Democrats in the Wisconsin legislature? Remember: They lacked the votes to defeat Governor Scott Walker’s collective-bargaining reform, so they tried to derail it by boycotting the democratic process — an act of sabotage the Journal’s editors’ rightly rebuked. But there’s a huge difference. Lacking Wisconsin’s democratic culture, Egypt’s ostensibly democratic process was a farce. That’s why Egypt’s obstructive democrats were heroes, while Wisconsin’s obstructive Democrats were rogues.

Democratic processes — elections, referenda, constitution-drafting — must be conditioned on a preexisting democratic culture. Otherwise, in a majority-Muslim country like Egypt, you end up giving totalitarianism the patina of democratic legitimacy. Quite predictably, when Morsi put the draft constitution to a countrywide democratic vote, the vast majority of Egyptians used their self-determining liberty to enshrine liberty-devouring sharia as their fundamental law.

The cognitive dissonance is dizzying. Yes, as the Journal’s editors note, Morsi was narrowly elected over Ahmed Shafiq, a Mubarak-era holdover. But why was that? It was because the forces of true, pluralistic democracy in Egypt are so fledgling and weak that they could never have defeated Islamic supremacists on their own. They had to turn to the old regime.

In the free elections leading up to Morsi’s election, there was no greater ignominy than being a Mubarak holdover. In those elections, real democrats and progressives were thrashed by Islamic supremacists. They lost 78 percent to 22 percent in a referendum on constitutional amendments that allowed the parliamentary and presidential elections to go forward. They were swamped again in the parliamentary elections that gave Islamic supremacists a three-to-one hammerlock on the legislature and thus on the constituent assembly that wrote the new constitution.

By the time the presidential election came round, authentic democrats, including members of persecuted religious minorities, had no choice but to pin their hopes on a Mubarak holdover — just as this week, they had to rely on a coup by a military still threaded with Mubarak holdovers. It was the only realistic chance they had at a semblance of the rights that true democracy implies.

They lost anyway, even though the transitional military rulers, in a most undemocratic maneuver, tried to stack the deck in their favor by disqualifying on bogus grounds the more popular Muslim Brotherhood figure, Khairat al-Shater. The comparatively unknown Morsi was supremacist Islam’s Plan B. But we are talking about Egypt, where Western democracy is unabashedly condemned by such figures as Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the revered sharia jurist. In that Egypt — the Egypt that is — Plan B was good enough to win.

The Journal’s editors again tell only half the story in observing that Morsi “tried to claim near-absolute powers by decree” in order to get the sharia constitution implemented. If you buy the notion that free elections always herald real democracy, you would have applauded Morsi. He decreed that his “sovereign acts” were unreviewable by the unelected judiciary — stacked with relics of the Mubarak dictatorship — specifically to protect the constituent assembly, which that judiciary was threatening to dissolve before it could complete its work.

Morsi’s “democratic” logic was bulletproof: His actions were “sovereign” because he was elected by the people; the constituent assembly warranted sovereign protection because it had been appointed by a parliament elected by the people; and the old-regime judges should butt out because the draft constitution would be submitted to the sovereign people, to decide for themselves in an up-or-down vote. If you accept the Arab Spring fantasy that a liberty culture is bred by free elections, then Morsi was using his power to protect Egyptian democracy.

Of course, we should not accept the Arab Spring fantasy. But that does not make the Journal’s editors wrong — just rash. They want what we should all want: a truly democratic Middle East. But let’s not kid ourselves — it is going to take a very long time to get there.

Core neoconservative principles are not really at odds. The power of freedom is transcendent. But real freedom cannot be rushed. Democratic culture has to take root, which is a long-term project in an anti-democratic society. As a foundational matter, there must be abiding societal commitments to freedom of conscience, the equal dignity of every person, economic liberty, the rule of law, and self-determination irrespective of sharia. Only then will liberty be promoted by free elections — they are the end of the evolution, not the beginning.

We disfavor military coups because we are a liberty-loving people who defend civil rights. In Egypt, at this stage of its development, liberty lovers remain outnumbered. The massive protests against the Muslim Brotherhood administration are an encouraging sign that Egypt’s democrats are growing in strength, but they should not be mistaken for a wholesale rejection of sharia supremacism. Right now, the authentically democratic ranks remain modest; bear in mind that it was only seven months ago that the sharia constitution was overwhelmingly approved. At this point, a military coup — and an enlightened military leadership that maintains order while giving civil society the time and space to evolve — is the only chance freedom has. It is by no means certain that Egypt’s military is up to this daunting task, but it remains the best hope.

The neocons have also always been right that evil must be confronted and defeated. Yet that cannot happen unless evil is recognized as such. We must not rationalize Islamic supremacism and its sharia system as something they are not — as virtuous, or at least moderate — just because, given the choice, Islamic societies will vote for them. Egypt’s real democrats are trying to tell us that there are no moderate totalitarians. We would do well to listen.

— Andrew C. McCarthy is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute. He is the author, most recently, of Spring Fever: The Illusion of Islamic Democracy.