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Elections Are Not Democracy
A lesson from Egypt.


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Andrew C. McCarthy

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.

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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.



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