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Monday, July 22, 2013

Something Thoughtful


Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.

IS DEMOCRACY ALWAYS RIGHT?

            “The sun as everyone says sets later
the longer the day persists.
‘The majority are right even when they are fools,’
the blind democrat insists.”

I’ve just been reading and reviewing Vincent O’Sullivan’s latest collection of poems Us, then, and I know this satirical little jab of O’Sullivan’s isn’t directly concerned with the political process. But that line ‘The majority are right even when they are fools,’ has a particular and sad resonance at the moment.

In Egypt, an elected government has been overthrown by the military.

Those of us who are fairly ignorant of Egyptian affairs are not sure how to react. Of course we are saddened that the promise of the “Arab spring” a year or two back has so rapidly soured. We were never so na├»ve as to imagine that democracy and a civil society, full-formed and functioning, would spring without difficulty from years of dictatorship. To think that, once a dictatorship is booted out, democracy comes immediately, was the mistake American policy-makers made in both Iraq and Afghanistan. So there is the sadness that another hope has been met with armed force.

But there is this complicating factor in our reaction. The government of President Morsi, which the military has seen off, was a government too close to, and indeed dominated by, the Muslim Brotherhood. This movement is no friend of pluralistic democracy, its ultimate aim being to establish a confessional state based on Sharia law. No room for Egypt’s dissident Muslims, Christians, or for that matter secularists. Granted, Morsi’s government came to power by the democratic process. But, we now ask, was the constitution of the fledgling democracy flawed? And was the electoral process loaded? How else could a group with such an agenda have gained such power?

I emphasize that I am writing as somebody who knows little more of Egypt than I see in the evening news. But I am profoundly troubled by the sight of Morsi’s supporters now taking the position that Morsi’s opponents took a few weeks back, and saying that they are the supporters of an elected democracy and that their popular will has been thwarted. Because, in one very obvious sense, they are right. Soldiers, not voters, have overthrown Morsi.

So here is our problem. Let’s assume that Morsi won his election fair and square. Let’s go further and assume that supporters and allies of the Muslim Brotherhood were indeed the majority of voters. (I know these assumptions are both highly contentious, but I’m just being hypothetical here.) Do we say therefore that no force has the right to oppose them? Or would this make us “blind democrats” who think ‘The majority are right even when they are fools,’?

Yet, I suspect, most of us non-Muslim, non-Egyptian observers are quite happy to see the back of Morsi’s government. We tell ourselves that in this case, the military have acted in support of the greater good; that they have headed off an Islamist initiative and helped make the emergence of a truly pluralistic democracy more possible. This sentiment can take the form of the rather reductionist and puerile statement I saw on Facebook that “religion has no place in government”.

But if we take this view, how much are we in fact saying that an ideology of which we approve can override the popular will by force?

And, on a more pragmatic level, how can we be sure of the military’s intentions?

Generals have often overthrown governments in the name of the greater good, but their track record isn’t all that great when it comes to delivering on democratic hopes. Generals or military juntas who see themselves as saviours of the nation too easily turn into dictators. We are wearily familiar with the scenario of putschists promising democratic elections – and then indefinitely postponing them. Indeed, the only example I can think of in which military force in a revolutionary situation helped to secure democracy was Portugal’s “Carnation Revolution” nearly 40 years ago (in 1974) – and that was essentially a case of conservative military leaders standing back and letting a popular movement have its way when they could have adopted the more brutal course of trying to stamp it out.

So is democracy always right? Apparently not. And certainly not when it comes to moral, religious, ethical or aesthetic matters. (You do not prove how great a work of art is, or how true a moral proposition is, by voting on it.) Yet, as a form of government it is still the best we have.

The situation will probably have changed by the time you read this; but as of this writing, all we can hope is that the Egyptian military keep their word.

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