Egypt and the limits of democracy

Supporters of army chief General Abdel Fattah Sisi carry his portrait and wave the Egyptian flag in Cairo's Tahrir Square.
(Khaled Desouki / AFP / Getty Images )

The events in Egypt are causing a great deal of moral and intellectual confusion in Western circles, preoccupied as they are with the concept of democracy (after all, ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi was elected). Populist sentimentality abounds.

I suggest, instead, judging events by the standards of constitutionalism — an ideology that asserts that human beings have certain unalienable rights that cannot be taken from them either by dictator or by the majority. Fareed Zakaria makes a good case for constitutionalism taking precedence over democracy in his book, “The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad.” Or as Publishers Weekly put it in a review of the book: “Democracy is not inherently good.… It works in some situations and not others, and needs strong limits to function properly.”

Better a liberalizing dictator than an elected thug. Morsi was an elected thug; Gen. Abdel Fattah Sisi, the head of the Egyptian armed services and now in charge of the nation, might turn out to be a liberalizing dictator who at least protects minorities and women.


Democracy is a mechanism that chooses governments by elections in which the majority decides. But the Founding Fathers were just as afraid of the tyranny of the majority as they were of the tyranny of the individual tyrant. That is why the Constitution was written, separation of powers institutionalized and the Supreme Court (an unelected, nondemocratic body) chosen to adjudicate the constitutionality of laws that might be supported by the overwhelming majority of the population.

The 20th century is sufficient proof that majorities can be just as brutal and vicious as tyrants. Jim Crow was supported by the majority; Eastern European pogroms were justified by the majority; Adolf Hitler was supported by the majority; Josef Stalin was revered by the majority. Even today, according to a 2012 poll in Russia by the Carnegie Endowment, Stalin is first among the great figures of Russian history.

Democracy is only a value when it tends to widen and deepen the constitutionalist protections of individuals and minorities, as it has in the U.S. Blacks and women getting the vote enabled them to fight for their constitutional rights. But Hamas was democratically elected in the Gaza Strip, and the result: fewer rights for women, religious minorities and political opposition. If the German military had overthrown Hitler, would we have called that a military putsch?

When Americans and Europeans use the term “democracy,” it is shorthand for constitutional democracy; namely, “the will of the people,” limited and moderated by the constitutional protections offered to individuals and minorities, and not majoritarian democracy in which the compact majority (in Egypt’s case, Islamist fanatics) can crush individual and minority rights.

How does this relate to Egypt? If you were a Coptic Christian (40 of whose churches have been burned by Morsi supporters), a Shiite Muslim (four of whom were lynched by Morsi supporters in June) or a university-trained woman (no need to detail her status under Islamist rule), would you prefer Sisi’s military dictatorship or majoritarian Islamic “democracy”?

Answer that question honestly and you will know which side to root for. You will also know which side has the biggest chance to eventually morph into a constitutional democracy as it integrates into the global economic reality. The military dictatorships of Taiwan and South Korea gradually evolving into constitutional democracies as a consequence of integrating into the global economic order are good historical examples. Tourism is Egypt’s biggest nonfarm employer and earner of foreign currency. What would be its fate under the Islamists, and how would this inhibit Egypt from integrating into the global economy?

From a non-Egyptian point of view, which faction would most likely be more rational and maintain the peace with Israel? Consider the consequences of another Israeli-Egyptian war for the region and the world. Moreover, consider the implications for the region and, indeed, the rest of the world if the Muslim Brotherhood defeats the Egyptian military. It would be frightening to say the least.

Tsvi Bisk, a former senior researcher for the Labor Party in Israel, is the author of “The Future of Constitutionalism” and director of the Center for Strategic Futurist Thinking.