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Hullabaloo


Wednesday, July 03, 2013

 
Constitutional liberalism versus democracy: more lessons out of Egypt

by David Atkins

It is done, then:

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi was forced out of office Wednesday by the Egyptian military and opposition leaders, just a couple of hours after the Obama Administration voiced its first public doubts about Morsi's handling of the massive street protests that spread across the country in recent days.

Egyptian Army Chief Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi took to state television to announce that the head of the country's constitutional court would take over as president until new elections are held.

"We'll build an Egyptian society that is strong and stable, that will not exclude anyone...and end the conflict," Al-Sisi said. He said military leaders had urged Morsi to do more to meet protesters demands, but he did not go far enough to meet a 48 hour ultimatum the country's military delcared on Monday.
Will the military actually give up power and allow for elections? Who knows? History is filled with military coups promising to stage elections whose timetables recede further and further into the distance because the country "isn't ready."

More importantly, if the military does give up power and allow for free and fair elections, will the comparatively secular, liberal left have the organizational power to defeat the theocratic Muslim Brotherhood in the next election? So far there is no indication that that will be the case. Egypt's secular left has shown itself much more adept at protesting than at organizing.

Democracy and constitutional liberalism are not interchangeable ideas, any more than democracy and free markets are. Constitutional liberalism with protections for women and minorities, equality under the law, freedom of speech and worship, and all the other benefits we associate with modern democracies do not necessarily arise from democracy. These things must be built and enacted piece by piece--often in spite of the majority will of citizens.

There's a moral argument to be had about whether constitutional liberalism trumps the principle of democratic self-determination. If an electorate wants to vote for a theocracy that denies women the right to vote, should they not be able to do so? Should the U.S. and other western nations impose sanctions if certain basic provisions of constitutional liberalism are not met? Wouldn't it be imperialist to demand that Egyptians conform to our notions of freedom and justice? Truly it might be.

But then, why shouldn't that same logic apply to the citizens of Alabama when it comes to segregation? Why shouldn't that same logic apply to Texas when it comes women's rights in the Lone Star state? That, indeed, is precisely the argument made by various anti-federalists and states' rights advocates here at home. Is it not imperialist and contrary to multicultural values to impose the cultural and moral dictates of New York on the people of South Carolina? If a majority of citizens in a Middle Eastern nation want to vote for a theocratic government that oppresses minorities, should they have a right to do so? And if they do have that right by law and by universal moral principle of self-determination, why should the good people of Mississippi be denied the same right?

The end logic of promoting democracy over constitutional liberalism is either to make conveniently contradictory arguments based on the accident of federal Westphalian boundaries, or to demand that minorities consistently take to the streets in order to secure their rights.

America is still grappling with these issues in the constant battle between federal and state power. Egypt's military now has the same choice in their hands. For the sake of the Egyptian people, I hope they choose wisely.


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