Paul Pillar

Freedom, Democracy, and Religion in Egypt

We who enjoy life in a liberal democracy tend to get so comfortable with our civic values that we sometimes lose sight of the inherent contradictions, or at least tensions, that they entail. Freedom and democracy get discussed in a mashed-together fashion as if they were a single overriding value, which they are not. Freedom—the “liberal” part of liberal democracy—bumps up against the democracy part insofar as it implies, as it should, protecting a sphere of individual liberty from the impositions of government, regardless of whether the government's actions reflect the will of the majority. Even the most stable liberal democracies reflect a compromise between these different values, and there is no clear guide to where the compromise should be struck. The writers of the U.S. Constitution did not get it quite right the first time, needing to add quickly to their original handiwork a bill of rights to nudge the compromise more in the direction of liberties.

We can see these tensions playing out in the current competition among Egyptians over the establishment of a new political order in their country. The competition in Egypt has significant parallels with the issues that concerned the American founding fathers, although in the Egyptian case there is a bigger religious dimension than there was in the earliest days of the United States. I'm not talking about the Islamophobic fears being expressed outside Egypt. A retreat from democracy of the “one man, one vote, one time” variety is no more the preserve of Islamists than it is of, say, secular leftists. And an Islamist coloration of a future Egyptian government should preclude nothing regarding Egypt's foreign relations. Instead I'm referring to the same liberty-versus-democracy tension. Egyptian liberals have proposed a bill of rights to prevent an Islamist majority from imposing restrictions on individual freedoms in the name of upholding religiously based morality. Islamists charge that the proposal is undemocratic. To the extent a majority of Egyptians would favor involving their government in upholding such morality, the Islamist charge would be correct.

Americans and other outsiders do not have a stake in this, except in the sense of an empathetic placing of oneself in the shoes of Egyptians. If I were an Egyptian, I would be firmly in the camp of liberals opposed to any attempt to legislate religiously based morality and in favor of constitutional restrictions to prevent any such attempt (just as I am opposed to attempts here in the United States to let religious dogma influence laws or other actions of the state). But I would have to acknowledge that my defense of this aspect of liberty might run up against the will of the majority of the moment and in that sense would be to some extent undemocratic.

In Egypt the tension involved would become all the more acute if the Egyptian military assumed a role similar to the one the Turkish military used to play, as the guardian of a secular order. What would a good liberal democrat have to say about that?

There is no more of a school solution to these tensions for Egyptians than there was for Americans. Egyptians will have to work out their own formula for juggling conflicting values. Whatever formula they arrive at will involve some compromise of values that we, and many Egyptians, hold dear.