The New York Times, at the eve of the Egyptian military coup, wrote that it was an odd juxtaposition of liberalism versus democracy – implying, of course, that such go hand in hand. In the words of Samer Shehata,
“Egypt has a dilemma: its politics are dominated by democrats who are not liberals and liberals who are not democrats.”
The thing is, it’s not really about liberals. Yes, there were 17 million people who had taken to the streets to protest Morsi’s rule and the power of the Muslim Brotherhood, and they can, in a way, be called liberals. But the relationship they have with the military is more an alliance of convenience. The one common aim isn’t democracy but secularism. This is secularism versus religion.
When I read that article for the first time, I tussled with the idea that liberalism and democracy could find themselves at odds, and started probing US history for examples. The most obvious example I could think of would be States’ Rights advocates complaining that federal mandates – such as the Voter Rights Act – were hurting their own democratically elected representatives’ policies. In fact, any actions by the federal government in the name of Reconstruction would be along those lines, and indeed ever since the Republican party started exploiting its Southern Strategy, States’ Rights and the Silent Majority have been dogwhistle terms to exclude minorities, the irreligious, and, well, liberals altogether.
More locally, there was also the need for the FBI to look into corruption charges concerning, among other things, an orthodox Jewish community’s effective use of their voting bloc to have an undue influence on East Ramapo, New York’s local politics and public school board, including cutting funding to public schools, siphoning money off for private religious schools, and selling off public school buildings to private yeshivas for less than market value. East Ramapo is in Rockland County, which is mostly a bedroom community for New York City so most residents aren’t available during regular polling hours, nor are they necessarily as organized as that small religious community. As such, the orthodox community dominates local politics and critics are dismissed as anti-democratic. Quote Board Vice-President Yehuda Weissmandl,
“We’ve been elected, fair and square.”
But in neither case is democracy really the goal, nor are they necessarily standing up for democracy. In the former case, the topic is, of course, the right to suppress or negate opposition votes – through ID laws and gerrymandering, as Texas did mere hours after Provision 4 was struck down – so as to maintain a political hegemony. In the latter case, a voting bloc with outsize power does not want the rules changed so it can maintain a political hegemony. In either case, their interest in democracy is that it’s good so long as it works in their favor.
In that sense, the democratic process is corrupted, and the rights of the minority (in the former case) and wishes of the majority (in the latter case) are subverted. I tend to suspect this has parallels in Egypt as well – the sheer scope of the protests indicates as much – for indeed there’s not much leeway in a political party whose adherents claim to be “willing to die for their religion.” In fact, such bluster makes the military coup and the subsequent violent suppression look like a common goal, as if the generals were willing to humor them.
Furthermore, it’s not just corruption but a specific kind of corruption that parallels: Either the evangelical Baptists dragging their feet on the “sanctity of marriage” by any means possible (last year it was miscegenation, now it’s gay marriage) or the folks attempting to set up Sharia law, there’s a clear division that a religious subset is not willing to compromise on matters dictated by their faith, no matter what form of governance is around them. A successful democracy is one of pluralism, not a dictatorship by the victor. As such, religious blocs are at best ademocratic because of their inability to peacefully coreign: Try being a Muslim president (or even an atheist President) in Christian America.
In that sense, the military had a point when it made its ultimatum: A democracy under the Muslim Brotherhood (or any religiously-affiliated party) is not a democracy. That the military is itself not a democracy – after all, this is the same military that was run while under Mubarak, and those are American Vietnam-era APCs shooting American tear gas canisters at protesters – is itself an important but separate point.