What to Do When Illiberal, Anti-Democratic Forces Take Power Through the Democratic Process

When Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship began to collapse two years ago, I expressed the fear that the ultimate outcome might be a new Egyptian government more oppressive than the old. The main reasons for my concern were that illiberal radical Islamists were far better positioned to seize power than liberal democrats, and that Egyptian public opinion was itself highly illiberal, which raised the possibility that radical Islamists could prevail even in a genuinely free election.

Since then, the first Egyptian presidential elections have been won by radical Islamist Mohammed Morsi, who proceeded to persecute journalists who “insulted” him, kill numerous protestors, and assume near-dictatorial “emergency” powers.

Fearing a descent into Islamist dictatorship, more liberal Egyptians have taken to the streets in protest. Harvard Law School Professor Noah Feldman, a leading academic expert on Middle Eastern law and politics, sympathizes with them, but argues that they should not undermine Morsi’s democratically elected government lest they bring on a reversion to military rule:

I hate to agree with an Egyptian general about anything, but Abdelfatah Al-Seesi, who’s also Egypt’s defense minister, had a point when he warned his countrymen on Facebook that continued violent protest in the streets might lead to collapse.

Ordinary Egyptians have plenty of reasons to be frustrated with the government of President Mohamed Mursi, which has by turns overclaimed its authority and underdelivered in establishing order. Still, it’s one thing to engage in mass protest when your target is a dictatorship — then you are a democratic revolutionary. It’s quite another to use mass protests to try and bring down a democratically elected government that you don’t like. Then you’re running the risk of becoming an unwitting agent of counterrevolution….

If Egypt’s democrats want to avoid becoming another Pakistan, in which democracy is never more than a few shots from military dictatorship, they have just one path available to them: take a deep breath, go home, and let the democratically elected government try to do its job. Mursi and his government may do well or badly. But as long as they are up for re-election in a few years, they will have laid the groundwork for democratic transition.

Patriots of Tahrir, ask yourselves: You may not like Mursi. But would you really rather have the army?

Feldman certainly knows more about Egyptian politics than I do, and he may be right in his bottom-line conclusion. But the issue is more complicated than his description suggests. If Morsi continues to persecute his political opponents and establishes an Islamist dictatorship, his government might not be “up for re-election in a few years,” at least not a free election in which opposition parties are allowed to compete on equal terms. If Morsi is not overthrown now or at least forced to accept tight constraints on his authority, Egypt’s “democratic transition” could easily turn into a case of “one man, one vote, one time.”

Even if Morsi retains a relatively free democratic process, the illiberal nature of majority Egyptian opinion could still lead to severe oppression of women, liberals, religious minorities, and others. Democracy is an important value. But it is not the only value that matters and not necessarily the most important. A modestly repressive authoritarian regime might be a lesser evil compared to a democracy governed by a sufficiently oppressive illiberal majority.

Egypt is not the first nation that has transitioned to democracy under the shadow of powerful illiberal political forces that threaten to seize power. Some new democracies have dealt with the problem by banning illiberal political parties or otherwise making it harder for them to seize power through the democratic process. For example, post-World War II West Germany banned the Nazi and Communist parties (the latter was legalized only in the 1970s, while the former remains illegal to this day). After the fall of communism, several Eastern European nations adopted “lustration” laws banning many former communist officials from holding public office. Such laws create genuine injustices and also carry slippery slope risks (if we ban the communists, why not moderate socialists or liberals?). But if the threat of an illiberal takeover is severe enough, they might be the lesser of the available evils. In some extreme cases, the only way to save democracy or other important liberal values is to impose severe limits on the democratic process itself.

Egypt’s liberal democrats face a genuinely difficult dilemma. Confronting Morsi’s government in the streets may indeed risk the return of military rule. But failing to do so might pave the way for an even more oppressive Islamist government, possibly one that blocks future democratic elections once it has consolidated its power. If it were my choice, I would probably rather live under a junta of corrupt generals who are in it for money and power than under radical Islamists who want to force all of society to obey their version of Sharia law. The former might only impose enough repression to hold onto power and enrich themselves and their cronies. The Islamists, by contrast, might seek to impose brutal control over all aspects of society. Better to be ruled by crooks than quasi-totalitarian ideologues. But liberal Egyptians have to consider the relative likelihood of the two dangers as well as the relative severity. A high probability of moderately oppressive military government might be worse than a much lower probability of severely oppressive Islamist rule. Regardless, the right answer to the problem – assuming one even exists – can’t be determined simply by the fact that Morsi was democratically elected.

UPDATE: In this recent Washington Post article, Fareed Zakaria argues that Egypt is in danger of sliding into Islamist rule because it “chose democratization before liberalization.” He notes that Egypt’s new Islamist-influenced constitution is highly illiberal and points out that “[m]ore journalists have been persecuted for insulting Morsi in his six-month presidency than during the nearly 30-year reign of Mubarak.”