It was supposed to be Egypt’s America moment. Like the American colonists more than two hundred years before them - so the story goes - Egyptians were shaking off the bonds of tyranny, staging a coup against President Hosni Mubarak for the right to govern themselves.
Leaders on both sides of the American political spectrum had praised the 2011 Arab Spring populist movement that brought down dictators of several north African and middle eastern countries, including Egypt.
Neoconservative columnist Bill Kristol, for example, urged the United States to “to do the right thing, to stand with the opponents of tyranny.” Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton agreed as recently as October: “we have to stand with those who are working every day to strengthen democratic institutions, defend universal rights, and drive inclusive economic growth,” she said, explaining America’s support of the Arab Spring.
In short, both conservatives and liberals agreed that the United States should be on the right side - the democratically elected side - of history.
In 2013, with hindsight, the Arab Spring seems far less glorious: Sudan has been torn apart by a civil war, radicals in Libya killed a U.S. ambassador, and Syria is mired in a humanitarian crisis, a bloody tug-of-war between the Scylla and Charybdis of warring radical Islamists. The promises of freedom ring particularly hollow in Egypt, where democratically elected President Mohammed Morsi was recently overthrown after consolidating power by “temporarily” nullifying the country’s legislative and judicial branches.
What went wrong? Was democracy a mistake?
I submit that democracy wasn’t the problem; we just have too simple an understanding of what democracy is. As I learned in high school civics class, majority rule is important to democracy, but so is minority rights.
It’s not enough at any level of government to say, “We won, so it doesn’t matter what the rest of you think any more.” That’s why the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights spends as much time saying what the majority-elected government can’t do to minorities as what it can do. You have a right to worship and assemble as you see fit, a right to speak out against a government that the majority elected, a right to due process if you’re accused of a crime-even if the majority, even if a super majority, doesn’t like the way you exercise those rights.
That’s what the ideal of democracy that we should support is all about: freedom for all, not just freedom for the majority.
No one knows if the next Egyptian government will be better or worse than the last. But we shouldn’t shed a tear for Morsi, an anti-Semitic president who actively persecuted non-Islamic faiths and refused to obey the Egyptian judiciary’s attempts to protect his opposition.
Morsi may have been popularly elected, but he wasn’t a democratic leader. Not at all.