In a sudden groundswell of popular anger directed against Arab dictatorships, a popular uprising that began in Tunisia has now inspired protests in other Middle Eastern countries—most notably, Egypt. It is inspiring to see people rise up against tyranny, and the world, understandably, is following the story with great excitement and anticipation. But we cannot praise these revolutions unreservedly without knowing what kind of government will replace the existing regimes.
It is no secret that Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood have long sought to establish the rule of Sharia law, i.e. Islamic theocracy, in Egypt. It is not inconceivable that even a secular student revolution in Egypt could be co-opted by by Islamic revolutionaries, as occurred infamously in Iran in 1979. Even if the revolution results in peaceful elections, Islamists could gain power by vote. We have now seen the same thing happen most recently in Gaza and Lebanon.
But some in the campus media are complacent about the possibility of such an outcome. The editors of Colorado State’s Rocky Mountain Collegian argue:
[I]f the U.S. government really is interested in spreading democracy in the Middle East, it must get behind popular protest and support democratic change, warts and all….
The Arab world is ripe to overthrow its oppressive regimes and institute new, democratic ones. In the name of freedom and democracy, the U.S. should support popular revolt and any democratic—even anti-American—governments that result.
Brandon Beasley in the University of Calgary Gauntlet agrees, writing:
Western countries should be pausing to reflect. We have done poorly by Tunisia and in our fear of extreme Islamists we have let democracy be trampled. If people in Tunisia vote for Islamists, that is and should be their right and privilege.
But is it the right of the Tunisians or the Egyptians to vote Islamists into power? Is it anyone’s right to elect a government that would systematically abridge the rights of its citizens—perhaps even more brutally than the existing Western-allied dictators? Observing the election of Hamas in the Gaza strip in 2006, TU’s Rebecca Knapp argued that the answer is no:
The grave implications of the Palestinian elections cannot be overlooked simply because those elections were democratic. The elections illustrate democracy’s harms–that is, the harms of a system that subordinates individual rights to majority whims. Democracy is a system of oppression: an Athenian majority can vote to put Socrates to death for his crime of teaching Athenian youths to think. A German majority can elect a racist dictator who promises to purge the nation of Jews. An Afghani majority can sentence Christian convert Abdul Rahman to death, for rejecting Islam. An Iraqi majority can ratify a constitution that institutionalizes Islam as the standard for justice. Democracies can vote to silence free speech, to enslave minority populations, to murder political dissidents. Democracy is the end of freedom.
The political system that truly implements freedom is one that protects individual rights. America is such a system. America was founded, not as a democracy, but as a constitutional republic: a representative government that writes its laws in accordance with the life, liberty and property of its citizens, not public caprice.
For all the shallow praise heaped upon “democracy,” few today appreciate the point that unlimited majority rule is inconsistent with individual freedom. If people have the right to liberty, they do not have the right to vote their brothers (or themselves) into slavery. If the revolutionaries in the Middle East are to achieve a better life for themselves, they must realize, like the American revolutionaries, that simply casting off an oppressive government is not enough. In its place, they must establish a government dedicated to the rule of law and the protection of individual rights.
Image by Muhammad Ghafari, Giza, Egypt, Creative Commons licensed for Wikimedia Commons.