In 2011, soon after Mubarak fell, Egyptians conducted their first free election — a referendum on some constitutional amendments. If approved as the Brotherhood and the Salafists urged that they be, the amendments would allow free elections to go forward. The amendments preserved the old Sadat/Mubarak constitution’s sharia provisions. Democracy activists opposed the amendments: They wanted to write a new, more secular constitution from scratch. Furthermore, knowing they were a minority — despite the bravado of their rhetoric and the West’s wild inflation of their influence — they also wanted to avoid elections until they were in a stronger position to compete with the Islamic supremacists.
So there it was, all teed up: a test of strength in Egyptian society between Islamic supremacists and democratic reformers. In the referendum, barely covered in the West, the Islamic supremacists won by a whopping 78-to-22 percent. Subsequently, Islamic supremacists routed the democrats in the parliamentary elections by roughly the same margin. Later, Morsi was elected president.
Mind you, I am not suggesting that Morsi had nothing to do with the even more sharia-intensive constitution adopted during his aborted presidency. It would certainly be fair for Taheri to say that, with Morsi’s ardent support, the committee charged with writing a new constitution undertook to magnify its sharia-enforcement provisions. It would also be accurate to contend, as I contended at the time, that Morsi employed drastic, authoritarian measures to freeze out the courts that secular democrats were counting on to derail that committee’s work. It is simply wrong, however, to speak of a “Morsi constitution” as if he forced it on the country. Morsi submitted the sharia-enhanced constitution to a popular vote, and Egyptians overwhelmingly approved it.
The retention of sharia in the constitution cannot, as Taheri claims, be a much of a disappointment to Egypt’s democrats. They do not like it, of course, but it has been in the constitution for decades and it has very strong public support. Egyptians, though not monolithic, largely see themselves as sharia-adherent Muslims, not Western democrats. If something approximating Western democracy is ever to take root and thrive in Egypt, it will have to happen gradually and under benevolent military rule.
This is not to say the military is uniformly benevolent and pro-democracy. After all, it was Morsi who chose Egypt’s leading general, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, to command the armed forces, and he did so because of Sisi’s well-deserved reputation for harboring Brotherhood sympathies. But because democrats are so outnumbered, their only hope is a military that stabilizes the country (which would revolt if sharia were stripped from the constitution) and keeps the Islamic supremacists in check. We must not let our hopes cloud our judgment. Democratization in Egypt is a very uphill proposition.