In light of the sickening violence now washing Egypt in blood, I am hearing a number of people — from the often brilliant Fouad Ajami to the not-so-much Peter Beinart — speak sternly of the military coup that overthrew democratically elected Islamist dictator Mohamed Morsi. In the Wall Street Journal, Ajami made the characteristically intelligent argument that the coup was not necessary because power was already divided among Morsi, the military, the police, and the judiciary. On Anderson Cooper’s 360 show on CNN, Beinart made the characteristically incoherent and simplistic accusation that those Americans who supported the coup were abandoning (I have to quote from memory here) America’s commitment to democracy, the rule of law, and minority rights.
No one can know whether Ajami is right or not. Would patience have served the Egyptians, as he says? Before he was overthrown, Morsi seemed to be moving to secure all power to himself. If the military had waited, it might have been too late to get rid of him.
Beinart, though, is inadvertently raising an issue that really should be addressed more often: the cry of “democracy” as an excuse for oppression.
Democracy is not magic. The “demo-“, remember, stands for people, who are deeply imperfect. Democracy is simply the best method we know of for preserving freedom. When accompanied by a simple and brilliant constitution that restricts government power, guarantees equality under the law, and protects minority rights, democracy has been proven to preserve freedom for, oh, yea about 232 years or so. But when it doesn’t do what it’s meant to do, guess what?
Democracy is no better than any other method of stomping on people.
We know for a fact that slavery existed in this country under democracy — indeed, the tragic fact is that a democratic U.S.A. could not have been created by our Founders without allowing the evil of colonial slavery to continue. And, of course, the internet’s favorite exemplar of evil, Adolf What’s-his-name, was democratically elected — and back then, Germans of good sense counseled the sort of patience Ajami talks about now. Adolf will be gone in the next election, they said. They didn’t realize they had democratically elected the end of democratic elections.
Islamism is a small, mean, violent, primitive, and destructive philosophy — it is simply another word for oppression. I do not see where electing an Islamist confers legitimacy on him of any kind. I do not see how American support of his rejection, even in a coup, represents an abandonment of our core principles. Was slavery legitimate when confirmed by election? Was Hitler? Did Brutus abandon the core principles of the Roman republic when he plunged the knife into imperial Caesar? Sometimes democracy fails. Sometimes other means are necessary to preserve true liberty. That’s a dangerous thing to say, but it is no less the truth.
What I see in Egypt today is a tragedy — a tragedy woven into the fabric of a nation with no good choices. I’m really sorry for the people there, I am. But I’m not sorry they tossed Morsi out.