Friday, February 11, 2011

Egypt: what kind of democracy?

Yesterday's New York Times op-ed page includes a piece by Essam El-Errian, a member of the Guidance Council of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, with the title "What the Muslim Brothers Want". It includes many reassuring (to those of us who want to see Egypt emerge from its crisis as a robust democracy) declarations: "we have persistently demanded liberation and democracy"; "the Muslim Brotherhood is committed to...reform and progress"; and, most significantly, "We aim to achieve reform and rights for all: not just for the Muslim Brotherhood, not just for Muslims, but for all Egyptians."

I don't question the sincerity of these declarations. I do pause, nevertheless, at this paragraph, which I think may reflect a misunderstanding:

As our nation heads toward liberty, however, we disagree with the claims that the only options in Egypt are a purely secular, liberal democracy or an authoritarian theocracy. Secular liberal democracy of the American and European variety, with its firm rejection of religion in public life, is not the exclusive model for a legitimate democracy.
I'm heartened by Mr. El-Errian's evident rejection of "authoritarian theocracy" (which I take to mean no imposition of Sharia as civil law); but I claim a misunderstanding because he characterizes American and European democracies as having strictly excluded religion from the public sphere. In America, religious references abound both in our governmental ceremonies (yes, nonbelievers and religious objectors--there are those--are given the opportunity to omit references to God or "affirm" rather than to "swear"), and, more importantly, in our political discourse. Our First Amendment prohibits the establishment of a particular religion, but in its succeeding clause guarantees the right to "free exercise" of religious beliefs. This point is also made in a letter, published in today's Times, by Regan McCarthy in response to Mr. El-Errian's column (see here).

European democracies offer even stronger counterexamples. Britain, for instance, still has an established church, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is formally appointed by the monarch, takes part in ceremonies of state. Nevertheless, adherents to faiths other than that of the Church of England are allowed to practice their religion, and no one, including nonbelievers, is excluded from public life, including the holding of office.

Also troubling to me is Mr. El-Errian's apparent rejection of "liberal" democracy. I'm sure what he means by "liberal" is not what that has come to mean in American political discourse, i.e. the belief that government should intervene in the economy to prevent abuses of private power and to maintain a strong social safety net, but rather the classic meaning, which is that the establishment and preservation of individual liberty should be the fundamental principle (for more discussion of this, see "Genghis Khan: the first liberal?").

In conclusion, despite Mr. El-Errian's encouraging words, I'm perplexed as to what role he proposes for religion in public life, and what scope he is willing to allow for individual freedom.

Update: Aljazeera English has just reported Mubarak's resignation.