Lawrence Solomon: Hold off democracy

(February 12, 2011)  Egypt has taken great strides towards modernization compared to other Arab countries, but is it ready for Western style democracy?  Not yet, argues Urban Renaissance Institute executive director Lawrence Solomon.

The dangers of Sharia loom over Egypt’s future

Mubarak is deposed, to the general delight of Westerners who watched for 18 days as Cairo’s democracy protesters challenged his regime. The Westerners are wrong, however, both in thinking the protesters can achieve any good through democracy anytime soon, and in thinking of democracy as inherently desirable.

Democracy is not an end in itself but a means to an end. In Western countries, the end we seek is most famously stated as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” a phrase in the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Other Western societies seek similar ends — the French tout liberté, égalité, fraternité, Australians life, liberty, and prosperity, Canadians life, liberty, and security of the person. Our Western system of democracy is merely the most effective system of governance devised to date to allow us to achieve our ends.

In Egypt, the ends that democracy would bring are more likely death, submission and the pursuit of jihad, as defined by the country’s Muslim Brotherhood. “The Koran is our constitution, the Jihad is our way, and the Death for Allah is our most exalted wish,” it proclaims. The word Islam does mean “submission.”

Most Egyptians — three-quarters of its overwhelmingly Muslim population, public opinion polls say — want “strict imposition of Sharia law” and a larger proportion wants policies that most in the West would view as human rights abuses — 82% would stone adulterers and 84% want the death penalty for Muslims who leave their faith.

While most of the urban generation in Cairo’s Tahrir Square desires a modern Egyptian state of some kind, the Egyptian majority does not: 91% of Muslims want to keep “Western values out of Islamic countries.” For the vast majority outside the main cities, the outrages perpetrated by Mubarak lie mostly in his suppression of Islamic fundamentalist values, such as his ban on female genital mutilation and his moves to phase out polygamy and child brides. Most Muslim Egyptians not only oppose a modern Egyptian state, they would dismantle the existing Egyptian state, two-thirds wanting instead “to unify all Islamic countries into a single Islamic state or caliphate.”

Westerners who adhere to the separation of Church and State and to the ends of the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights — “life, liberty, and security of person” — would be undermining their own goals by enabling a premature democratic rule in Egypt. Democracy and Islamic fundamentalism cannot coexist — one places sovereignty in the people, the other in Allah. U.S. President Barack Obama’s push to bring the Muslim Brotherhood into a future government has it exactly backwards. The forward-going approach would be the one that had been followed by the Mubarak regime, and that is followed by Western countries — a ban on extremist parties that are inherently undemocratic.

Germany, which in the 1930s saw how quickly a minority Nazi party could parlay a power-sharing arrangement into absolute power, learned its lesson well after the Second World War. Germany now bans the Nazis and other parties that pose a threat to its democratic system. France, too, has banned a number of extremist groups such as the neo-fascist New Order and the far- left Action Directe. Spain banned the radical nationalist Basque parties, Belgians blocked the racist Flemish Bloc from political participation, Israel banned the racist Kach and Kahane Chai parties.

In any democratic structure attempted for Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood should be banned. Just last week, in thanking the Iranian government for its support in the opposition to the Mubarak regime, the Brotherhood expressed a desire to see in Egypt “a good government, like the Iranian government, and a good president like Mr. Ahmadinejad, who is very brave.” If the Brotherhood is not banned, and Egypt holds elections that allow an ardent Islamic populace to vote their preferences, the Brotherhood would soon hold power, and would make good its vow to bring in Sharia law, just as it did in neighbouring Gaza, which the Muslim Brotherhood offshoot, Hamas, controls.

But traditional Egypt need not forever prevail. A poll just released by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, taken between Feb. 5 and Feb. 8 of residents of Cairo and Alexandria, the two centres of protest, shows both how different the major cities are from the rest of the country, and how much hope there is for a modern Egypt in the future.

The protest was mostly driven by the economy, with 37% citing either “poor economic conditions” or “Unemployment/Job conditions.” Corruption came in next, at 22%, followed by “poor delivery of services like electricity and water” at 5%. The social causes touted by the Western media were all but non-existent: Just 3% cited “political repression/no democracy” and another 3% cited “abuses by security services/arrests/torture etc.” Neither are the populations in these urban centres motivated by fundamentalism. Only 4% complained of a “Regime not Islamic enough,” only 4% of a “Regime Too Connected to the U.S.,” and just 3% of a “Regime Too Supportive of Israel.” In a hypothetical election for president, one-third of the residents of these cities favoured either Mubarak (16%) or his vice-president, Omar Suleiman (17%), compared to 26% for Amr Musa, a prominent diplomat.

Mohammed ElBaradei, a diplomat endorsed by the Muslim Brotherhood, would receive just 3% of the vote.

Even in this urban population, democracy does not yet loom large. When asked what they hoped to see for Egypt in five year’s time, the top choice at 26% was a country “whose might and power is respected and feared throughout the Middle East and Africa.” Just 22% wanted an Egypt “widely praised as the first real democracy in the Arab world.”

Yet it is also easy to imagine a Western-style democracy in the future, following more of the urbanization and Westernization that Egypt has seen in recent decades. In addition to the 22% now democratically inclined, another 17% want Egypt to become “open and developed enough to welcome 20 million tourists from around the world.” Those tourists, and that development, would be a powerful force for change — if we don’t pre-empt it by forcing a crude democracy on Egypt before it has the opportunity to join the modern world.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute.

Financial Post, February 11, 2011.


About Lawrence Solomon

Lawrence Solomon is one of Canada's leading environmentalists. His book, The Conserver Solution (Doubleday) popularized the Conserver Society concept in the late 1970s and became the manual for those interested in incorporating environmental factors into economic life. An advisor to President Jimmy Carter's Task Force on the Global Environment (the Global 2000 Report) in the late 1970's, he has since been at the forefront of movements to reform foreign aid, stop nuclear power expansion and adopt toll roads. Mr. Solomon is a founder and managing director of Energy Probe Research Foundation and the executive director of its Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute divisions. He has been a columnist for The Globe and Mail, a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, the editor and publisher of the award-winning The Next City magazine, and the author or co-author of seven books, most recently The Deniers, a #1 environmental best-seller in both Canada and the U.S. .
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