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Douglas Cohn: Egypt’s tyranny of majority led to counter-revolution

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WASHINGTON — In 1787, future President James Madison warned about the tyranny of the majority, and, in the process, laid the foundation for American democracy by providing constitutional safeguards that protected minority rights. But democracy without such guarantees is not democracy, as Egyptians have demonstrated.

The drama unfolding in Egypt with an ousted president, millions of people taking to the streets, and a powerful military stepping in has riveted television viewers. It was perhaps the only breaking news event that could compete for attention with the George Zimmerman trial unfolding in Sanford, Florida.

President Obama weighed in with a call for early elections in Egypt and a muted plea for the military to respect the democratically elected government. In the minds of many, including many Egyptians, the military is still the great savior. It stepped in on the side of the protestors when former President Hosni Mubarak was teetering and desperately trying to hold onto power, much as President Mohamed Morsi clung to his position.

The Egyptian people are suffering, their economy is in shambles, and there is widespread resistance and resentment of Morsi’s imposition of Islamic rules and traditions at the expense of the country’s secularists. The military appears to be the only stable institution in the country, so it has latitude to act when it chooses.

However, military rule, even if temporary, is not without cost. Think about it: If the military intervenes to “save” democracy, how much of a democracy does Egypt have? The answer is self-evident that the first democratically elected government in the country is so weak that the military felt free to challenge it with an ultimatum: shape up in 48 hours or the generals will step in with a plan of their own to restore order. And they did.

Prior to the Arab Spring, strong men ran most of the countries in the Middle East, and in Egypt, where Mubarak ruled, that served the U.S. interest. He kept the peace with Israel, and he kept down the extremists who wanted to push Islam into the government. The Arab Spring brought democratic impulses to the fore along with the religious fervor that Mubarak had repressed for so long. The election of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood was the result.

What we’re seeing now is a counter-revolution staged by many of the same people who were in the streets the first time. They protested Morsi’s autocratic rule and the heavy-handed way he cracked down on women’s rights and ignored minority rights. His refusal to step down in the face of such broad dissatisfaction with his government rested on the fact that he was duly elected in a free and fair election.

Traveling in Africa, President Obama was asked about the street protests that brought Morsi down. He said that an election is only the first step toward establishing a democracy, that a true democracy is inclusive, and protects minority rights. Obama didn’t say it, but this is what he meant: a theocracy by definition cannot be a democracy.

We have seen through these demonstrations that Egypt has a very large secular population, and they do not want to take orders from the Muslim Brotherhood. Whoever governs next, there are a few key principles that should be obvious from Morsi’s mishaps.

First, freedom of religion should also include freedom from religion. State imposed Islam in a country with strong secularist traditions is a recipe for disaster.

Second, a democracy founded on the rights of the majority must respect and protect the rights of minorities. By failing to do that, Morsi in effect invited the military to come in and do his job. By definition, a military-led government is not a democracy, but may yet be a step on the way depending on how enlightened the generals are, and so far they’ve acquitted themselves quite well.