…But Let’s Hope It’s a Proper Democracy

Even if the next Egyptian government is a product of the ballot box, it doesn’t mean it will be democratic.

Let’s assume the interim military government holds Egypt together and that a fair election takes place soon. People go to the polling booths, make their choice, and a government is elected. Job done, now pass the falafel, right? Wrong.

Elections are a means to an end, not the end in themselves, and sometimes they produce something which is very different to democracy. Hitler demonstrated this well, and maybe Egypt is about to provide another demonstration courtesy of the very friendly-sounding “Muslim Brotherhood”.

Democracy must mean the rule of law, which broadly means that everyone is equal in front of the law and that human rights are protected. Any government or state institution founded on non-secular lines, even on a partial basis, cannot be said to fully subscribe to the rule of law and cannot therefore be fully democratic. This includes the United Kingdom, by the way.

The privileged treatment of any religion by the State, or the composition of a State institution on a purely religious basis, discriminates by its very nature against those of other religions or of no religion. “What’s that, Muhammed, you want to be the next King of England? Sorry, that’s impossible. Why? Because you’re a Muslim.” Not very nice.

Rather than protecting human rights, religion is often the crucial motivating factor in trying to infringe them – whether it’s restricting freedom of speech, restricting freedom of religion, or good, old-fashioned discrimination.

One very good definition of Secularism is that it is a commitment, at least for the purposes of politics, law and the other crucial machinery of the State, to a common, bullshit-free language which does not require or even assume the acceptance of any religious claim (see third paragraph from bottom), and this is simply incompatible with the ultimate logic of any religious argument – be it Muslim, Christian or any cheap or expensive imitation of these. That logic is essentially a vast, muddled soup containing equal parts nonsense and non-logic reduced to the following sticky paste:

  • [Insert name of deity/deities/holy text/fictional character/historical figure] says it.
  • We believe it.
  • That settles it.

Throw into the equation the Muslim Brotherhood’s history of violence and it all starts looking pretty undemocratic. So what should the world do? Nothing, I reckon.

When they took to the streets, I believe the Egyptians were seeking freedom – genuine freedom, in all its forms – and not just the right to hold an election. I am not usually an optimist but I don’t believe the Egyptians are interested in trading one lack of freedom (a dictatorship) for another (a theocracy). Part of the rationale for my confidence is that there was not a very noticeable religious rhetoric to the protests.

What has happened in Egypt and Tunisia really does have the potential to be something huge, and outside governments need to just let things run their course. That seems to be their strategy now, at least in public. Even the hint of meddling might be enough to deter other countries from embarking on their own brave missions, and it would provide very easy propaganda for the Muslim Brotherhood and their ilk.

It is possible that Egypt might not be completely secular after its elections (so at least we’ll have something in common with them). That’s not ideal, but if the Egyptians can call time on an oaf like Mubarak, they can probably send a bunch of Koran-waving mullahs packing when they get ideas above their station. And although it’s tempting to say in response to that, “Iran ’79”, those events are virtually irrelevant now, being ancient history in real terms. The Iranian people did not have the means or the technology to organise themselves like the Egyptians today and it was easy for the State to retain absolute control of population and information. That’s all fundamentally changed.

Ultimately, the risks of an interim non-secular period have to be carefully weighed against the risks of meddling. The upside of not meddling is that it sends a clear statement to the other people in the region: “We will let you determine your own futures. Now go and raise hell.”

Hopefully, in time, the Egyptians will conclude that a secular State represents their best shot at genuine freedom. And that a secular State is not anti-religious, it is anti-theocratic. And that a secular State loves religious freedom but loathes religious privilege. And that a secular State also provides something which is painfully absent, by and large, from the politics of that part of our precious planet: freedom from religion.