February 16, 2011
'Change,' 'Democracy,' and 'Freedom' in EgyptBy Terry Heinrichs
Three little words, but they have played a big role in the rhetoric surrounding what is being billed by right and left alike as the "Egyptian democratic revolution." If things work out to the world's betterment, and Egypt becomes the democracy we want it to be, all well and good. Nevertheless, we better be careful not to let our hopes blind us to reality. We've been burned before.
Here's something we hear a lot of. This buzzword's been repeated with talismanic force since the Obama primary campaign kicked in... when was it, 2004? Or in his Kindergarten days? Having defeated "It's Inevitable" in the primaries, Obama managed to get elected in 2008 with nary a word about what he meant by "change" or the things in particular he thought needed changing, and with almost no one interested in finding out, much less asking either of these rather obvious questions.
The twofold strategy of the media not asking and Obama not saying was brilliant. It allowed him the freedom to float high above the petty details of policy choices and appear not only post-partisan but also world-historical. He was a "young man on a mission" not only to unseat the old guard who had gotten us into a war we tired of and who caused all our domestic economic woes but also as a force to change the world. The Big Owe went global; dumping on our friends, apologizing to our enemies, and bowing and scraping to our lessers -- a true citizen of the post-American world. Meanwhile, back home, people were so fed up with President Bush and so enamored of "change" that no one cared to ask any of the tough questions. Besides, Obama was black, and it would be unseemly if not racist to do so. "Trust me", he was saying, and we did -- always a mistake.
In Egypt a similar scenario is currently playing itself out. Mubarak blew town! All hail "change!" And while the military is in power now, we haven't a clue who or what (if anything or anyone) will replace it come September (or whenever) when (or if) elections occur, and we have no real idea what policies any regime replacing it will pursue with respect to the Middle East, America, or even its own people. Still, we're happy. "The tyrant has fled! The people are in the streets! World history is in the making! "It's a big advance for democracy and human rights around the world." What could go wrong? It's "democracy"!
Nothing, of course, if most everyone means the same thing by the term -- but they don't. "Democracy" is one of those feel-good but essentially contested concepts that mean different things to different people even as everyone applauds its good name. Indeed, the term is so elastic and so beloved that Stalin himself had the good sense to call his East European totalitarian satrapies "People's Democracies." These days about the only people who disparage democracy are those hard-core Islamists whose trust reposes in Allah not "The People." Just about everyone else embraces democracy even as (and sometimes precisely because) it carries no stable meaning.
To some people democracy means elections plus majority rule pure and simple. A democracy of this sort carries no minority or liberty guarantees and the majority is free to do whatever it can get away with. Others are satisfied with a "democracy" in which the first election is the also the last election -- at least of the two-party variety. These cynically use the term to gain support for their political ambitions but have no intention once in power to practice it. And why should they? They know what is good, and would love to have elections if everyone agreed with them and could be trusted to vote the right way, but they also know this level of agreement is not really possible today, so, for them, "democracy" means government for but not of or by the people.
In Egypt today "democracy" carries the same talismanic powers as "change." A solid majority (59%) say they support it, but few actually say what they take it to require. Indeed, saying so might render them less likely to obtain their goals. As with Obama on "change," why be specific when you don't have to and when doing so would possibly be to your detriment? Nevertheless, it's difficult to see how many of the beliefs held by Egyptians could square with any conception of democracy we might recognize. How, for example can we square the claim of 74% of Muslims that sharia should be strictly imposed with the Western democratic requirement of man-made law? And what type of democracy is it that, as 91% of Muslims agree, should not permit the presence of any Western values? But if Egyptians themselves are confused about the requirements of democracy, ignorance on the part of Western policy-makers about their confusion is certainly a recipe for a confused and disastrous Middle East policy.
When we in the West say "democracy," we think not just of majority rule but also of individual rights to freedom of speech, press, association, and religion as well as due process, equal protection and the like. Of course, not everyone's on side. There are those western Marxists, etc. who not only pay little or no obeisance to individual rights but think them antithetical to the type of collective power they envisage (and, of course, they're right about that), but these people are still, thankfully, marginal. The same cannot be said with any degree of certainty about those alleged "democrats" on the streets of Cairo. Until we can flesh out exactly what they think democracy entails, we act foolishly and contrary to our interests if we simply assume they hold views similar to our own. We've been burned by such assumptions before and should be careful not to repeat the mistake in Egypt. Mubarak may be no friend of democracy, but then he has no illusions about democracy or Egyptians either.
Freedom is another one of those talismanic terms that allow us to applaud when it is uttered even as we have no real clue what others mean by it. To most liberal democrats freedom carries individualistic connotations. We are "free" to the extent that we are not prevented by some force external to us (be it government, other individuals, or social groups) from doing as we wish. This doesn't mean that we are free to do anything at all as we also believe our liberty has limits. My liberty to move my arm doesn't permit me, as the saying goes, to put my knife in your back. The point is that the liberty we refer to is both individualistic and negative. We are deprived of liberty every time we are prevented by some external force from doing something we wish.
But this definition of freedom is not one shared universally. For many on the left, the idea that we are free to the extent we are not prevented from doing as we wish is a kind of "sham" freedom because "true" freedom requires that what we wish is what we should wish. On this view, we are never truly free unless we will to do what is right, and this is not something we always, or perhaps even often, do. And when we do not, we are in need of guidance from those who both know and do. This "true" or "real" freedom has been a favorite of many on the left from Rousseau through Marcuse to Obama's own regulatory Czar, Cass Sunstein. According to these folks, our existing preferences are often not "truly" our own but are simply products of an existing but "false" consciousness. Hence, we need not (and should not) worry if they are ignored or even overridden. After all, if we knew what was good for us, we wouldn't have them in the first place.
A second aspect of the kind of liberty favored by the left eschews any individualistic connotations altogether. On this reading, liberty is seen as "liberation" and the thing being liberated is the group not the individual. If "The Masses" are oppressed, then it's "The Masses" who need liberation. In this scenario the individual is buried in the group. And so what; it's the group that matters not the individual. All power to the Masses! We've heard something like this before, and the results weren't pleasing.
Here as well, we find people speaking about bringing "freedom" to Egypt with very little indication of the "freedom" to which they refer. Are they speaking about the individual freedom to do as one wishes irrespective of what others may think of the quality of ones choices? Or are they referring to "True Freedom" and the preferences, choices and thoughts one ought to have? Given that a healthy majority of the Egyptian population longs for "a strict application of sharia", it would seem to be the latter. But we might also question whether they are speaking about the individual at all or simply about the Egyptian "masses" who under Mubarak were in need of "liberation" from an oppressive tyrant?
To be sure, peoples oppressed by tyrants should be liberated, but the story shouldn't end there. The individual is not free if he or she is simply submerged in a "mass" as has occurred in the various communist and Iranian revolutions. Surely such should not be on offer for Egypt. It would render the entire movement for democratic reforms a failure. Thus we should be clear what those who use the term mean by "freedom" or we may find ourselves both surprised and confounded by the result. We should be clear as well in communicating our own views so that we don't end up as cheerleaders for those whose interests lie in promoting undefined and possibly illiberal conceptions of liberty.
Nor, given the attitudes and opinions of Egyptians does it look as if there is much to support our hopes. All countries carry some illiberal baggage but Egypt seems to have much more than its fair share. For example, a 2010 Pew poll found that 95% of Egyptians hold unfavorable attitudes towards Jews -- not a statistic that bodes well for Middle East peace. Moreover, 97% of married women are genitally mutilated and 82% still "support the practice." Then again, a survey of Muslim attitudes found that 54% believe men and women should be segregated at work; 82% believe adulterers should be stoned; 84% believe apostates should be killed; and 77% say thieves should "be flogged or have their hands cut off." Moreover, since 2006 the number of those who support fundamentalism over modernization has more than doubled to 59%, surely not a happy trend; while, as noted earlier, some 74% want the imposition of "a strict application of sharia," and a "mere" 91% want to "keep Western values out of Muslim countries." These statistics should not exactly encourage us to keep thinking Egyptians want what we have been saying they want, especially since Muslims constitute just fewer than 95% of Egypt's total population. On the other hand, we're told 59% support "democracy" but, then again, so did Lenin.
Of course, the polls could be wrong. Things might work out. The Middle East could be transformed. Egypt could become the democracy we want it to be. But before we work our hopes up to Obama's spending levels, we would do well to be a bit more skeptical. After all, our past track record in Iran, Gaza, and Cuba is not all that encouraging. We have nothing to lose by watching rather than cheerleading and perhaps a more peaceful world to gain.