WASHINGTON — Former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi knows neither Thomas Jefferson’s advice that “great innovations should not be forced on slender majorities” nor the description of Martin Van Buren as a politician who “rowed to his object with muffled oars.” Having won just 52 percent of the vote, Morsi pursued his objective — putting Egypt irrevocably on a path away from secular politics and social modernity — noisily and imprudently.
It is difficult to welcome a military overthrow of democratic results. It is, however, more difficult to regret a prophylactic coup against the exploitation of democratic success to adopt measures inimical to the development of a democratic culture.
Tyranny comes in many flavors. Some are much worse than others because they are more comprehensive and potentially durable. The tyranny portended by Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood promised no separation of politics and religion, hence the impossibility of pluralism, and hostility to modernity that guaranteed economic incompetence. Theologized politics, wherein compromise is apostasy, points toward George Orwell’s vision of totalitarianism — “a boot stamping on a human face — forever.”
Military despotism might be merely for a while, although perhaps for quite a while: The 1952 Egyptian coup inaugurated six decades of military rule. Egypt’s military tyranny is preferable to Morsi’s because it is more mundane. Mussolini’s fascism, being Italian, was tyranny tempered by anarchy; Egyptian military tyranny has been tempered by corruption because the military is thoroughly entangled with Egypt’s economy. A famous description of Prussia — less a state with an army than an army with a state — fits Egypt, but greed might concentrate Egyptian military minds on the advantages of economic dynamism, which depends on liberalization.
What was optimistically and prematurely called the “Arab Spring” was centered in Tahrir Square in the capital of the most populous Arab nation. Western media, and hence Western publics, were mesmerized by young protesters wielding smartphones and coordinating through social media their uprising against the military dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. Smartphones are luxury goods in a nation in which about 40 percent of the population lives on no more than $2 a day. In the short term, meaning for the foreseeable future, Egypt’s best hope is for an authoritarianism amenable to amelioration.
Jeane Kirkpatrick came to Ronald Reagan’s attention partly because he was a constant and serious reader whose fare included Commentary magazine. In its November 1979 issue, Reagan found Kirkpatrick’s “Dictatorships & Double Standards.” His future ambassador to the United Nations made an argument that is pertinent to America’s deals with Egypt after the military coup:
Liberalism, the Carter administration’s animating impulse, adhered to a “modernization paradigm” which taught that the U.S. interest was always in modernization. This meant, liberals thought, that popular movements espousing revolutionary aspirations were inherently preferable to traditional autocracies.
This, said Kirkpatrick, “encourages support for all change that takes place in the name of ‘the people.’ ” However, the liberalization of an autocracy is, Kirkpatrick believed, although neither certain nor easy, still more likely than the reform of an ideologically revolutionary regime. This is because of “systemic differences between traditional and revolutionary autocracies that have a predictable effect on their degree of repressiveness. Generally speaking, traditional autocrats tolerate social inequities, brutality and poverty while revolutionary autocracies create them.”
An Islamist regime wielded by the Muslim Brotherhood would be revolutionary, aiming for the total subordination of society to administered doctrine. A democratic origin of such a regime will not mitigate its nature.
The U.S. Constitution bristles with the language of proscription: Congress, although the expression of popular sovereignty, “shall make no law” doing this and that. The purpose of such provisions, the Supreme Court has said, is to place certain things “beyond the reach of majorities.” Furthermore, the noblest career in the annals of democracy involved a principled recoil against democracy improperly elevated over all other values.
Abraham Lincoln rejected the argument of his rival Stephen Douglas, who favored “popular sovereignty in the territories.” Douglas thought slavery should expand wherever a majority favored it. Lincoln understood that unless majority rule is circumscribed by the superior claims of natural rights, majority rule is merely the doctrine of “might makes right” adapted to the age of mass participation in politics.
The idea that the strong have a right to unfettered rule if their strength is numerical is just the barbarism of “might makes right” prettified by initial adherence to democratic forms.
Egypt’s military despotism may be less dangerous than Morsi’s because it lacks what Morsi’s had, a democratic coloration, however superficial and evanescent.
George F. Will is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group.