Many in the west are interpreting the demonstrations in Egypt against Hosni Mubarak as populist expressions of “aspirations for a democratic future,” as a spokesman for British Prime Minister David Cameron put it. So too President Obama, who spoke of the “universal rights” of the Egyptian people, including peaceful assembly and free speech, that the demonstrators were exercising. Sounds good, but such statements simplify and distort the complex nature and historical progress of political freedom and the rights it guarantees.
Too often we speak of democracy as though it were a fact of nature that the ignorant or wicked refuse to recognize, or a boon like clean water or tractors that can be handed over to people in order to improve their lives. Such attitudes misunderstand what democracy is by confusing the machinery of government with the beliefs, habits, and ideals that the machinery serves to express and defend.
Universal suffrage, for example, is just political machinery. Every dictator and tyrant holds elections in which he usually wins over 90% of the vote. So too with parliaments, assemblies, congresses, law courts, and all the other institutions on which democracy depends for its functioning. They all are meaningless without the acceptance and belief in the underlying ideal they should serve. That ideal is political freedom: the rule by autonomous citizens from whose consent the state gains its legitimacy and power, and who run their collective lives on the basis of laws and principles rather than force or violence. These laws, moreover, protect the rights and freedom of individuals, not clans or sects or classes, who are equal because they are born with those rights.
Democracy, then, uses political machinery to establish and advance the will of the people. To do this, people have to be free publicly to speak their minds, deliberate, and debate on issues and aims. More important, individuals whose views lose out are still protected, their rights still sacrosanct in the public square. Hence the need for tolerance, meaning not the approval of ideas one dislikes, but acceptance of their right to express them, based on nothing other than the fact that the person is human and by definition possesses that right.
All these notions are historically anomalous, and human rights have not been “universal,” but rather untypical of the social orders in which the vast majority of humanity has lived. Democratic ideals had their origins in the city-states of ancient Greece, and then underwent a long, tortuous, centuries-long development through ancient Rome, Christian Europe, and the Enlightenment. Democratic freedom, in short, is an artifact of history, not a fact of nature, and as such is subject to change, decay, and destruction.
One reason for democracy’s vulnerability is that its ideals run counter to other aspects of human nature. Freedom, for example, at times is at odds with the human need for security and social order. The equality of citizens conflicts with obvious differences among people in terms of talents and character. Taking responsibility for one’s own actions and decisions can be burdensome, making it preferable for some to cede their autonomy to a powerful caretaker. And most important, the premier authority democracy grants to the people, even at the expense of religion, collides with the belief of millions that God is the ultimate authority than which none greater can be recognized.
This is not to say that some peoples are by nature unfit for democratic freedom. The desire to be free is indeed innate to human beings. It just means that “democratic aspirations” or the “universal hunger for freedom,” as Catholic theologian Michael Novak calls it, must compete with other goods and aims that are also part of human nature and that people desire just as fervently. Reconciling those competing goods requires acquiring certain political habits and virtues, a process that takes time and must unfold organically within a particular cultural context. Merely providing ballot boxes, voting booths, and constitutions will not create the political character democratic freedom requires.
As we look to the brewing revolution in Egypt, then, we really don’t know what “aspirations” the majority of the people hold. Perhaps some desire political freedom and liberal democracy as we understand those ideas. But many others, as the popularity of the Muslim Brothers shows, want democratic machinery in order to institute an Islamic Republic along the lines of Iran, one in which all those democratic ideals are discarded or subordinated to fidelity to Allah and the social-political order of shari’a law. The future of democratic freedom, then, in Egypt and elsewhere depends not on giving citizens the vote and fair elections. It depends on somehow convincing people that democratic freedom is, for all its risks, the one thing that can reconcile all their other aspirations and give them all scope for expression.