by Michael Neumann

In the revolution of January 25 – February 11, the demands seemed clear. There was a cry for freedom and a cry for the fall of the old régime – Mubarak, his cronies, his party, and his allies in the security forces. There was no cry for democracy. Why spell it out? doesn’t democracy walk hand in hand with freedom? If you want freedom and the fall of the old régime, isn’t it obvious that democracy is your goal?

If these questions seem rhetorical, it’s because the world has sucked up a key tenet of American ideology: that democracy and political freedom are for all practical purposes the same thing. Not only the media but virtually the whole of political science and philosophy have piled obfuscation upon obfuscation to make this identification work. But for Egypt’s secular liberals it doesn’t work at all, and the aftermath of the revolution has made this brutally clear.

Democracy, obfuscation aside, is government by the people. Government by the people has, since at least the 17th Century, been understood as majority rule. So democracy – given a broad enough electorate – is majority rule. And everyone who speaks of democracy will tell you that real-world democracies ‘aren’t perfect’. There will be some voting irregularities, redistricting issues, violation of media advertising rules, some dirty tricks. This isn’t considered enough to invalidate a popular mandate. That would take something like imprisoning candidates, shutting down TV stations, massive voter fraud, widespread attacks on polls. Otherwise, getting a majority confers democratic legitimacy.

What then of freedom? It can be collective, or individual. Collective freedom is indeed embodied in democracy: it consists in a people running its own affairs. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood could claim to favor collective freedom. But this is not at all the sort of freedom associated with secular liberalism. Secular liberals believe in individual freedom. That normally means civil liberties, which protect individual thought and expression.

Contrary to American ideology, individual freedom is not democratic. It’s anti-democratic as its clearest advocate, John Stuart Mill, was well aware. It bears no relationship to collective freedom: a people running its own affairs may decide that individuals should have lots of freedom, or very little. People almost never speak of collective freedom as anything but democracy, and I’ll follow that practice. I’ll take ‘freedom’ to mean ‘individual freedom’, a reference to the rights enshrined in liberal values – freedom of speech and religion, for instance.

It turns out that in the January 25th revolution everyone was opposed to the old régime, but probably for different reasons. It looks like some wanted individual freedom and some, collective freedom. In the shorthand of contemporary politics: some wanted freedom, and others democracy. The ones who wanted freedom included intellectuals, middle class urban youth, non-conformists of various stamps, progressively-minded members of the élite who deplored what one observer called ‘the stalled society’. The ones who wanted democracy included the poor, who thought their own parties and elected representatives would be a lot less likely to shaft them. Of course the lines weren’t sharply drawn, but they were discernible.

The division emerged when elections brought Islamists to power, first in Parliament, then to the Presidency. The liberal secularists who wanted freedom rightly saw this as a threat. But their response suggests that they were (and still are) caught in the ‘freedom is democracy’ mindset. First they pretended the election was invalid because of minor irregularities. Then they were upset that Parliament, as was its right, stuffed the Constitutional Assembly with Islamists. There were other sources of liberal outrage, most notably Morsi’s assault on the judiciary. The liberals called this anti-democratic and then, dictatorial, an accusation which lost force when Morsi rescinded its most ‘dictatorial’ parts.

This accusation had little basis to start with. It was based on the seemingly democratic but actually anti-democratic belief that any institutions other than those created by the elections have some sort of political legitimacy. They didn’t and don’t. Democratic legitimacy comes only from popular will and is conferred only on elected representatives or the institutions they create. From a democratic standpoint, only the president and parliament had such legitimacy. Invoking the judiciary as a check on presidential or parliamentary power only makes sense if the judiciary is the product of democratic procedures within a framework of democratic institutions. Egypt’s judiciary is nothing of the kind. Morsi’s decrees usurped nothing. They simply made plain the political fact that the judiciary had no legitimate authority. Perhaps the judges were decent and right, perhaps Morsi is evil and wrong, but that didn’t make his actions the least bit undemocratic.

There is also nothing undemocratic about the disinclination of Parliament to give liberals a substantial say in the Constitutional Assembly. Elected representatives are supposed to follow what they judge to be in the best interests of the electorate, not to accommodate the views of all segments of the electorate. Democracy, to repeat, is nothing more than rule by the people. It’s ‘narrowly majoritarian’, to use the expression favored by those who want it to be something else. It doesn’t have to be good, just, inclusive, progressive or tolerant. Maybe the people, the majority, don’t want it to be.

The problem this raises for liberals doesn’t reduce to Mubarak redux. Perhaps they thought they were for freedom and democracy, but they have shown themselves to be against democracy because what they really want is freedom. Nothing unreasonable or unjustified about that: democracy, properly understood, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. But not admitting it, not even recognizing it, doesn’t seem to have served the liberals well. Their polemics are full of bogus claims about dictatorship, and, what is worse, pretenses that they are the innocent victims of violence rather than perpetrators as well. It’s not clear why this talk can be expected to expand their political base. Their allies of convenience have become the partisans of the old régime, without whom the liberals have no chance of overcoming democracy. They needn’t be told, though, to be careful of what they wish for.

What’s the alternative? To convince enough of the majority that liberals will do better by them than the Islamists. This probably doesn’t mean promising more civil liberties! It probably means demonstrating a real commitment to improving
the lives of the poor. In other words it means doing what brought the Islamists to power in the first place. There don’t seem to be any shortcuts to acquiring popular support, and allying with the felool has apparently made Morsi’s supporters even more distrustful of the liberals. Fighting for freedom in a democracy is no easier than doing so in a dictatorship -just different.