The engine of politics is chugging and sputtering as Egyptians prepare for their first post-revolution election. The outcome may not look like a western democracy, but the key is to keep the engine running.
Democracy is a factory. People go in one end – people with ideas, beliefs, prejudices, and certainties – and then all the processes for regulating human behavior come into play, from parliamentary procedure to debate etiquette, political jockeying to secret balloting. Out the other end emerges a modified amalgam that tries to balance fairness with principle, majority rule with minority rights.
These factories operate in every culture. Egypt's is the newest one, the one that seemed impossible to imagine less than a year ago. Egypt today is where an entire society is trying to make the machine of democracy work. It faces myriad problems. The military is the power behind the scenes. Does it really intend to yield to a civilian government? What are the intentions of the Muslim Brotherhood? Will the old Hosni Mubarak party try to regain power? Will the vast majority of Egyptians – culturally and religiously conservative as they are known to be – tolerate uncensored media, artistic expression, secular lifestyles, religious diversity, and all the other elements we associate with democratic societies?
Writing in The Political Quarterly, Amitai Etzioni, who directs the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies at George Washington University, sums up the Middle East moment this way: “[A]ssuming that the new regimes will be democratic – and not just nominally – can they also be religious? That is, Muslim? And if so, will they respect individual rights? And if not, what should be the position of the United States towards what ought to be called ‘illiberal democracies.’ ”
Perhaps the best way to look at Egypt is to look first, and realistically, at democracy. In each country it is different. Dr. Etzioni points out, for instance, that the great democratic hallmark of separation of church and state is followed in France and the US (though “In God We Trust” is on US currency, so ... ) but not as much in Britain, Germany, and other democracies. His point is that democrats need to be both pragmatic and principled when considering other cultures.