Egypt and the Enduring Challenge of Democracy’s Pre-conditions

            New York Times columnist David Brooks earned a public and angry scolding (and worse) from Salon writer David Sirota this past week when he offered a column defending the recent removal from office by the military, with broad popular support, of Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi. As Brooks considered the reaction to this signal event, he drew a dichotomy between those who defined Egypt’s democracy in processual terms and those who instead emphasized substantive criteria. Brooks noted that individuals who describe democracy principally as free and fair elections in which a majority make clear their will have strongly condemned the military’s action, despite the fact that it arose from direct petition and the grassroots street protests of some 14-16 million Egyptians that took place over several days. Brooks argued that those who view democracy in substantive terms have tended to emphasize the culture of fanaticism of the Muslim Brotherhood from which Morsi emerged and have looked more kindly on the government change in consequence. Many of the Brotherhood’s members, Brooks noted, have apocalyptic perspectives and exhibit contempt for pluralistic secular democracy. As a result, he contended, as a group, they are unable to trust and mobilize diverse constituencies and therefore tended to centralize and arrogate power to themselves, and thereby undermined democracy, during Morsi’s tenure in office. Brooks went further to observe that this basic dearth of imaginative possibility to conceive of the requisites of democratic governance among Morsi and the Brotherhood, or what he dubbed the lack of even the “basic mental ingredients” necessary for democracy, suggests that achieving such a form of government will be difficult to obtain and sustain in Egypt in the near term.

            Overall, Brooks offered three basic points in his commentary. First, institutionalizing democracy in Egypt or any other nation requires far more than elections alone, however well conducted. This point is certainly not controversial among democratic theorists, but many who have condemned the recent popular and military revolt in Egypt have not acknowledged it and concentrated instead on the fact that Morsi was elected and then removed without a fresh election. In this regard, it is important to note that Egypt has historically never enjoyed democratic rule, so few citizens within the nation can say they understand deeply the habits of mind and heart (civic virtues) necessary in the population to sustain it. Second, the columnist suggested that militant Islamists (of which, he argued, Morsi and the Brotherhood should be seen as exemplars) simply do not possess a habit of mind or mental frame that supports pluralism of belief and perspective. This point is surely more difficult to sustain than that concerning elections, but Morsi had shown himself to be unwilling to listen to any but his own party’s views and to be willing to subvert the nation’s institutions and freedom and democracy (the courts and judicial review, arresting activists and concentrating power in his office) in pursuit of power for himself and his supporters, rather than taking account of the diverse needs and preferences of the nation’s population. Finally and relatedly, Brooks argued that Egypt’s citizenry more generally has still to develop the civic capacities necessary for long-lived self-governance, though for want of experience, rather than as a result of devotion to an ideology or perspective.

            In response to Brooks' commentary, Sirota labeled the columnist a bigot for advancing these contentions:

Since when did the New York Times get into the business of publishing old-school bigoted rants deriding whole populations and cultures as cognitively incapacitated?

            Following this introduction to his brief essay, Sirota maintained that Brooks had laid aside the nation’s long-time dictatorship and American complicity in it as factors in the nation’s situation and instead chose to impugn the Egyptian people and their culture. Brooks did not reach the specific question of the American role in Egypt’s evolution in his column, but likely would not gainsay its influence. In any case, the evidence in his essay suggests he had no intention to proclaim the racial inferiority of the Egyptian people. To denigrate Brooks personally rather than address the concerns he highlights is to miss the vital significance and relationship of social acculturation and beliefs to democratic civic capacities that he raises. One could certainly conclude, as Sirota himself did, that Morsi’s tenure was “disastrous” and not declare, as the Salon writer did, that exploring how that leader’s belief structure and philosophy shaped his rule, constitutes bigotry. It need not.

            Labeling Brooks a bigot for raising the questions of whether the Egyptian people yet possess an imaginary, or common shared perspectival values and beliefs frame, that can support democracy amidst a pluralistic population and whether the Brotherhood’s core views allowed it truly to support anything other than one-party rule, serves only to stop thoughtful conversation and dialogue. It also ignores a central question in Brooks’ column: namely, how can democracies, increasingly defined as they are as providing nearly unfettered capacity for choice-making claims for individuals, assure that their populations also develop an abiding belief in their shared community (however diverse) and the values necessary to sustain it? Democracy is neither created nor maintained by elections alone. Rather, it is preserved by populations dedicated to the freedom and possibility that it represents as a form of governance. In situations of heterogeneity particularly, it is both enduringly important and prudent to ask periodically whether and how a population can develop and maintain the ferocity of dedication necessary to the capacities vital to self-governance. The challenges implicit in doing so are both knotty and ultimately sociologic in character. Hurling epithets at the messenger offering that reminder, and thereby risking the possibility of ending dialogue altogether, will do nothing to attain the conditions required for Egyptian democracy to flourish.