Violent protests and a rising death toll across Egypt this week are tragic reminders that free and fair elections are no guarantee of a free and fair society.
Only one year ago, Mohammad Morsi won Egypt’s first free presidential election – giving him and his supporters an historic opportunity to move Egypt toward a truly democratic society.
Instead, Morsi moved to consolidate power in the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood, the organization he represents, alienating opposition parties and alarming religious minorities.
Of course, Egypt’s deepening economic crisis helped swell the ranks of protesters calling for an end to the Morsi regime.
But anger over Morsi’s increasingly authoritarian rule had been growing for months until it finally exploded in the streets, providing the military with the opportunity to remove Morsi from power on July 3.
One on the key lessons of the current crisis in Egypt is one familiar to students of past revolutions:
Democracy without safeguards for individual rights is a recipe for tyranny of the majority.
Lest we forget, opposition to the proposed American Constitution in 1787 was, in large measure, fueled by the absence of a bill of rights guaranteeing fundamental freedoms for every person.
Many Baptists and other minority Christian groups, for example, were fearful that the draft Constitution would not guard against government interference with the practice of their faith.
As religious dissenters from the formerly established church, they worried that without an explicit prohibition of state establishment of religion, a majority faith would one day impose itself on the country through the engine of government (a form of oppression many had experienced in Europe and some of the colonies).
Only by promising to add a bill of rights – including strong protections for religious freedom – were the Federalists able to win ratification of the Constitution in 1788.
By sharp contrast, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood drafted and pushed through a new Egyptian constitution as though a democratic election had empowered the majority to do whatever the majority desires – with little obligation to hear minority voices or protect minority rights.
From the outset, the Morsi government ensured that the Muslim Brotherhood would dominate the constitutional drafting assembly, ignoring the protests of other parties. So flawed and hasty was the drafting that non-Islamist members of the assembly withdrew from the process, calling into question the legitimacy of the new constitution.
As a result, religious freedom, free speech and other basic rights are either ignored or given lip service in the Egyptian Constitution ratified earlier this year.
“Islam is the religion of the state,” declares the Constitution, and Islamic law is the “principle source of legislation.” Although certain religions (Jews and Christians) are given limited freedom to practice their faith, other religions are afforded no real protection.
The Muslim Brotherhood may have won the vote. But for democracy to work in the best interests of all citizens, fundamental human rights must be protected from majority rule.
First among those rights is liberty of conscience, the freedom to practice one’s faith in a society where the government is prohibited from taking sides in religion.
A “democracy” where the government – including a popularly elected government – is empowered to violate religious liberty, freedom of expression and other basic rights, is a form of tyranny.
Despite the disturbing failures of the Morsi government to protect human rights, the cure for flawed or distorted democracy is more democracy – not a military coup.
Acting in the name of “the people” to deny minority rights and to impose religion is wrong and unjust. But overturning an elected government by military force in the name of “the people” is equally wrong and unjust.
If and when Egypt tries democracy again, the first step must be for all sides to agree on a strong bill of rights that limits the power of government to violate the inalienable rights that are the birthright of every human being.
As Thomas Jefferson famously wrote to James Madison:
“A bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth… and what no government should refuse.”