Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Perils of Democracy

Like you, I have watched the events in Egypt over the last month in awe. How a people can rise up and throw off its masters so suddenly is fascinating. For it to happen in Egypt, of all places, gives it special significance to students of the Old Testament. For it to arise out of - at least partially - the use of social media is truly amazing.

I have read and watched and listened as friends and media have applauded and praised. And I too, of course, have been thrilled to see ideals like self-rule and individualism take root.

But there is another side to this.

Whom will the people choose? True democracy is rule by the majority. Is rule by a majority of Egyptians what the world needs? Is it what Egypt needs?

Where is Egypt's Thomas Jefferson? Where are Egypt's Madison, Washington, Paine, Franklin, de Tocqueville?

American democracy was guided in its infancy by thinkers of care and intelligence. The riots and whiskey rebellions were far outnumbered by those who deliberately planned for what kind of government would replace the thrown-off kingdom. The cry of "no taxation without representation" presaged a carefully created representative structure. When Articles of Confederation were far too imperfect, the reaction was to call for a constitutional convention.

Is that what the Middle East will see? Will the Muslim Brotherhood and the National Democratic Party and Al Wasat and the many other rising factions come together in the name of liberty and peace?

For every scholar who believes that democracy is the antidote to terrorism because it allows the critic a safety valve of free speech and governmental participation instead of throwing bombs, there is another who believes that new fledgling democracies simply present tempting targets for the radicals.

We all remember Iran in the early 80s. Having deposed the Shah and his autocratic rule, a relatively (for that part of the world) advanced Iranian people fell under the rule of Ayatollahs and radical theocracy - ostensibly democratically chosen - that has devolved into what we see today in the frightening world of Ahmadinejad.

Asking where the Egyptian Jefferson and Adams are just scratches the surface. What about the moral leadership that democracy demands? I recognize the deism of Jefferson and historical questions about Washington's piety - it is not my point to say that all of our Founding Fathers were deeply Christian men. But, there clearly were a number of deeply Christian men involved in the process, and there were even more men of sturdy character - whether their "religion" was the same as mine or not - who shepherded the process. Is the same true in Egypt?

Now, of course, the spread goes beyond Egypt, as Bahrain and Libya and who knows where else the seed of democracy spreads. And that is a good thing.

But it is a good thing fraught with peril. As we cheer, we must keep our eye on what fills the vacuum. Democracy is demanding. Are the Egyptians ready to meet the demands?

1 comment:

sorel top said...

When I saw the title, I thought you might be referring to the Westboro church decision. That is certainly a "peril of democracy", or more fittingly, a "peril of free speech."