What Makes Democracy — in Egypt and the U.S.?

Voting Rights Is Key Issue, From Cairo to South Carolina

Democracy for the People? A supporter of ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi demonstrates. What’s right and wrong is not always easy to assess, whether in the streets of Cairo or the halls of the Supreme Court.
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Democracy for the People? A supporter of ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi demonstrates. What’s right and wrong is not always easy to assess, whether in the streets of Cairo or the halls of the Supreme Court.

By J.J. Goldberg

Published July 15, 2013, issue of July 19, 2013.
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But he jailed opponents and stifled free speech. When the army toppled him in 2011, it was responding to nationwide demands to alter or abolish him. Besides, it promptly organized free and fair elections.

Except that it didn’t. Remember, Egyptians were arguing furiously that year over the elections’ timing. The earlier they happened, the bigger edge they’d give the previously banned, deeply undemocratic Muslim Brotherhood, which happened to be the only group around that was organized and ready. The Brotherhood wanted elections right away. Everyone else needed time to organize.

The army picked an early date, mostly to get out of the governing business and keep foreign aid flowing. As expected, the Brotherhood won. Equally predictably, it proceeded to draft an oppressive constitution, install fanatics in key positions and unleash attacks on Christians, Shi’ites and other minorities. Within a year the people were back on the street. And again the army removed the president.

Yes, it was a coup. But was a “duly elected” leader deposed? Not really. In a way, the voters didn’t have much more choice in the rushed 2012 balloting than they’d had under Mubarak’s famous one-man, one-vote (one man is running for your vote) elections.

It matters how we look at this. Others around the world are looking to see what we consider democratic. Islamist governments in Tunisia, Libya and Turkey want to know how far they can go in imposing their views on their people. Reports from Cairo indicate the army is about to repeat its mistake, rushing the elections to please our Congress.

It matters, too, because how we act in the world reflects the way we understand governance. What does it mean for a government to “secure” the people’s rights? When are “the people” entitled to “alter or abolish” a government? Which “people” do we mean?

Consider, for example, Michigan. The Republican legislature there passed a law late last year empowering the Republican governor to replace an elected local government with an “emergency manager” when he finds mismanagement — including a single missed pension-fund payment or even “probable financial stress.” This updates an earlier law overturned by referendum in 2012.

Since the law took effect in March, six municipalities and two school boards have been taken over, including Detroit. All of them are majority black. In fact, half the state’s black population is now under emergency management. Several are suing in federal court. Which side is the unjust government, and which side is altering or abolishing it?

In the end, it comes down to appearances. But there’s a way to tell the sides apart. In Cairo, for example, law enforcement wears snappy jackets and pants, whereas religious extremists wear robes down to their ankles. In Washington it’s the other way around. Sort of.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com

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