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Democracy in the Arab world?

'Majority Rule' remains the best model for all nations, but only if protections for minorities are also guaranteed

Even when the Arab world was in deep winter, I was an early supporter of its spring. Inspired by a Jewish friend who fifteen years ago launched an organization called, “free the 400 million,” I gave lectures at the Oxford Union and wrote columns around the world calling for the end of dictatorships in Libya, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab despotisms. “Where is the Arab George Washington?,” one of the columns asked. How could hundreds of millions of people live without a freedom movement to liberate them? Why would they voluntarily submit to a thugocracy?

When the Arab spring eventually broke I was one of its most vocal champions. I even criticized the Israeli government for not coming out more forcefully for democratic reforms in Egypt and for implying that Hosni Mubarak was somehow a friend and ally when in reality he was a tyrant who ruled Egypt with an iron fist for three decades.

Throughout all this advocacy I was well aware that democracy was not a panacea for guaranteeing a country’s morality, that Hitler was democratically elected, as was Hamas. But I stood squarely by the speech given by a young Benjamin Netanyahu that I had organized in Oxford twenty years ago where he said that the secret to Middle East peace was Arab democratization.

And how do I feel now, when Muhammad Morsi in Egypt turned out to be a President who used his victory at the polls to curb democratic freedoms and press liberties? Or when democracy in Libya led to the murder of our Ambassador, or when the opposition in Syria certainly encompasses many radical Islamists who, if they defeat mass murderer Bashar al Assad, might institute sha’ariya law?

Here is my answer. I believe in democracy with all my heart and believe that it can and will, eventually, prevail over a nation’s failures. But democracy can only work if it is accompanied by a constitution with a Bill of Rights guaranteeing minority civil liberties. Democracy alone, without rights enshrined in a constitution, can be a dangerous tool in the hands of fanatics who would use populism to dismantle individual freedoms.

Hitler used his electoral victories to have himself voted Fuhrer, dictator for life. Hamas likewise used its electoral victory to dismantle democracy and Morsi was well on his way to doing the same. The people and its leaders can never be counted on to preserve and protect individual rights. That’s something that has to be ingrained within a nation’s constitution, as it is in ours. There must be a powerful judiciary that can overrule legislation and declare it unconstitutional, even if it is passed by a democracy. It is ultimately a constitution guaranteeing universal freedoms that can right an errant course set by a majority that seeks to trample on individual liberties.

Even here in the United States we witnessed the passing of the Alien and Sedition Act, under John Adams, that made it a crime to criticize the executive. We likewise witnessed the mass internment of Japanese during the Second World War, not to mention the much more egregious sins of Jim Crow and segregation that foully denied individual liberties. These wrongs were only put right – and in the case of segregation it took nearly a century after the end of slavery – because of a constitution that guaranteed individual liberties and a judiciary that had the power to force the executive to implement those rights. True, the same constitution enshrined slavery, which is why even constitutions need to be modified, as was ours with the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments, which abolished slavery, guaranteed due process and equal protections, and voting rights regardless of race or color. But imagine what our democracy would be like without our Bill of Rights. In many ways its too frightening to contemplate.

I’m beginning to wonder whether or not the United States should not be promulgating a universal Bill of Rights that we demand be accepted by nations that seek our help, as in Syria, that must first be adopted by the leadership of revolutionary movements prior to our agreeing to provide military or economic aid. Otherwise, much as I absolutely insist that Syria must be punished for gassing its own people – and it must and immediately – does it really make sense to support one tyranny to replace another?

I realize that in many ways this is impractical. Rebel leaders might adopt an American-imposed guarantee of democracy and a bill of rights, that they can later rescind. Also, they may not be the same leaders once the revolution is complete. But it makes a lot more sense that simply getting no guarantees as to future behavior. Likewise, the United States appears far too timid when it comes to imposing its will on countries that it has liberated with significant blood and treasure, as was the case when it did not insist that Iraq sign a peace treaty with Israel just as soon as its new government was established. While it is unethical to insist that countries liberated by the United States abide by a Pax Americana, as if were ancient Rome, there is nothing immoral about insisting that nations that we liberate live by a universal code of morality that demands, among others, rights for minorities, women, gays, freedom of the press, and freedom of worship. Oh, and a demand that a country like Iraq not indulge in Israel-bating and toxic anti-Semitism.

The alternative is for the United States to continue to send its young men and women to die in places like Afghanistan only to see corrupt dictators like Hamid Karzai – who viciously attacks our troops as murderers on a regular basis – be the beneficiaries of so much American sacrifice.

But one thing is for sure. I continue to believe that constitutional democracy is the only real hope for the earth’s inhabitants and that, difficult as it is to see, all humanity, deep in their hearts (and hopefully not too deep), yearn to be free.

About the Author
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the founder of This World: The Values Network. He is the author of Judaism for Everyone and 30 other books, including his most recent, Kosher Lust. Follow him on Twitter@RabbiShmuley.