Democracy and the Egyptian Coup

Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, Ilya Somin argues that “it isn’t inherently hypocritical for liberal democrats to – in some cases – support the overthrow of an elected government.”  The reason, Ilya writes, is

because democracy is not the only important liberal value, and not always the most important one. At the very least, the liberal tradition, broadly defined, also values individual freedom, equality for women, toleration of religious and ethnic minorities, economic progress, and the prevention of mass murder, slavery, and genocide. Most of the time, democracy promotes these other liberal values better than the available alternative regimes. But not always. Democracy and liberal values conflict in cases where public opinion is highly illiberal and cases where the democratic process brings to power parties that intend to shut down future political competition. Both problems are relevant to the present situation in Egypt and at least some other nations.

I agree with Ilya, but there is more going on here.  Democracy is a vague concept.  A single election can be thought of as democracy, but few thoughtful people would defend it as such.  Democracy, even if it is not necessarily liberal democracy, still requires a system whereby the people’s will is regularly consulted and done in a fair process.  Morsi instituted decrees that purported to be unreviewable by the courts.  Such absolute power is not the way to have democracy.  Morsi’s defenders have said little about this.

But there is another aspect of both democracy and consensual government, and that is compromise.  If a majority of the people or the legislature favors a policy, that does not necessarily mean it should be instituted, if a large minority strongly disapproves of it.  This is a tricky issue, but consensual government involves compromises and it appears Morsi was having none of it.

Finally, there is the important issue of enacting a constitution.  In my view, a constitution should be enacted through an inclusive, supermajoritarian process.  It should reflect the views of a large percentage of the country.  The U.S. Constitution did this, at least as to those who had the right to vote.  Much of the problem in Egypt appears to involve this matter.  A largely Islamist assembly was elected in a single election, which then appointed a largely Islamist constitutional assembly, which then sought to entrench its power.  Many of the opposition boycotted these proceedings, which further catalyzed the Islamists.  This is not the way to promote stability or constitutional order.