The recent spate of commentary in media about the troubles in Egypt illustrates how widespread is the confusion among the "commentariat" class in the West witnessing the "breakdown" of democracy when an elected president was unceremoniously removed by the military.
There was a near unanimous disapproval and condemnation by Western commentators of the military in Egypt for the action it took in deposing Mohammad Morsi from power merely one year into his term in office. The indignant disapproval across political lines seemed to be an expression of disbelief on how the sanctity of democracy was so seriously breached by men in uniform. Democracy, without being qualified, has arisen to a near-sacred status, a sort of secular religion into which is invested all our best hopes -- and the thought that while unbelievers may question this belief, they must not be allowed to undermine it by their actions.
As Irving Babbitt (1865-1933) wrote in Democracy and Leadership, published in 1924, "In our recent crusade to make the world safe for democracy, it was currently assumed that democracy is the same as liberty and the opposite of imperialism." Ninety years later, the surprise is how relevant he remains in illuminating the confusion surrounding American efforts since 9/11 to help bring democracy into the Middle East.
Babbitt, in reference to the problem of democracy in the Arab-Muslim world, is a rewarding critic of the romanticism that has become embedded in the idea of even illiberal democracy, and how this romanticism helps to create a democracy that is mercurial, ill-tempered, unstable and contrary to what most people think when the subject of democracy is brought up.
Babbitt, a literary critic and political philosopher at Harvard, studied at Sorbonne in Paris, and as a realist was opposed to any form of romanticism such as utopianism, transcendentalism, radicalism, or revolution-for-the-sake-of-revolution against the moderation and order that have characterized conservatism in politics.
Babbitt was an admirer of Burke and a fierce critic of Rousseau. Since at least the end of the Cold War, in thinking of democracy as a panacea for all our political and social ills, we seem, at our peril, to have forgotten both of these philosophers. Instead, we have come to romanticize the idea of democracy -- but without making distinctions -- as the magic key that holds the answer to all the problems of the conflict-ridden politics so prevalent among Arabs and Muslims at present time.
There also seems to be a confusion that surrounds the idea of democracy. As set forth by C.B. Macpherson, a Canadian political theorist, in his pamphlet, The Real World of Democracy, "There is a good deal of muddle about democracy." He then goes on to explain how for most of history, since the first experiment in democracy in ancient Greece, the idea of democracy was looked upon as a bad idea: "That was the position taken by pretty nearly all men of intelligence, from the earliest historical times down to about a hundred years ago. Then, within fifty years, democracy became a good thing. Its full acceptance into the ranks of respectability was apparent by the time of the First World War, a war which the Western allied leaders could proclaim was fought to make the world safe for democracy."
Both Macpherson and Babbitt shared a non-romantic, historically inclined, view of democracy, and an equally non-romantic, realist understanding of demos, the people, and their inherent character that makes it easy for demagogues and tyrants to manipulate them in times of difficulty. Democracy, after all, is about people and power, and their relationship to it. Both the good and bad about democracy are inseparable from what people think about it, or their experience with it, their cultural predisposition when they go about demanding it be given to them, or how they practice it.
The debate over democracy among people with little experience of it in their lifetime, or any memory of it to be excavated from their history, is bound to become misinformed. In such a circumstance, as in Egypt lately, the cry for democracy has been a slogan for heralding a revolution against dictatorship, and for authority to be vested in the people. It is at this stage of the upheaval, which can be prolonged, that the idea of democracy is endangered by the romanticism of Rousseau's "general will." Once a dictator has been overthrown, a general election becomes the vehicle by which the people express their will, elect a leader and invest in him their trust to lead them to the promised land. But the newly elected leader, as representative of the "general will" of the people, might be tempted to act as a revolutionary in a situation that is fluid, crisis-ridden, and in which the constitutional checks on power are either non-existent or so recently drafted that the ink on paper has not yet dried, allowing him to grab power exceeding his reach -- an act that divides the people and fractures the "general will."
The "general will" that Rousseau derived from his theory in Social Contract sets up the people as sovereign; the "general will," as the expression of the people, cannot err, and no individual as party to it can remove himself from its commands, just as no part or limb of that individual can remove itself from his body if in disagreement with what he decides. According to Babbitt, Rousseau did not merely transfer to the people "the doctrine that the king can do no wrong. But he does more than that. The king, if not responsible to what is below him, is at least responsible to what is above him -- to God. But the sovereign people are responsible to no one. It is God." Rousseau's "general will" is absolute and indivisible; it is potentially totalitarian, and there is no appeal against it.
Rousseau also wrote, in Social Contract, "there is no government so liable to civil war and internecine strife as is democracy or popular government." In other words, the "general will" as expression of the people rides upon the unending waves of change and revolution in society that accompany democracy. Or as Babbitt pointed out, Rousseau achieved "the paradox of basing government on permanent revolution." But permanent revolution can become indistinguishable from permanent terror.
Democratic romanticism of Rousseau's type was ushered into France with the Revolution of 1789 against a monarchy detested by the growing population of the third estate, or the common people, for being the cause of their misery. The revolution opened a prolonged period of unrest and agitation, then brought about the Reign of Terror and culminated in the military coup led by Napoleon Bonaparte against those in power. The people cheered the usurper as the "general will" incarnate, embraced the despotism of a "low-breed" charismatic adventurer even as they had cast aside a monarchy, and willingly followed Napoleon's drum-beat across Europe until he was exhausted and beaten by his misadventure in Russia.
The idea of the "general will" is seductive and hugely problematic. It turns democracy from means to ends. It makes the elected leader representative of the undifferentiated will of the people -- called, by others, "mob rule" -- empowers him to remedy their social ills and historical grievances; address their lack of freedom and dignity, and respond to their moral outrage against injustice inherent in a system against which they have revolted. All of this is a tall order.
As the idea of freedom is even more alien than the idea of democracy among Arabs and Muslims, the introduction of democracy into their underdeveloped societies is fated to be of the Rousseau-type. Without the ground for democracy prepared well in advance by a culture of freedom, individual liberties and equal justice under law, the sort of democracy known in the West as "liberal democracy" will not sprout in Egypt or elsewhere in the region. What we should have learned and not forgotten, Macpherson pointed out more than a generation ago: "The liberal democracies that we know," he wrote, "were liberal first and democratic later. To put it another way, before democracy in the Western world, there came the society and the politics of choice, the society and politics of competition, the society and politics of the market." To this list, we might add, there needs to be the society and politics of the recognition of "the Other" as part of our common humanity, of tolerance and acceptance of "the Other" as an equal member in society irrespective of differences in faith or ethnicity.
Although both liberal democracy and the Rousseau type of democracy share in common the democratic ideal of the equal dignity and freedom of people as a moral principle, their difference in how this is achieved sets them apart. In liberal democracy, freedom as the norm and the goal, precedes democracy as the means by which people agree to abide by a rule of law in society. A culture of freedom prepares and arms the people to establish democracy based on constitutional arrangements, instead of the ambiguous and dangerous notion of the "general will." But it is well worth recalling here Aristotle's warning: "The best laws will be of no avail unless the young are trained by habit and education in the spirit of the constitution." And for a people raised in a culture of freedom, the words of Pericles from ancient Athens, as reported by Thucydides in his History, echo their own deeply held belief that "people do not want a good government under which they themselves are slaves; they want to be free and to rule."
The danger of tyranny lurks inside the Rousseau-type democracy because of the imperative embedded in the "general will" to combine freedom with equality. And whenever the attempt is made to bring this about, as it was in the French Revolution, force is applied and terror is unleashed.
"This triumph of force," Babbitt observed, "can be shown to be the total outcome of liberty, equality and fraternity in the Rousseauistic sense." He then summed up as follows, "The only brotherhood the Jacobinal leaders had succeeded in founding was, as Taine puts it, a brotherhood of Cains."
The brotherhood of Cains is the fraternity that the Muslim Brotherhood, wherever it gains power, also seeks to impose. For the leaders of the MB the Rousseau type of democracy fits their ambition; the "general will" about which Rousseau theorized can be easily adapted by them to impose their totalitarian scheme upon society. It is an article of faith for the MB fraternity that it alone understands God's message, the Qur'an, and that this empowers it to demand of all Muslims submission [Islam] to its leadership. As God's sovereignty is absolute and indivisible, the MB in representing the will of Allah and Allah's message with the mandate of the "general will," emerges as the Absolute that can do no wrong. Those who then oppose, in whole or in part, the MB's doctrinaire scheme can then be dealt with as harshly as the Jacobins in revolutionary France dealt with their opposition.
The political situation that emerged in Egypt following the overthrow of its former president, Hosni Mubarak, as the long-detested dictator, was made-to-order for the MB. It rode the popular will for change and democracy as if its more theoretically inclined leaders had read Rousseau: it harnessed the "general will" for its purpose, and then, with the election of Morsi, took hold of its presidential political power as the mandate to transform Egypt along the lines of MB's doctrinaire blueprint. In this respect the overreach of Morsi and the MB was predictable: they were both revolutionaries brought to power through the ballot box, and they were bent upon making their revolution permanent. But the mandate as the "general will" fractured, and the people showed they were divisible and unwilling to submit to the MB's doctrine on Islam and what would then follow from that.
Egypt is more or less a failed state, its economy barely held together from default or bankruptcy by the largesse of petrodollars from its Arab kin in the Gulf states. It is a society deeply divided by sectarianism, and class and political orientations, as well as tribal loyalties in which the military has evolved into the most powerful tribe in the country, and by a culture of grievance that teaches people to blame outsiders for their grief. A culture of freedom is practically non-existent, and dissent, especially on matters of faith, can be a fatal death wish on the part of anyone publicly questioning the ideology and practice of political Islam. It has been a stagnant society for so long, that for people conditioned by deprivation, the cry for democracy has a more immediate meaning even than the cry for bread.
The removal of Morsi by the military was, ironically, also a response to the "general will," unmistakably demonstrated by millions of Egyptians demonstrating scornfully against the incumbent in power. The military as the bulwark of the previous dictator had stood aside during the first iteration of the "general will" and had let Mubarak's regime collapse. If it was the right thing for the military to do -- not pushing back the people raging against Mubarak and in conceding to abide by their wish as an expression of democracy -- then the military was not mistaken to intervene on the side of more or less the same people and make a course correction in favor of people's democracy and their expressed will.
The muddle-headed confusion of Western, especially American, commentators opining on the unfolding drama of the Egyptian version of democracy reflects their mistaken assumption, as Babbitt wrote in 1924, that democracy is the same as liberty. It is obviously not, and for those who wish liberty for Egyptians so that they may work towards a better life for themselves, then they and the people in Egypt need to be wary of democracy of the Rousseau kind. For those who refuse to make distinctions between liberal and illiberal democracy, their indignation over the removal of Morsi might well be indicative of their preferred role: as another of Lenin's "useful idiots," cheer-leading another version of despotism as an expression of the people's will.