Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, though duly elected, quickly became a dictator who tried to turn his country into an Islamist theocracy. Egyptians rebelled. As Americans, we believe that people have the right to abolish a government that takes away their rights. It says so explicitly in our Declaration of Independence. Considered in this light, the Egyptian military was right to overthrow the president.
We feel highly ambivalent, though. A coup d’état does not seem very democratic. And we have always been taught that democracy is the very foundation of our liberty.
But our teachers were wrong. Democracy is a process, not a principle.
In a country that has a tradition of the rule of law and respect for individual rights, democracy is likely to ensure the continuation of a free society. In countries that do not have such traditions, democracy offers no guarantee that things will end well. This was Edmund Burke’s thesis 200 years ago, and it is still valid today.
The American Revolution worked out pretty well, at least for white people. The French Revolution ushered in a bloody reign of terror. The Russian Revolution led to ghastly repression and the death of millions. The German Reichstag voted Hitler into power and he was immensely popular with his political base. On the other hand, a military dictator, Douglas MacArthur, gave Japan the constitution that made it a free country. It’s hard to find a positive correlation here between democracy and freedom.
The implications are ominous. When we actively promote democracy above all other considerations for all nations in all circumstances, we put the cart before the horse and we almost certainly will continue to be surprised by very unhappy outcomes.