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Last chance for democracy
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Can democracy survive when voters choose a government that destroys democratic values and institutions? That's the critical question posed by the turmoil in Egypt, where the military has ousted President Mohammed Morsi and arrested many of his supporters.
There's no doubt Morsi and his Freedom and Justice Party took power legitimately, and they have actually won three elections -- for president, for parliament and for a new constitution.
There's also no doubt Morsi badly abused that power, rejecting judicial review, silencing critics, banning opposition parties and encouraging attacks on Egypt's Christian minority.
Reps. Ed Royce and Eliot Engel -- the top Republican and Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee -- made this point in a rare joint statement: "Real democracy requires inclusiveness, compromise, respect for human and minority rights and a commitment to the rule of law. Morsi and his inner circle did not embrace any of these principles and instead chose to consolidate power and rule by fiat."
It was encouraging to hear the military government outline a schedule for revising the constitution and holding new elections within six months. But it's clear that elections are no panacea. Democracy is not some magic word that will suddenly reconcile hostile tribes into a peaceable kingdom of regard and respect.
In fact, democracy is a highly complex and often misunderstood system. As the congressmen noted, the essence of the concept is not ensuring majority rule, but protecting minority rights. It cannot function well without institutions that check and balance elected power. Unfettered journalists who can criticize the government without fear of retribution.
Even more important is a spirit of tolerance and modesty: a common understanding that no party or faction has a monopoly on wisdom. Democracy requires a widely shared trust that elected officials will play by the rules, governing fairly when they win power and yielding peacefully when they lose.
On paper, Egypt had democratic institutions -- courts, parliaments, media outlets. They even had fair elections. What was profoundly lacking was that spirit of tolerance, a culture of compromise.
Some commentators look at Egypt and despair. As David Brooks lamented in The New York Times, "radical Islamists are incapable of running a modern government" because they "have absolutist, apocalyptic mindsets." As a result, "once in office they are always going to centralize power and undermine the democracy that elevated them."
Our own governmental system is more than 200 years old and still doesn't work very well much of the time. Nurturing a spirit of reconciliation in Egypt was made much more difficult by the military, which in a spasm of stupidity gunned down more than 50 protestors in the streets of Cairo.
Still, Egyptian democracy demands more time, patience and effort. Institutions have to be strengthened, rules have to be revised, and most important, trust and tolerance have to be encouraged.
Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at stevecokie@gmail.com.