Will Democracy Solve Egypt’s Problems?

Conventional wisdom says that democracy is the answer to the world’s problems, and by implication, Egypt’s. That perspective misses a key modifier. Hitler came to power in a democratic election, and it is democratic, but clearly wrong, when a majority of the dominant ethnic group in a nation supresses another. Fareed Zakaria’s excellent book, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad argues that a crucial modifier is needed: We must seek liberal democracy that protects minorities from a tyranny of the majority.

Zakaria’s exhibit A is the American Bill of Rights, which contains a number of anti-democratic rules. Even if a majority of my fellow Americans wanted to jail me for something I said, the First Amendment prevents them from doing so. In the same way, the danger of Egypt becoming Act II of the Iranian drama would be diminished if we recognized the need to support liberal democracy, not unfettered democracy.

This distinction, and the chaos in Egypt, is directly relevant to this blog’s focus on Defusing the Nuclear Threat. While the revolution in Egypt currently might seem to have little to do with nuclear weapons, the same was true of the initial stages of the Iranian revolution. But over time, the situation in Iran, exacerbated by numerous errors by the West (e.g., supporting Saddam Hussein in his aggression against Iran, and overlooking his use of chemical weapons during that war), came to have direct relevance to the nuclear threat.

This is not to say that, should democracy come to Egypt, it will result in an Iranian-style theocratic police state with dangers to international nuclear stability. Democracy in Egypt might well take a totally different path. But, so long as we mistakenly voice support for the wrong goal, a negative outcome is more likely. All we need to do is add the L word.

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, for almost 30 years, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." Its soon to open website explains: https://anewmap.com.
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