Democracy is not killing the Copts | Freedom House

Democracy is not killing the Copts

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In an October 15 opinion piece in the New York Times, provocatively titled “Democracy’s Collateral Damage,” Ross Douthat makes a series of arguments and observations about ethnicity, democracy, and stability. While they touch on a legitimate scholarly debate about the difficulty of establishing new democracies in multiethnic countries, they also seem to posit dubious cause-and-effect relationships and assign blame where it is clearly not due. Because these arguments sometimes contradict one another, they are best addressed one or two at a time.

Opening the article, Douthat warns that Egypt’s Coptic Christian community “may not survive the Arab Spring.” He places the Egyptian case within a broader pattern in which “any sort of popular sovereignty” in the Middle East “has tended to unleash the furies and drive minorities into exile,” noting that “the Arab world’s Christian enclaves have been shrinking since decolonization.”

Obviously, none of the postcolonial dictatorships in the region were democracies. Nor was Egypt under Hosni Mubarak, nor is Egypt today, with its unreformed military junta. The problems these Christian minorities have sought to escape do not stem from a surfeit of democracy or “popular sovereignty” so much as from authoritarian rule, which systematically destroys moderate political forces and civil society, regularly exploits political extremism as both a crutch and a foil, and steadily replaces the rule of law with the arbitrary use of force. There is nothing to protect the rights of minorities—or anyone’s rights, really—in such a system. It is noteworthy that many of these Arab Christians, and Arab migrants in general, have sought refuge in democratic countries where they remain very much in the minority.

The author goes on to expand his argument to “the modern world as a whole.” He says that “the age of globalization has also been an age of unprecedented religious and racial sorting—sometimes by choice, more often at gunpoint. Indeed, the causes of democracy and international peace have often been intimately tied to ethnic cleansing: both have gained ground not in spite of mass migrations and mass murders, but because of them.”

Setting aside the question of whether forced migration really exceeds voluntary migration, and whether globalization is leading to increased homogeneity, how many of these places—from which people are being made to flee at gunpoint—are actually democracies? That is to say, how is this phenomenon tied to the initial assertion that more “popular sovereignty” leads to more homogeneity by ethnic cleansing? The latter part of the passage seems to turn that assertion on its head, stating that democracy is a result rather than the cause of ethnic cleansing.

Douthat continues: “With the partial exception of immigrant societies like the United States, mass democracy seems to depend on ethno-religious solidarity in a way that older forms of government did not.”

A very large percentage of all democracies, including most of those in the Americas, arguably fall into the category of “immigrant societies.” But even in Europe, waves of migrants have arrived in recent decades despite a rising degree of xenophobia, partly because they are confident that these countries’ democratic institutions will protect them from any hostility. Moreover, it is a historical fact that predemocratic dynastic regimes—such as tsarist Russia, imperial Germany, and royalist Spain—relied heavily on ideologies of “ethno-religious solidarity” to maintain power (as do monarchies like Saudi Arabia today), which explains why xenophobic groups in Europe often reach back to these “older forms of government” for inspiration.

More on Europe: “Europe’s long peace is an extraordinary achievement—but was it worth the wars and genocides and forced migrations that made it possible?”

According to this reasoning, Germany achieved democracy and peace with its neighbors in the second half of the 20th century because of—not in spite of—the atrocities of World War II. But was the turmoil caused by the mere existence of minority populations, or by the aggressive, antidemocratic systems to which they fell victim? And again, one is hard pressed to harmonize this argument—that ethnic cleansing is a precondition for democracy and peace—with the initial, opposite idea that more democracy leads to more ethnic cleansing.

And on other regions: “The developing world’s worst outbreaks of ethno-religious violence … are often associated with transitions from dictatorships or monarchies to some sort of popular rule. And from Kashmir to the West Bank, Kurdistan to Congo, the globe’s enduring trouble spots are usually places where ethno-religious communities and political borders can’t be made to line up.”

These borderlands are all distinguished by the presence of a nondemocratic government on at least one side. There are many borders separating democracies (for example, those surrounding Hungary or Switzerland) that fail to match ethnic settlement and are nevertheless free of guerrilla armies. And if the end of dictatorship has led to ethnic violence in many places, it is properly viewed as the direct consequence of authoritarian misrule rather than an attribute or precursor of any democracy that eventually emerges. Indeed, the unique tendency of authoritarian states to break down in this way is an indication of their utility as governance systems.

Far from aiding the subsequent development of democracy, ethnic carnage in the wake of authoritarian regime collapse makes it all the more difficult to establish a peaceful, just, and democratic society. Nevertheless, many countries have succeeded in doing so. Similarly, a patient may achieve better health if he mends his ways after a heart attack, but a heart attack is not a precondition for good health. Fortunately for the Copts and their countrymen, there is still time for Egypt to create protective democratic institutions and avoid the worst possible consequences of its authoritarian legacy.



Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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