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Response from Alan E. Brownstein

Discussion Question: Religious Undertones in Egyptian Protests?

Over the past decade, Egyptian Copts have fallen victim to increasing discrimination and persecution, most recently with the January 1 suicide church bombing that killed at least 21 people and injured dozens more. Do the current anti-government demonstrations in Cairo have religious undertones?

I do not know enough about the history or demography of Egypt or the current political situation in that country to provide an answer to the specific question. As a general matter, however, there are some reasons to be concerned whenever there is a dramatic overthrow of a political regime – even when an authoritarian regime is challenged by an opposition movement demanding a greater commitment to democracy.

The sudden displacement of an authoritarian government by pro-democracy forces raises two immediate concerns. First, such revolutions, even if they are largely non-violent in their character, are likely to be followed by a period of political instability and economic dislocation. Creating democratic institutions and restoring the production and distribution of goods and services may take considerable time. Further, if one of the conditions that led to political change is widespread economic adversity and poverty in a country, a new regime may have little to offer toward immediate amelioration of those conditions.

In times of unrest, instability, and economic dislocation, there is always a risk that the interests and rights of minorities, defined by religion, race or ethnic community, will be placed in jeopardy. When people lack basic necessities and are fearful and angry, they are less likely to be sensitive to the needs of minority members of their community who they perceive to be different. In the worst case scenario, minority groups may be blamed for the difficulties the majority experiences in achieving its economic and political goals.

Second, when an authoritarian regime is challenged for ignoring the interests of the majority, the focus of the opposition on majority rule and democratic decision making may result in too little attention being paid to legitimate reasons to curtail majoritarian prerogatives. The response to a government that continually ignores the majority may be the creation of a government that serves the majority without regard to minority rights. In a society that is committed to religious liberty and other fundamental rights, there must be clear understanding of intrinsic limits on the power of the majority. The most common justification for the abridgment of fundamental rights in a democracy is the argument that the exercise of the right is inconsistent with the will of the majority.

This does not mean that Americans should oppose attempts to make the governments of other countries more democratic. That is often clearly wrong. But it does require us to recognize that the protection of religious freedom and minority rights can never be taken for granted. Freedom is a precarious and expensive political good. Ultimately, we can only move forward fully cognizant of the dangers inherent in doing so. As Justice Holmes wrote in his dissenting opinion in Abrams v. United States, our commitment to a constitutional democracy that protects fundamental freedoms "is an experiment, as all life is an experiment. Every year if not every day we have to wager our salvation upon some prophecy based upon imperfect knowledge."

Photo of Alan E. Brownstein

Author: Alan E. Brownstein

Alan E. Brownstein, a nationally recognized Constitutional Law scholar, teaches Constitutional Law, Law and Religion, and Torts at UC Davis School of Law. While the primary focus of his scholarship relates to church-state issues and free exercise and establishment clause doctrine, he has also written extensively on freedom of speech, privacy and autonomy rights, and other constitutional law subjects. His articles have been published in numerous academic journals, including the Stanford Law ReviewCornell Law Review,UCLA Law Review and ConstitutionalCommentary. In 2008, Liberty was privileged to recognize Professor Brownstein for his passion and dedication to religious freedom at its annual Religious Liberty Dinner in Washington, D.C.

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