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Response from Charles M. Kester

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?

As I write this, the situation in Egypt is still developing. Whether Egypt’s change in government happens imminently or is delayed until the next election cycle, democracy is the watchword. As intoxicating as the vision of democracy may be, it does not necessarily bode well for minorities – including Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority.

The recent events in Egypt provide a good illustration of the difference between democracy and liberty. “Democracy” is merely rule by the majority. A majority may be just as oppressive or misguided as any single dictator or despot. This fact was not lost on the framers of the American constitution, who frequently refer to the tyranny of the majority with the more colorful and arguably more accurate description as the “violence” of the majority “faction.” Majority rule is just that. It does not necessarily result in liberty or tolerance.
Egypt’s next government may follow the example of Turkey and become a secular state. Or, it may follow other recent democratic exercises in the Middle East and become some version of an Islamic republic. The Muslim Brotherhood has been delegitimized under the Mubarak regime, and whether this was good policy or not, there is a valid historical argument that regime change in Egypt will likely result in a democratic veer towards a less tolerant regime.

This result may be acceptable to, or perhaps even desired by, the Egyptian populace. However, democracy is not the same thing as liberty. Popular sentiment has never been a good surrogate for tolerance, and Christianity, Islam and a host of other religions share responsibility for incitement and intolerance. A democratically-elected government may be as repressive as any other. In fact, democratically elected governments are uniquely positioned for oppression of minorities, given that they are legitimized by the vote of the majority. It was, at least in part, to counterbalance this tendency that the framers of the U.S. Constitution provided the Bill of Rights.

Those first ten amendments to our Constitution were added not to confirm majority rule, but precisely to the contrary – to protect minorities from the ill effects of unchecked majority rule. Our constitution has been described as an “inconvenience pact.” That is an apt description, and the rule of law, particularly when applied to limit governmental actions, is an inconvenient thing. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton described it nicely, we “must first enable the government to control the governed, and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” Governments (whether democratically elected or not) are not known for their self control. They require externally imposed limits. The “inconvenience pact” in our Bill of Rights is one good example, although I am under no illusion that American style constitutional democracy is either possible or desirable for Egypt. The Egyptians need their own “inconvenience pact.” Without it, the “convenient” thing is the tyranny of the majority.

Photo of Charles M. Kester

Author: Charles M. Kester

Managing Member, Kester Law Firm

Charles M. Kester is the managing member of the Kester Law Firm, with an active litigation practice in the areas of civil rights, labor and employment law, including religious discrimination and accommodation. He regularly appears before a wide range of state and federal agencies, as well as state and federal trial and appellate courts. Mr. Kester has published in legal journals and has lectured extensively on employment law issues in public and private employment. He is a member of numerous professional organizations and Bar Associations, including the National Employment Lawyers Association, and has served as an officer and Chair of the Labor and Employment Law Section of the Arkansas Bar Association. Mr. Kester served as lead trial and appellate counsel in Sturgill v. UPS, which was featured in the November/December 2006 and January/February 2009 editions of Liberty.

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