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Expert Comment: Turkey, Egypt and the democratic margin

Egypt protest Friday 5 July 2013

Dr Michael Holmes, Senior Lecturer in Politics, looks at the ongoing development of democracy in Turkey and Egypt.

The current political conflicts in Turkey, over the re-development of Gezi Park in Istanbul, and in Egypt, over the entire political system, highlight an issue at the heart of democracy. As these two countries develop their democracies, they have to make very awkward decisions about how far democracy should go.

Democracy is most easily thought of as rule by the majority, and we have all become used to the idea that elections are about finding that majority, who then have the right to rule – at least until the next election.  But there has always been the fear that simple majority rule can become mob rule – this was the basis of Plato’s argument that democracy descends into tyranny.

So we also automatically accept that it is not quite so simple. A majority does not have the right to do anything it wishes. For example: if 95% of the people are in favour of a particular course of action, surely that means the 5% should go along with it? Our basic sense of democracy says immediately, yes. But what if the course of action in question is that the 95% want to exterminate the 5%? Again, immediately our democratic instinct kicks in to say no, this is wrong.

So therefore democracy works with a ‘margin’ in which we accept that basic ‘majority rule’ does not apply. The problem lies in defining what ought to be included in this ‘democratic margin’. When it comes to issues such as protection of basic human rights, such as the right to life, freedom from torture and freedom of thought, usually there is no dispute that these rights should be protected.

But others are less widely accepted. For example, some democratic theorists argue that democracy goes hand-in-hand with capitalism, and therefore argue that it is legitimate to limit peoples’ freedom to influence economic policy. This could be argued to be at the heart of the political crisis arising out of the EU economic crisis. And the current revelations about US spying networks also raise this issue: to what extent should a democracy infringe its own peoples’ privacy?

This debate over what should and should not be regarded as part of the ‘democratic margin’ is at the heart of the current events in Turkey and Egypt. In both states, all sides are claiming democratic validity. Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan argues he has a democratic mandate, while the protesters claim they represent the people. Ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi was elected a year ago, but both street protesters and the army claim his actions are undermining democratic freedoms.

There is no right or wrong answer here. Each country is likely to find a slightly different balance in terms of their ‘democratic margin’, and indeed that balance can shift over time. But when addressing this problem, I always recall the words of the Czech playwright, anti-communist dissident and subsequently President, Vaclav Havel. His argument was that we should always judge a democracy on how well it treats its minorities, and that would be advice worth bearing in mind in both Turkey and Egypt.


Image: Egypt Uprising solidarity protest Melbourne 4 Feb 2011. Photo by Takver. Licensed under CC BY-ND

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