Winston Churchill once observed that “democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Today democracy is widely understood to be a normative good. A “good” that should be recommended to all states, including Muslim-majority countries. It is hypocritical, even offensive, to deny democracy to any group of people based on their faith, let alone those who belong to the second-largest religion in the world.

That said, few who recommend democracy in this region do so with the understanding that these emerging democracies, especially within the current cultural climate of the Middle East, will be illiberal. But while those in the West see democracy as a bulwark against minority repression, one can surmise that these proposed democracies will not improve the lot of any religious minorities or heterodox Muslims whose beliefs and life choices do not hew to the views of the majority. In fact, these democracies might make life significantly worse for those religious minorities.

Throughout much of the Middle East, none of the groups with a serious chance at electoral success support classical liberal values. They do not acknowledge the sanctity of the individual, freedom of expression, or the existence of natural rights that the collective cannot abridge. None offer a program of how to enshrine and protect these values in a legal framework that is both authentic and durable.

History has ingrained prejudices against religious minorities into the region’s culture. Electoral politics will not alter these views, will generally give voice to them, and in some cases will accentuate them for narrow political gains. Altering cultural attitudes, rather than merely political systems, is the only long term guarantee of the rights for both religious minorities and heterodox Muslims. These are not speculative observations or theoretical views, but are backed by historical experience, as we will discuss later.

Trials and Errors

Excluding those in Israel, religious minorities in the Middle East face a tenuous situation at best. As a share of the total population, they are a fifth of what they were at the end of the nineteenth century. Great trials were visited upon them by the majority throughout these years.

  • Turkey exterminated or ethnically cleansed a fifth of its population to create a coherent nation out of the Ottoman patchwork.
  • Jews in Arab countries were pushed out entirely after the state of Israel’s creation.
  • The Christians of Iraq are now a quarter of what they were in 2000. The US rid the country of its vicious dictator, Saddam Hussein, and a dysfunctional democracy took hold. The Christians were the first victims of this evolution, and the best hope for them is to maintain a small vestigial presence.
  • In Syria, Christians are forging whatever deal they can for survival under a parasitic and brutal regime.
  • Lebanon has had elections and forms of democracy for the past seven decades, but its Christian population, once dominant, now constitutes less than a third of the population. Although the country appears socially liberal, Lebanon remains a classic case of communal struggles outweighing any sense of a commonly shared citizenship, even after decades of democratic practice.
  • In absolute terms, the Copts of Egypt make up more than 60 percent of the total Middle Eastern Christian population. Their struggles and fortunes in the past century point to the limitations of democracy as a guarantee for freedom of worship or equal citizenship. The Copts embraced Egypt’s first democratic experiment from 1923 to 1952, only to end up disillusioned with the promises it made but could not fulfill under the reality of electoral politics.

The Egyptian Experience

Egypt is not only the largest country in the Middle East, but it also has the largest Christian population in the region. The Copts constitute 8 to 10 percent of the 100 million Egyptians. They are native to the country, as their existence predates Islam. The majority has consistently signed onto the Egyptian national project. Coptic leaders, as well Copts in general, were enthusiastic supporters of the democratic experiment, only to see their enthusiasm turn to bitterness as the experiment failed to provide them with anything resembling equal citizenship or true freedom of belief or worship. Although Egypt had, and still has, many Muslims who see equal citizenship for the Copts as critical to the country’s development, neither democratic nor authoritarian governance has turned such hopes into reality. Any recommendation of democracy to Muslim-majority countries with a substantial Christian population must be informed by the experience of the so-called Egyptian liberal age.

Egypt’s first democratic experiment occurred after the British protectorate (1914–22) and the 1919 revolution, which agitated for self-rule. Sectarian tensions rose the decade before 1919, especially after the assassination of Egypt’s first Coptic prime minister, Boutros Ghali (1908–10). But the revolution is now seen, with considerable exaggeration, as cementing an alliance between Muslim and Coptic Egyptians in favor of self-rule. The Wafd Party (or Delegation Party) rose from these events and dominated Egyptian politics for much of that era. The Wafd’s founders were elite and wealthy men who shared a common cultural outlook and bonds of friendship that bridged religious lines. They hoped for a constitutional monarchy in Egypt along Western European models, especially those with a broadly liberal bent.

The British cynically expressed fears that self-rule would negatively affect the rights of minorities and foreigners. The Wafd’s early leaders, including a significant faction of Copts, sought to dispel these fears with actions and words. Since the party mobilized along nationalist lines, it rejected any form of proportional representation for Copts as antithetical to the concept of equal citizenship. A thin majority of Copts within the Wafd agreed and did not push for any formal proportional representation, thus betting that modernization would advance liberalism and make such rules unnecessary. The grandees of the Wafd showed little interest in enshrining liberal values in a legal framework. They were eager to rush into electoral politics without articulating any vision other than a broad nationalist agitation against the British.

Over the next three decades, the pressures of electoral politics stacked the deck against the Copts and frustrated their aspirations. Once Sa’ad Zaghloul, the icon of Egyptian nationalism and leader of the Wafd, passed away in 1927, the party fell under the control of Mustapha Al Nahas and his Coptic protégé, Makram Ebeid. Their partnership lasted from the late 1920s till 1942 and provided the Copts with some hope that their views might be represented in the halls of power, even if Ebeid was always reluctant to act as a communal leader.

The only political party that came close to competing with the Wafd electorally was the Liberal Constitutionalist Party. Mostly secular men founded the party, but, ironically enough, they could only compete with the Wafd’s nationalist credentials by invoking religion. As a result, every election produced a steady stream of anti-Coptic incitement, accusing Copts of nefarious control of the Wafd. In time this incitement became a feature of electoral politics. With the rise of political Islamism, even the Wafd began to trim its sails and play down its Coptic membership.

These features of electoral politics had measurable adverse effects on the Copts. Coptic representation in various parliaments fell from 8 percent in the 1920s to less than 3 percent in the early 1950s. Participation in cabinets also suffered. Before formal independence in 1936, cabinets had Coptic members with high-profile portfolios, such as foreign ministry or finance. By the late 1940s, the best Copts could hope for was a minor ministry filled with a weak personality. Nor did democracy address freedom of belief or the right to worship.

In 1934, Al Azby Pasha, deputy minister of the interior, propagated a document regarding the building of churches with 10 conditions that made it nearly impossible to build new churches. Neither the Wafd nor its opponents took up the issue or attempted to ease such restrictions. Other problems—such as discrimination in hiring for civil service jobs, the prohibition on Coptic teachers in significant parts of the state-supported schools, and lack of religious teaching for Christian public school students—were never addressed in any serious way by any party, including the Wafd, which had always proclaimed its support for equal citizenship for Copts.

Coptic enthusiasm for the Wafd began to wane in the 1940s. In 1943 Makram Ebeid bolted from the party, charging his one-time mentor, Al Nahas, with corruption. Younger rising members within the party had less commitment to the party’s nationalist creed and were not beyond cutting deals with traditional opponents of the Wafd for slim electoral gains.

The most potent young leader of the late 1940s was Fouad Sarragedin. Sarragedin’s worst mistake was to allow armed cadres of the Muslim Brotherhood to operate freely in the Suez Canal zone in 1951 after the Wafd abrogated the 1936 treaty with Britain. These gangs did little to inconvenience the British forces but created a rising tide of sectarian violence. In 1952 they burned a church in Suez and lynched half a dozen Copts. This was the most serious violent sectarian incident in decades and followed on a spate of attacks on churches and Coptic gatherings in the late 1940s. It sent shock waves among the Copts and destroyed their faith in all political parties. Ramsis Gabrawi, a former Wafdist, created a new political party, the Christian Democratic Party, with an all Coptic membership, hoping that such a solid block would guard communal interests by acting as kingmakers in deeply divided parliaments.

Equality Remains Elusive

In the fate of Egypt and its Christians, we should read one crucial fact. Neither democratic nor authoritarian governance delivered anything resembling equal citizenship. The focus on politics as the means to equality or even mere survival is misplaced. Both authoritarian governance and illiberal democracy are not imposed on the population but are a natural outgrowth of its current cultural climate. We cannot advocate for either outcome as “good” for marginalized groups, nor will any such advocacy make a difference in the outcome anyway. It will not be politics but cultural acceptance of pluralism that will lead these countries out of the grim choices currently facing them.

The best we can do is advocate for, and work toward, a broad cultural shift toward an adoption of liberal values in a native version. This process of adoption will not happen in a few years or decades, but will likely be the work of generations. In the meantime, we can hope but never expect that Christian minorities and other marginalized groups are safe, or that pluralism has more than a slim fighting chance in the region.