In my childhood I was an eye-witness to the democratic ascent to power of the Nazi party, who openly proclaimed that they would abolish democracy after their election. Hitler was so obsessed with the idea of obtaining power by democratic means that his opponents in his own party called him in jest "Adolf Legalite."
It is almost banal to state that democracy means a lot more than elections and the rule of the majority. It is based on a whole set of values -- practical things like a sense of belonging together, civic equality, liberalism, tolerance, fair play, the ability of a minority to become the next majority, and much more.
In a way, democracy is a platonic ideal -- no country in the world is a perfect democracy (certainly not my own.) A democratic constitution may mean nothing -- it was once said that the 1936 Soviet constitution enacted by Stalin was the most democratic in the world. For example, it assured the right of every republic of the Soviet Union to secede at will (But somehow nobody ever tried).
WHEN MUHAMMAD MORSI was democratically elected President of Egypt, I was glad. I rather liked the guy. I hoped that he would prove that a moderate, modern Islamism could become a democratic force. It seems that I was mistaken.
No religion -- and certainly no monotheistic religion -- can be truly democratic. It upholds one absolute truth and denies all others. In Western religion, this is tempered by the division of labor between God and Caesar, and in modern times by the reduction of Christianity to a mere polite cult. American Evangelicals try to set the clock back.
In Semitic religions, there can be no division between religion and state. Both Judaism and Islam base the state on religious law (Halacha and Sharia respectively).
The secular majority in Israel has, up to now, succeeded in maintaining a reasonably functioning democracy (in Israel proper, certainly not in the occupied Palestinian territories, where the opposite of democracy prevails). Zionism was, at least partly, a religious reformation. But personal status laws in Israel are purely religious, and so are many other laws. Right-wing elements are now promoting a Judaization of the state.
In Islam, there has been no reformation. Pious Muslims and their parties want to base the law on the Sharia (in fact, Sharia means law). The example of Morsi may show that even a moderate Islamic leader cannot withstand the pressure to create a Sharia-based regime.
The revolutionaries seem to be more democratic, but far less effective. Democracy demands the formation of political parties which can come to power through elections. The young secular idealists in Egypt -- and in almost all other countries -- have been unable to do so. They waited for the army to provide democracy for them.
This is, of course, an oxymoron. The army, any army, is the very opposite of democracy. An army is by necessity an authoritarian and hierarchical organization. A soldier, from corporal to commander in chief, is trained to obey and to command. Hardly a good breeding ground for democratic virtues.
An army can obey a democratic government. But an army cannot run a government. Almost all military dictatorships have been grossly incompetent. After all, a military officer is an expert in one profession (killing people, a cynic would say). He is not an expert on anything else.
Contrary to Syria, Egypt has a strong sense of cohesiveness and unity, a loyalty to a common idea of Egypt forged over thousands of years. Until last week, when the army opened fire on Islamists. This may be a historic turning point. I hope not.
I hope that the shock of this event will return all Egyptians, except, of course, the loonies on all sides, to their senses. The example of Syria and Lebanon should make them shrink back from the abyss.
IN A hundred years -- when some of us may not be around anymore -- historians may consider these events as the birth pangs of a new Arab world, like the wars of religion in 17th century Europe or the American Civil War 150 years ago.
As the Arabs themselves would say: Inshallah! God willing!