One argument used by those saying a transition to democracy in Egypt would lead to “instability” is that there are too many Islamic fundamentalists in Egypt and so the US government must back a supposedly benevolent dictatorship there, as democracy would allow these irrational people too much influence over government policy, possibly leading to war with Israel.
The fact that this hasn’t happened between Israel and Iran in over 30 years since the Iranian revolution, due to Israel’s immensely stronger conventional military and it’s possession of nuclear weapons, makes this unlikely anyway.
However it’s also a weak argument as Christian fundamentalists exist in their tens of millions in the US and are very influential in US elections and on US governments’ foreign and domestic policy, so if having a lot of religious fundamentalists means you’re not ready to be a democracy, the US wouldn’t be ready for democracy either.
Pew Research found in 2003 that
‘Fully seven-in-ten white evangelicals (72%) say Israel was given to the Jews by God, a figure that rises to 77% among those evangelicals with a high degree of religious commitment.’ (1)
So 72% of white American evangelical Christians believe in the literal truth of the entire Bible, including the Old Testament – which has to qualify as religious fundamentalism.
Pew found in 2010 that “the religious composition of the electorate is largely unchanged” compared to 2004, which means that the proportion of fundamentalists in the population is likely similar too (2).
A Pew Poll of American Christians in 2009 found that 79% of them believed there would be a second coming of Jesus, which suggests, if anything, an increase in the proportion of fundamentalists (3).
Other Pew polls show white evangelicals made up about 23% of the American electorate in 2004 (4).
The US Census Bureau gives the population of the US at roughly 310 million people.
So, at a rough estimate (i.e including only white evangelicals and not other Christian fundamentalists, but assuming they are the roughly the same percentage of the electorate as they are of the population) 72% of 23% of Americans – or about 16.5% of Americans (around 51 million people) - are Christian fundamentalists.
Over the longer term the percentage of Christians in the US has fallen from 86% in 1990 to 76% in 2008, but there was only a 1% drop between 2001 and 2008, so the drop between 2003 and the present is unlikely to be more than 1% (5).
There is little debate that Christian fundamentalists were crucial in winning George W. Bush the 2004 election and they are also extremely influential in congress.
They also have great influence in the military – partly because a higher proportion of recruits come from poor, religious families with little education and few other career options.
When US troops went into Fallujah in 2004 with orders to target civilians and ambulances, one of their officers, a Colonel Cardl, told journalists that “the enemy has got a face. He's called Satan. He's in Falluja. And we're going to destroy him.” (6). Evangelical Christian Lieutenant-General William G Boykin similarly made speeches claiming that the enemy in “the war on terror” was “Satan” ; and, in reference to a Muslim militia chief in Somalia, that “I knew that my God was a real God, and his was an idol.” (7)
The fact that American Christian fundamentalists share positions with the Israel lobby in the US on US foreign policy in the Middle East makes them even more influential in that area of policy.
(This is based partly on their bizarre belief that when the day of “the rapture” comes all Jews are meant to have “returned” to the ‘Holy Land’ and will be forced by God to convert to Christianity or be destroyed – though it’s also based on their ignorance of the fact that many Palestinians are neither Muslims nor ‘Marxists’ but Christians; not to mention the failure of right wing Christian fundamentalists to explain how God’s commands to the Israelites to massacre every man, woman and child who doesn’t follow the right religion in the Old Testament can be reconciled with the teachings of tolerance, love for all and forgiveness in the New Testament, without deciding the latter must replace the former).
Pew’s poll of Egyptian Muslims gives mixed results on how fundamentalist they are.
‘A 59%-majority of Muslims in Egypt believed that democracy was preferable to any other kind of government..... Among Muslims in Egypt, 48% said Islam played a large role in their nation's political life while a nearly equal 49% said it played only a small role.’ (8)
‘At least three-quarters of Muslims in Egypt and Pakistan say they would favor making each of the following the law in their countries: stoning people who commit adultery, whippings and cutting off of hands for crimes like theft and robbery and the death penalty for those who leave the Muslim religion.’ (10)
This certainly sounds like a majority for a fundamentalist interpretation of Sharia law based on the Quran.
Since Pew also found 94.6% of Egyptians are Muslims this majority for Sharia law is also a majority of all Egyptians, though hopefully representative democracy might moderate it a bit (11). In the UK most polls show a majority for the death penalty, but it was largely abolished in 1969 here.
However when the US made it’s declaration of independence from the British Empire many even of the founding fathers were so backwards and uncivilised that they still enslaved other people – yet no American would argue that they should have been kept under the tutelage of a supposedly benevolent foreign backed dictatorship until they became more civilised.
So it’s a bit hard to accept the argument that Egypt “isn’t ready” for democracy and requires benevolent foreign backed dictators to civilise it, even as these dictators have people tortured in horrific ways and murdered. If anything dictatorships and military occupations are the pressure cookers in which extreme fundamentalisms and nationalisms come to the boil.
Egypt would be likely to make far more progress towards civilised values and laws under a democracy than it has under dictatorships – and only democracy will stop the shift towards political Islamic fundamentalism and even worse terrorist groups.
Coptic Christians in Egypt have suffered prejudice and murders for centuries and these continue to the present day, with some police dying to try and protect them. However there is no reason to think a transition to democracy in Egypt would necessarily make minorities like Coptic Christians better or worse off, though a transition to a Sunni version of Iran’s semi-theocratic government certainly would mean they were even more persecuted.
Today Christian pro-democracy protesters in Tahrir (‘freedom’) Square were surrounded by Muslims as they prayed – the Muslims saying they would stand between them and anyone who would attack them.
In Egypt elected AKP Islamic party governments have restrained the military to some extent in it’s brutal campaigns against Kurdish separatists (though serious human rights abuses continue and the Kurds are mostly Muslims). Since the Iranian revolution anyone not of the majority Shia Muslim religion faces persecution. In India the results of democracy for the large Muslim minority in a mostly Hindu country have varied according to which party was elected. Under the Hindu nationalist BJP they suffered the Gujarat massacres, while under Congress governments they have been much safer.
(1) = Pew Research Center 24 Jul 2003 ‘Religion and Politics: Contention and Consensus - Public Opinion on Religion and Public Life’ – Part III – Contention and Concensus, http://pewforum.org/PublicationPage.aspx?id=622
(2) = Pew Research 11 Aug 2010 ‘Much Hope, Modest Change for Democrats - Religion in the 2008 Presidential Election’, http://www.pewforum.org/Politics-and-Elections/Much-Hope-Modest-Change-for-Democrats-Religion-in-the-2008-Presidential-Election.aspx
(3) = Pew Research 9 Apr 2009 ‘Christians' Views on the Return of Christ’,
(4) Pew Research 6 Dec 2004 ‘Religion and the Presidential Vote - Bush's Gains Broad-Based’,http://people-press.org/commentary/?analysisid=103
(5) = Religious identification: How American adults view themselves – Quotations - ARIS polls of 2001 & 2008. http://www.religioustolerance.org/chr_prac2a.htm
(6) = BBC News 23 Nov 2004 ‘Hunting 'Satan' in Falluja hell’,http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/4037009.stm
(7) = BBC News 17 Oct 2003 ‘US is 'battling Satan' says general’, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/3199212.stm
(8) = Pew Research 02 Dec 2010 ‘Most Embrace a Role for Islam in Politics - Muslim Publics Divided on Hamas and Hezbollah’, http://pewglobal.org/2010/12/02/muslims-around-the-world-divided-on-hamas-and-hezbollah/
(9) = guardian.co.uk 30 Jan 2011 ‘Egypt protests: Cairo prison break prompts fear of fundamentalism’,http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jan/30/muslim-brotherhood-jail-escape-egypt
(10) = See (7) above
(11) = Miller, Tracy, ed. (2009) , ‘Mapping the Global Muslim Population: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Muslim Population’, Pew Research Center , October 2009, http://pewforum.org/newassets/images/reports/Muslimpopulation/Muslimpopulation.pdf