Can democracy survive when voters choose a government that destroys democratic values and institutions? That's the critical question posed by the turmoil in Egypt, where the military has ousted President Mohammed Morsi and arrested many of his supporters.
There's no doubt that Morsi and his Freedom and Justice Party took power legitimately, and they have actually won three elections -- for president, for parliament and for a new constitution. "This was the party that represented the wishes of the Egyptian people," said Fareed Zakaria on CNN.
There's also no doubt that Morsi badly abused that power, rejecting judicial review, silencing critics, banning opposition parties and encouraging attacks on Egypt's Christian minority.
Reps. Ed Royce and Eliot Engel -- the top Republican and Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee -- made this point in a rare joint statement: "Real democracy requires inclusiveness, compromise, respect for human and minority rights and a commitment to the rule of law. Morsi and his inner circle did not embrace any of these principles and instead chose to consolidate power and rule by fiat."
It was encouraging to hear the military government outline a schedule for revising the constitution and holding new elections within six months. But it's clear that elections are no panacea. Democracy is not some magic word that will suddenly reconcile hostile tribes, sects and ideologies into a peaceable kingdom of mutual regard and respect.
In fact, democracy is a highly complex and often misunderstood system. As the congressmen noted, the essence of the concept is not ensuring majority rule, but protecting minority rights. It cannot function well without institutions that check and balance elected power. Independent judges who can overrule even popular legislation. Unfettered journalists who can criticize the government without fear of retribution.
Even more important is a spirit of tolerance and modesty: a common understanding that no party or faction has a monopoly on wisdom. Democracy requires a widely shared trust that elected officials will play by the rules, governing fairly when they win power and yielding peacefully when they lose.
On paper, Egypt had democratic institutions -- courts, parliaments, media outlets. They even had fair elections. What was profoundly lacking was that spirit of tolerance, a culture of compromise.
Morsi and his party, the political arm of the long-banned Muslim Brotherhood, governed as if they alone represented The Truth. Opponents were treated not just as fools but as infidels. Once you believe that, any sort of repression of your critics is justified. Even required.
We've seen this before when Communists won (or stole) elections in countries like Poland and Hungary after World War II and then demolished democracy. The Communists thought they were chosen by history, and the Islamists by God, but the lesson is the same: Hold power by any means necessary.
Some commentators look at Egypt and despair. As David Brooks lamented in The New York Times, "radical Islamists are incapable of running a modern government" because they "have absolutist, apocalyptic mindsets." As a result, "once in office they are always going to centralize power and undermine the democracy that elevated them."
Some of those "radical Islamists" reinforced Brooks' argument, excoriating Morsi and his party for entering politics in the first place. A spokesman for the Taliban in Afghanistan denounced "so-called elections (that) are merely hollow chants and slogans used by the West and secularists to trick the people." An al-Qaida affiliate in Somalia tweeted, "Change comes by the bullet alone; NOT the ballot."
Brooks should be taken seriously, but the Taliban and al-Qaida don't prove him right. They prove exactly the opposite. As Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, argued on CNN: "The last thing we want to see ... is the Muslim Brotherhood give up on conventional politics. We don't want them to feel that violence in the streets (is) their only option."
Easy to say, extremely hard to do. After all, our own governmental system is more than 200 years old and still doesn't work very well much of the time. Nurturing a spirit of reconciliation in Egypt was made much more difficult by the military, which in a spasm of stupidity gunned down more than 50 protestors in the streets of Cairo. Only the radicals benefit from bloody flags and feuds.
Still, Egyptian democracy demands more time, patience and effort. Institutions have to be strengthened, rules have to be revised, and most important, trust and tolerance have to be encouraged. Will that work? Probably not. But the alternative would be terrible. Too terrible.
Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at email@example.com.