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Egypt's President Mohamed Mursi meets with Egyptian Islamic scholars and preachers at the Presidential Palace in Cairo November 7, 2012. (HANDOUT/REUTERS)
Egypt's President Mohamed Mursi meets with Egyptian Islamic scholars and preachers at the Presidential Palace in Cairo November 7, 2012. (HANDOUT/REUTERS)

Janice Gross Stein

Egypt’s Islamist government could learn from Israel’s theocratic democracy Add to ...

In the wake of the Arab Spring, Tunisia and Egypt are in the very early stages of constructing theocratic democracies – that is, governments that balance official religions with democratic institutions and pluralist practices.

In Egypt, a new draft constitution enshrines Islam as the source of law, but also provides for elections of a president and of parliament, free assembly, and freedom of the press as core democratic practices. Building this kind of democracy is no easy task. It is a delicate balancing act between the “truths” of religion and the free expression of dissent and the clash of ideas. Egypt’s attempt to establish this delicate balance is still very much an early work in progress.

This week, as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi prepares his first official visit to the United States while holding meetings on Tuesday with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the balance between his revolutionary democratic credentials and his strict religious underpinnings has never seemed to stark.

Perhaps Egyptians could look to Israel as an example of a mature theocratic democracy. Most Israelis and, indeed, most Jews do not think of Israel as a theocratic democracy, but take a closer look.

Nachman ben Yehuda, in his recently published book  "Theocratic Democracy," makes a compelling case. Judaism has official status in Israel through its monopoly on the legalization of marriage and divorce. Moreover, it is Orthodox Judaism that enjoys special status, controls the institutions of the Chief Rabbinates, and makes and enforces law on marriage and divorce. Other branches of Judaism – the Conservative and Reform wings – enjoy no comparable status. There is not even token recognition in law of religious pluralism for Jewish citizens.

Special treatment of ultra-Orthodox Jews carries over to the most basic demand of the state on its citizens –military service. Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, exempted those who studied in yeshivot (Jewish religious schools) from compulsory military service. The argument was that those who studied religious texts provided service to the state comparable to those who served in the military.

That arrangement privileged the pursuit of religious scholarship in ways that would be unfamiliar to a “liberal” democracy, but is thoroughly familiar to emerging theocratic democracies that give a special role to Islam and special privileges to those who study Islam in religious institutions.

When Ben-Gurion agreed to the exemption in 1948, there were some 800 young men who qualified. Today, the numbers are in the tens of thousands and resentment boils over between those who do military service and those who do not. In response, the Israel Defense Forces have created their first unit that meets the religious requirements of the ultra-Orthodox. The unit excludes women to preclude unauthorized contact between men and women. This kind of practice, puzzling within a “secular” liberal democratic tradition that grew up in the Christian west, is not puzzling at all in a theocratic democracy.

Theocratic democracies struggle to balance religion and rights. Israel has an independent and powerful Supreme Court, a vibrant and vigorous press, a party system in which religious parties rarely capture more than a quarter of the seats, and a majority of citizens who describe themselves as “secular.”

None of that is yet present in Egypt or Tunisia. This balance is everything in how a theocratic democracy evolves, how much space it makes for democratic rights. In Israel, there is significant space. But those who ignore the theocratic elements of Israel’s democracy do so at their peril.

Janice Gross Stein is the director of the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. Starting with this column, she will be writing regularly on international affairs for the Globe and Mail’s Commentary page.

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