After the Muslim Brotherhood gained 40 percent of the vote and the Salafis 25 percent in the first round of Egypt’s parliamentary elections, Rana Abdelhai, a student, told New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof that while she would never vote for a Muslim Brotherhood or Salafi candidate, “This is democracy now. We have to respect who other people choose, even if they make the wrong choice.” A few days earlier, Dalia Zaida, a young activist, made a similar comment to an NPR reporter, saying, “I'm worried, but you know, as someone who really believes in democracy, I have to respect people's choice.” Many others seem to share this view. Kristof considered Abdelhai’s observation “wise.”

Such observations represent a very basic but surprisingly common misunderstanding about democracy, namely that it is the rule of the majority. According to this view, if a majority voted that boys can go to school but girls cannot, one must accept this ruling because it was determined in a legitimate way—and to contest it would be to undermine democracy. One may, of course, seek to convince the majority of voters to support equal rights for women or generally respect individual rights—but for now, whatever the majority enacts is to be considered legitimate.

True, even among those who hold this very truncated view of democracy, there are some who recognize that if a party seeks to use its majority to destroy the democratic process, it may be excluded from participating in the elections and from being represented in the legislature. Thus, some political scientists argue that when the Nazis were on the rise in Germany in the 1920s and clearly sought to establish a tyranny, they should not have been allowed to gain legitimacy by winning elections to the Parliament and, ultimately, having their leader named Chancellor of Germany. Indeed, post-WWII Germany outlawed the Nazi Party. And decades later, German interior ministers are attempting to exclude the far-right National Democratic Party from elections. Other countries, like Belgium and Spain, have similarly sought to ban parties that pose threats to national security, resulting in racist and secessionist parties like Vlaams Blok and Batasuna being forbidden from competing in elections. These nations have banned select political parties, citing “the need of democratic states to be vigilant and aggressive in defending themselves against antidemocratic threats from within—particularly the threat posed in the electoral arena by antidemocratic parties using democratic elections to assume power.”

The Salafis, however, do not hold that they would end the democratic process. They mainly seek to use it to enact laws that will make their literalist interpretation of Islam and Sharia the law of the land. As Ed Husain, a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, put it: “Egypt’s Salafis are trying to create the caliphate via the ballot box.” Kristof suggests that one should not be too troubled just because “some Salafi leaders have made extremist statements such as suggesting that women and Christians are unfit to be leaders, raising questions about the peace treaty with Israel, and denouncing the great Egyptian Nobel laureate in literature, Naguib Mahfouz, for sacrilege.” These statements can be viewed as merely symbolic, “a bit like ‘In God We Trust’ on American coins.” Actually, Salafi activists favor stoning of adulterers and cutting off the hands of thieves. They advocate gender segregation in the workplace, outlawing public displays of affection, and excluding women and non-Muslims from holding executive positions. Moreover, “almost all Salafis believe and constantly remind each other of the need to be loyal only to Muslims, and to hate, be suspicious of, not work in alliance with, and ensure only minimal/necessary interaction with non-Muslims.” And Salafis justify violence against Muslims they consider apostates (for example, those who have converted to other religions). If such positions are not deeply troubling, one wonders what is.

One may argue that the Salafis command only about a quarter of the vote. However, policies that violate individual rights on a large scale could be enacted quite readily if the Salafis convinced the Muslim Brotherhood to support key measures they favor in exchange for their support for other agendas of the Muslim Brotherhood. Supporters of Egyptian democracy, therefore, may legitimately question [PDF] whether the Salafis—and comparable parties in other budding Middle East democracies—should be denied a place in democratically-elected legislatures, just as Nazi parties were in Germany and fascist parties in Italy, Norway, and the U.K.

The Egyptian electorate was not afforded the opportunity to discuss the kind of government they wanted.

One answer lies in a correct understanding of the foundation of democracy, which of course is not only rule by the majority, but also a form of government in which the policies on which the majority can vote are greatly limited by individual and minority rights, by the constitution. (Scholars often refer to liberal democracy, although the term “constitutional democracy” may be clearer, especially for those who are not political scientists.) Under such a government, the majority cannot act on many of the key elements of the Salafi agenda. The Salafis are, in effect, attacking the foundations of democracy—only they are attacking a different pillar: not the institutionalized opportunity to change those in power by via the ballot box nor to pass laws on the basis of a majority vote in the legislature, but individual rights, which are a coequal foundation and an essential element of a true democracy.

There are, however, strong pragmatic reasons for Egypt to tolerate the Salafi party and movement, despite their strong anti-democratic tendencies, as long as they command such a large following. Instead, the writing of the constitution could have been used as an opportunity to share with the Egyptian electorate (and others) the lesson of what democracy entails. Political scientists use the term “constitutional moment” to refer to a phase that often follows the breakdown of an old regime and the foundation of a new one. People engage in intense dialogue about the nature of the polity they are forming, the kind reflected famously in the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers. It is crucial that these deliberations engage the people—and not merely those represented in the committees that write the new constitution. “During constitutional moments,” according to Mark Tushnet’s summary [PDF] of Bruce Ackerman’s popular view of the concept, “the general public was deeply engaged in deliberation about the public interest, and the people in the aggregate took a relatively impartial view about developing public policy.” It is here that an opportunity to form a new consensus arises—in this case, to decide which rights will be taken as “self-evident” and immune from majority vote. Neil Walker notes, “As well, however, as standing out from what came before and what came after, the constitutional moment is also characterised by its role in altering the framework within which ordinary politics unfolds.” Caitria O’Neill describes the cost of failing to take advantage of the constitutional moment as “enormous,” pointing out, “The window of opportunity presented by the constitutional moment can easily be lost.” After the fall of communism, Poland had a prolonged and intensive national dialogue about its constitution; this is one reason its transition to democracy has been more successful than that of many other former parts of the Eastern Bloc.

This “constitutional moment” was lost in Iraq after the toppling of Saddam and in Afghanistan after the toppling of the Taliban in part because of heavy-handed American drives to shape the constitutions in ways that the U.S. favored. In the process, the United States succeeded in getting the new governments of Iraq and Afghanistan to include in their constitutions several Western, liberal principles alongside several Islamic ones—but ones that were not built on widespread consensus and public support for the framing document.

In Egypt, the writing of the constitution was deferred and elections were rushed. Consequently, the Egyptian electorate was not afforded the opportunity to have a dialogue about the kind of government they wanted and what makes a true democracy; the Salafis were elected, and they will play a role in drafting the constitution and in shaping whatever national dialogue will take place. Consequently, it may take much longer for the Egyptian people to realize that the Salafis are antithetical to a true democratic regime and to curtail support for them, let alone consider banning them from participating in elections. Other nations in the Middle East and elsewhere, where political Islam is on the rise, ought to take note.