Egypt Teaches Us a Lesson in Democracy

And School’s Not Out Yet!


Egypt is one of the world’s oldest cultures. The lessons that we can learn from this ancient and expansive culture are too numerous to recount here. However, we can add a few more lessons that one does not typically associate with Egypt, at least not among the globally self-sequestered Americans. These are lessons in democracy, and the classroom is Tahrir Square, Cairo. The passion of the young men and women who defied the infamous Mubarak police force and loyalist thugs set to whip them into fear and angry retaliation is a reminder of democratic fundamentals. It is a lesson of the most elemental expression of democracy—the power of people en masse saying “NO!” or “No more!” Once The People rise up and speak in a single voice and refused to be silenced, there isn’t a force in the world that can topple them.

Democracy is a bottom up movement. It is a demand by The People that their inherent human rights and dignity be respected. Government is “of the people” and those in power govern at the behest of the citizen. And if that government becomes oppressive then it is the right, and dare I say the responsibility of the people to overthrow that government and replace it. This should not be a radical statement for Americans.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it…

Remember that little bit of radical literature. Written in 1776 Thomas Jefferson held that these “truths” are “self evident.” They are not subject to anyone’s interpretation, or anyone’s best interest. It’s not about the security of Israel or the political expediency of the United States or irrational fears of Islamofascism. Mubarak was a brutal and tyrannical dictator from whom the Egyptian people were in their right to liberate themselves. This is what we believe, or at least proclaim, as true and valid. If it was true for our founding fathers in the 18th century then it is equally valid among Arab Muslims today. “All men are created equal.” Conspicuously, Jefferson used the term “their creator” rather than “the creator” in suggesting the endowment of these rights.

It’s a mistake, and a largely American mistake, to assume that the events in Egypt are the result of a spontaneous uprising or millions of disconnected people suddenly inspired by the will to be free. Yes, there was an initial period of spontaneity as Egyptians responded to catalyzing events in Tunisia and took to the streets. Protestors responded with vandalism aimed at government buildings, Molotov cocktails and rocks aimed at the hated police. Yes, there was some violence as vast crowds responded to police riot measures. They drove the dreaded constabulary from Tahrir Square with menace and ire over a generation of hatred for the torture and abuse suffered at the hands of the state.

At the base, however, were dozens of political activist organizations with years of protest, dissidence and organizing under their belts. Most of these groups were involved in years of labor organizing. They were propelled by this experience, combined with youthful idealism. Within short order the mass of people in Tahrir Square were an organized and disciplined movement less likely to be moved by tyranny than the mountain was moved by Muhammad. By the time Mubarak’s loyalist bullies descended on the protestors with whips and cudgels, a dedicated and peaceful movement was in place. This was recognized by the Egyptian military who upheld their honor by refusing to fire upon peaceful demonstrators.

And yes, Muslim religious groups were also involved in the protests, including the questionably notorious Muslim Brotherhood. Why not? Isn’t it the hallmark of a democracy to embrace divergent ideas, even those which we view as radical fundamentalism? We know that the best defense against an Iranian style theocracy is a vibrant and robust democracy that allows for religious tolerance without trying to stifle spiritual expression. The Muslim Brotherhood is not to be feared in this case. Democracy can be defined as an ongoing conversation between diverse peoples regardless of differences. Yet another lesson we can derive from our Egyptian friends.

Another lesson that might be hard learned for Americans is that the principles of liberty and equality that we hold dear are not specific to European culture or dependent upon Christian values. The demonstrators in Tahrir were almost certainly as diverse a group as any American gathering, though heavily influenced by Arab culture and Islam to be sure. Yet this was not an expression of Muslim ideology or a call to Jihad. Rather, the Egyptian protests were an expression of Enlightenment values, more an homage to Locke and Jefferson than an appeal to Muhammad and Allah. We shouldn’t be surprised by this. Human rights and dignity are universal values. From Egypt we learn that all people, regardless of culture and gender and religion and creed want exactly the same things—to be free, to be respected, to have a hand in their own future. An Arab/Muslim democracy should be no more alien to us than a European/Christian democracy.

What’s more, the birth of democracy did not require American intervention, let alone American soldiers with American guns and American bombs. Indeed, after 30 years of support for the very tyrant who provoked the Egyptian protest, the United States was best sitting on the sidelines and keeping its presence on the down-low. The United States does not have the best track record when it comes to establishing democracy, considering this nation’s unflinching support for almost all dictators in the region, including such bestial luminaries as the House of Saud, and yes, Saddam Hussein. In the last decade the US military has been recklessly involved in the creation of two governments in the region and has demonstrated the impotence of military nation building. In Iraq the US imposed government is a house of cards lacking any credibility among the Iraqi people. It is now subject to the same popular pressures spreading through the region and will almost certainly fall. In Afghanistan the US created government is blatantly corrupt. How’s that for a track record?

It is American arrogance to believe that only the US can bring liberty and stability to the “uncivilized” tribes of the Middle East. The Egyptians have demonstrated without a doubt that they can take care of themselves, thank you very much. We owe it to them to trust their judgment and their movement. It would be nice if the Egyptians, in establishing their government, took American interests into account. Continued preferential treatment on the Suez Canal would be nice. Continued treaty obligations with Israel would be optimal. The United States can and should do its part to maintain and strengthen relationships with the nascent Egyptian government, but the ultimate decisions about the structure and status of the government must be a contract between it and the people of Egypt. As it should be. As we, Americans, hold to be a basic human right.

It is true that this lesson is not over. There is no predicting the ultimate outcome for Egypt. I’ve said a lot of nice things about democracy. Indeed, the youth of Egypt and the movements of which they are a part seem intent on democratic government. But intentions have a way of being twisted in the helter skelter of revolutionary politics. Currently, the Egyptian military, a social class in itself in Egyptian culture, appears to be taking the lead in ensuring a smooth transition. The People appear to accept its authority at this point. My concern is that militaries are not democratic, and have a questionable track record when it comes to power vacuums. There is a tendency for armies to fill the power void left by an outgoing government. As it stands, the outcomes are up in the air, and we cannot assume that democracy will prevail. But I have faith in the Egyptian People. After all, they’ve already taken down one tyrant. They can take down another.

To add to this uncertainty, the protests appear to be spreading. Iran is vulnerable, Bahrain is feeling the heat, Jordan has already taken steps to ameliorate a protest before it happened, Yemen, Libya and Iraq are host to popular protest. Each instant has its own variables and its own personalities, institutions and networks. Is it reasonable to assume that democracy or republicanism will prevail in all nations so affected? Again, perhaps I’m too optimistic, but I have faith in The People to overcome.

Now let’s work toward change in our own nation. The tyrannies that we face in the United States are of a different breed and caliber than those faced in North Africa and the Middle East. As it stands, however, we mostly don’t have to worry about being “disappeared” or assassinated by the government for speaking our minds. All we have to face is the scorn of powerful elements in our society who have us chained by the tyranny of our own ideas. In certain respects this is the most oppressive form of tyranny…the kind that’s wrapped in false righteousness.


(Cartoon by Medi Belortaja)

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