It took the British over a thousand years to get democracy right, even if they don’t have a written constitution and still have a monarch. It took the French from 1789 to 1945 (though some say it was 1968), through four republics and as many restorations of the monarchy. Just about the time we Americans think we have our act together, along comes a movement that wants to dismantle some of our greatest democratic achievements, in the name of “individual freedom” and ignorance of what went into creating this nation. Yet too many people think any nation can get the kinks and stupidities sorted out overnight. Our last administration thought that if “liberators” just invaded, the people of Iraq and Afghanistan would magically become a republic, even if they had never had a bit of experience with the concept.
Egypt has adopted a new constitution. It lacks many of the things that characterize a true republic, things like a bicameral legislature, representation of a constituency, a balance of powers, freely elected leaders, true guarantees of equality and a separation of the executive, legislative and judicial branches (well, the British don’t have that either). It establishes a state to which the legislators owe their allegiance instead of owing their allegiance to the people. And it is being rejected, if not by a majority of Egyptians, by a significant minority of them.
This bloody weekend began with anti-government riots on Friday, and then the action shifted to Port Said after a court sentenced 21 men to death for causing an alleged “soccer riot” last year in which 74 people died. The residents of Port Said did not like being blamed for the riot and the deaths, so they rioted and over thirty died. Today, during the funerals for 33 of the victims of the Saturday riots, another three people died and hundreds were injured. Simultaneously, there were further riots against the government. Government buildings have been torched in almost every major Egyptian city.
President Mohamed Mursi addressed the nation this evening. He was expected to relay the decision of the Defense Council that a new dialogue be opened between the government and the opposition to assure a peaceful transition to the new parliamentary elections. Instead, he declared a state of emergency in Port Said, Suez and Ismalia. This will probably enrage the protesters, seen as evidence of Mursi’s hunger for personal power. He did say that “for the sake of Egypt,” it was his “duty” that he take steps to resolve the crisis. Mursi has invited opponents to a “national dialogue” on Monday, not exactly a new constitutional convention and probably not something that will solve the problems of Egypt.
First, he should take a closer look at our history.
The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union were drafted in 1776 and 1777, and formally ratified by the 13 colonies in 1781, two years before the end of the Revolution. Though it was sufficient for running the nascent country during the Revolution, it proved inadequate to running an independent nation. In May, 1787, in Philadelphia, a convention of representatives of the states convened, originally to amend the Articles. They ended up completely scraping it and writing the Constitution. In 1786 and 1787, Shay’s Rebellion broke out in Massachusetts, and it influenced the writing of the Constitution by proving the inadequacies of the Articles of Confederation to assure the continuity of the new nation.
We didn’t get it right the first time. We didn’t even get it right the second time. The founders had to tack ten amendments on the Constitution before they even sent it out to be ratified. And we’ve had to amend it 17 times since then. We need to amend it again, to dump the electoral college, the last vestige of our founders belief that we the people were too bloody stupid to be trusted with our own governance. Okay, two of those amendments were dumb. We gained nothing with the 18th and 21st Amendments except a really bad social experiment in prohibiting alcohol. But the rest of them addressed flaws in our system or corrected a lack of equality among our citizens.
This is not the 18th century, and Egypt is not a vast, sparsely-populated, open continent. In Egypt, 80% of men and 63% of women over the age of 10 can read and write. Though there are no literacy statistics for the United States in 1789, in 1870 almost 80% of non-whites and 12% of whites were illiterate. Immigrants and Native Americans weren’t even counted. Egyptians are not living in isolation from the rest of the world. They have internet and international television, they have an educated class that is not restricted to land-owners and merchants. They have Egyptian television stations that run the full range from ultra-liberal to ultra-conservative. They even have a station that caused the embassy attacks on September 11, a station that found and showed the offensive movie trailers and encouraged “protests” against America.
It is that educated class that started the Egyptian revolution two years ago. The young men and women who gathered in Tahrir Square had met with scholars and politicians, jurists and diplomats who taught them about other nation’s constitutions and other nation’s successes and failures. They did not represent the majority of Egyptians, but they represented the future that they hoped Egypt would advance to. And they underestimated the sleeping power of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood had been outlawed for decades, but when finally able to operate in the open, they proved that they had the organization and knowledge to run a political campaign, something the protesters of Tahrir Square did not have.
The protesters of two years ago are still protesting, and they will continue to protest until the Mursi government realizes that just having the political machine to win an election is not enough. A government needs to be believed in by all, or at least most, of its people. Elections do not hold a nation together. Elections expose the divisions in a nation. The upcoming parliamentary elections will not resolve anything, since it is the constitution that mandates those elections which is at the heart of the protests.
There is no shame in admitting that the first try failed. In fact, it could be the best thing that could happen, not just for Egypt but for the region. The idea that a republic can be created out of nothingness is false. It must evolve out of something, even if that something is only a couple of years old. And showing the region that evolution is possible, that what happens in the immediate aftermath of revolution is not a finality, can possibly help to defuse the growing chaos in Libya and the rest of the region. There is also much to be gained by admitting that no people or nation can go backwards. Egypt must deal with the fact that those who led the revolution want the world as it is today, not as it never was.
Eventually, they might be able to celebrate the revolution instead of continuing it.