Egypt's Elusive Democracy

If there is a trait common to most Americans, it is respect for democracy.  When angry masses take to the streets, as they have in Cairo, Americans recall their revolutionary past to support such protesters almost instinctively.

Yet the Egyptian protests differ from America's earliest struggle.  The colonists' demands for freedom were repeatedly denied by England's king, but it took just a week of demonstrations for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to agree to leave office at the end of his term.  One might think that the protesters would be satisfied by Mubarak's acquiescence, which ensures Egypt's first open elections ever.  But they are not.  They want a new government now, with neither a vote nor a constitutional mandate. 

A thin line separates democratic protest from mob action, and the protesters' refusal to accept Mubarak's capitulation turns their legitimate grievance against an unconscionably long dictatorship into an act of intimidation unworthy of true democracy. Regrettably, President Obama ignores this distinction.

In a televised speech, President Obama instructed that the demonstrations must result in a government grounded in democratic principles.  Maybe he meant after the protesters have undemocratically decapitated the government that promised open elections nine months hence.

Displaying an unmoored zeal to appeal to the Egyptian street protesters, the President intoned, "the passion and the dignity that has been demonstrated by the people of Egypt has been an inspiration to people around the world, including here in the United States, and to all those who believe in the inevitability of human freedom."  These words show a President dismayingly unaware of the genesis of political freedom.

How is it possible that the President of the United States conflates crowd intimidation with democracy, when it is in fact the antithesis?  Were it otherwise, protests over President Obama's health care plan might well have caused him concern for his own tenure in office.  Indeed, only the secret ballot can ensure democracy because only through it can the poor and meek speak as loudly as the rich and powerful.  With the prospect of free and fair elections, the Egyptian crowds no longer demand democracy, but a lawless immediacy that debases the very system they seek and deserve.

World history is littered with glorious revolutions that ignored the democratic imperative, driving one leader from power only to bring subjugation by a different leader.  Democracy is more than just a word, or even the right to vote.  It is fleeting and meaningless unaccompanied by the rights to speak, to assemble and to petition the government for redress. 

Even so, the need for security, consistency and dependability require the United States to deal even with undemocratic leaders, many of whom must now question the value of protecting American interests, in light of President Obama's vicissitude.  Given that President Mubarak has been a powerful guarantor of America's interests for stability in the Middle East the choice between an undemocratic ally that has promised elections, or protesters who demand undemocratically to depose him, is not quite the slam dunk it seems on cable news.

The inescapable conclusion is that the United States must balance the principle of democracy against its baser needs for security, consistency and dependability.  One can only pray that the Egyptian people build the sort of liberal democracy that has sustained the United States through tumultuous changes.  But the Egyptians people should recognize the opportunity they have won and stop the intimidating demand for an undemocratic start to this new era.  Let them instead to vote into power a government committed to civil rights for all Egyptians.  Democracy demands no less.

Jonathan Edelman is a Chicago attorney.
If there is a trait common to most Americans, it is respect for democracy.  When angry masses take to the streets, as they have in Cairo, Americans recall their revolutionary past to support such protesters almost instinctively.

Yet the Egyptian protests differ from America's earliest struggle.  The colonists' demands for freedom were repeatedly denied by England's king, but it took just a week of demonstrations for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to agree to leave office at the end of his term.  One might think that the protesters would be satisfied by Mubarak's acquiescence, which ensures Egypt's first open elections ever.  But they are not.  They want a new government now, with neither a vote nor a constitutional mandate. 

A thin line separates democratic protest from mob action, and the protesters' refusal to accept Mubarak's capitulation turns their legitimate grievance against an unconscionably long dictatorship into an act of intimidation unworthy of true democracy. Regrettably, President Obama ignores this distinction.

In a televised speech, President Obama instructed that the demonstrations must result in a government grounded in democratic principles.  Maybe he meant after the protesters have undemocratically decapitated the government that promised open elections nine months hence.

Displaying an unmoored zeal to appeal to the Egyptian street protesters, the President intoned, "the passion and the dignity that has been demonstrated by the people of Egypt has been an inspiration to people around the world, including here in the United States, and to all those who believe in the inevitability of human freedom."  These words show a President dismayingly unaware of the genesis of political freedom.

How is it possible that the President of the United States conflates crowd intimidation with democracy, when it is in fact the antithesis?  Were it otherwise, protests over President Obama's health care plan might well have caused him concern for his own tenure in office.  Indeed, only the secret ballot can ensure democracy because only through it can the poor and meek speak as loudly as the rich and powerful.  With the prospect of free and fair elections, the Egyptian crowds no longer demand democracy, but a lawless immediacy that debases the very system they seek and deserve.

World history is littered with glorious revolutions that ignored the democratic imperative, driving one leader from power only to bring subjugation by a different leader.  Democracy is more than just a word, or even the right to vote.  It is fleeting and meaningless unaccompanied by the rights to speak, to assemble and to petition the government for redress. 

Even so, the need for security, consistency and dependability require the United States to deal even with undemocratic leaders, many of whom must now question the value of protecting American interests, in light of President Obama's vicissitude.  Given that President Mubarak has been a powerful guarantor of America's interests for stability in the Middle East the choice between an undemocratic ally that has promised elections, or protesters who demand undemocratically to depose him, is not quite the slam dunk it seems on cable news.

The inescapable conclusion is that the United States must balance the principle of democracy against its baser needs for security, consistency and dependability.  One can only pray that the Egyptian people build the sort of liberal democracy that has sustained the United States through tumultuous changes.  But the Egyptians people should recognize the opportunity they have won and stop the intimidating demand for an undemocratic start to this new era.  Let them instead to vote into power a government committed to civil rights for all Egyptians.  Democracy demands no less.

Jonathan Edelman is a Chicago attorney.

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