The Egyptian coup by the military should help us remember why we celebrated the Fourth of July this month. In 1776, America set a course to democracy that ended in a constitution that is the framework for the form of government we have now.
The Egyptians’ climb to a stable democracy has been fits, starts, wrong turns, and near death. Giving birth to democracy is hard and painful labor, but in spite of so many differences among the colonies, we pulled it off.
We should not take that feat for granted and we deserve to celebrate it. As we found our way, other countries, like Egypt, are trying to find theirs and we should wish them the best.
How did it happen we succeeded? 1776 was our first step. The debate was about whether to revolt from England. No one was excluded; all colonies sent representatives, and a sincere attempt was made to reach consensus through compromise. That same spirit of consensus-building, in spite of passionate differences and stumbles with the Articles of Confederation, continued into the Constitutional Convention beginning in 1787 and subsequent ratification. As historian Catherine Drinker Bowen wrote in “Miracle at Philadelphia,” “The spirit of compromise reigned in grace and glory.”
The interpretation of our Constitution is always evolving, and we have always had our divisions. In fact, we fought a bloody civil war over the admission and permission of slave or non-slave states. We despair today over a Congress that is paralyzed by a “ no compromise” mentality, but divisions are nothing like the passions of 1861.
Our democracy has reached a stage of maturity that to think our military would step in, conduct a coup, throw out the constitution, arrest the deposed leaders, and shut down media outlets, as just happened in Egypt, is not even on any rational American’s radar.
The form of democracy we devised to keep some a strong man or one party from seizing complete power was to divide our government into branches that checked and balanced each other and we put the military under civilian control . The Constitutional Amendments protect many other specific civil rights.
As seen through the eyes of seasoned Western journalists on the ground, there is agreement that the Egyptian course toward democracy went wrong after Tahrir Square in several ways.
First, the constitution was written by a commission chosen by a Muslim Brotherhood Islamist-dominated parliament. The commission cut out any special protection of the rights of women, secularists, and minority religions and they based the constitution in conformity with Shariah law. The genie of modernization had already been released from the bottle and stuffing those rights back into the bottle within a year was more than much of Egypt could accept.
Only 30 percent of registered voters went to the polls, though of those voting, 64 percent were in favor of the constitution. The vast majority’s preferences were not reflected in the approval process.
President Mohamed Morsi, elected by a bare majority, did not make good on his campaign promises to be inclusive, and he attempted to consolidate his supporter base of Islamists instead. In November, he decreed to legislate without judicial oversight or review of his acts. Public outrage forced him to annul the decree. He also persecuted opposition journalists and failed to revive the economy.
Egyptians should not mistake mass demonstrations for democracy any more than they should continue to accept military rule as their salvation. The military has promised to give them an opportunity to rewrite a constitution. The opposition to Morsi may be disorganized. However, to avoid a long and bloody struggle Morsi’s opposition and Morsi’s supporters must participate and compromise with “grace and glory” on a constitutional framework that will be more inclusive and will protect democratic institutions.