Thursday, February 3, 2011

Birthing Democracy

As I write these words, I'm sitting in a large room crammed with people called to appear for jury duty. Along with voting, jury duty is the experience that best exposes ordinary Americans to the democratic ideal envisioned by the founders. Arguably, in fact, jury duty is the purest form of democracy, in that a jury can nullify laws by refusing to enforce them, thus providing a mechanism by which the people can override the decisions of their elected representatives.

Is this what is happening in Egypt and the Arab world today? Are the people, through their demonstrations, expressing a desire for freedom and democracy that has been denied them by their (illegitimately) elected rulers?

To a certain extent, yes. Those happy young faces you see being interviewed on TV belong to young idealists, born and raised under the thumb of the present leader. They seem certain that the only thing standing between them and their liberty is Mubarak, or Hussein, or Assad. So all they need to do is get that bad guy out and poof! ...democracy will descend from heaven to rest gently on their shoulders for all time.
Draft of the Declaration of Independence
(Library of Congress)

Our Forefathers were under no such misgivings. But then, they were no schoolchildren; rather, they were, by and large, highly educated civic leaders, scholars, and property owners. They had a list of grievances, to be sure.  "The history of the present King of Great Britain," Jefferson wrote, "is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States."

But Jefferson, Hamilton, Adams and the rest knew that airing grievances and fomenting revolution weren't sufficient to the cause. They also needed to communicate a vision of what they planned to build to compete in the public mind with the reality they were already experiencing. Yes, it would take them another decade and more after independence for this vision to find its ultimate expression in the Constitution. But even in the years of the Continental Congress, even before the revolution, the Founders were driven not only to divorce themselves from Great Britain, but even more importantly, to build a nation of virtue on the ideas of Locke, Montesquieu, and others.

One searches in vain for the Jefferson of the Arab street. Certainly, Egyptian revolutionary figurehead Mohamed ElBaradei does not fit the bill. Known internationally but lacking any local constituency, ElBaradei is useful as a placeholder that all sides can live with until the post-Mubarak power struggle begins. It is becoming increasingly apparent that the Muslim Brotherhood remains the best prepared and most likely successor to Mubarak.

In the past couple of days, the Muslim Brotherhood has become more visibly involved in the struggle to overthrow Mubarak. The group has been proclaiming its commitment to democracy, but as journalist Yossi Klein Halevi points out in the New York Times:
Israelis fear that the Brotherhood’s nonviolence has been a tactical maneuver and know that its worldview is rooted in crude anti-Semitism. The Brotherhood and its offshoots have been the main purveyors of the Muslim world’s widespread conspiracy theories about the Jews, from blaming the Israeli intelligence service for 9/11 to accusing Zionists of inventing the Holocaust to blackmail the West.
Others argue that the responsibilities of governance would moderate the Brotherhood, but [among Israelis] that is dismissed as Western naïveté: the same prediction, after all, was made about the Iranian regime, Hezbollah and Hamas. 
The incredible treasury of documents left us by our Founders testify to the great democracy they would eventually form. We can only assume that the past statements and writings of the eventual leadership of Egypt are similarly indicative, however hard we wish it were otherwise.

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