Friday, February 11, 2011

Philadelphia, Paris and Cairo: A Tale of Three Cities

As events unfold on the streets of Cairo, many of us still don’t know what to think. Should we be feeling wonder or trepidation? Mubarak’s days are numbered but what comes next? Liberal democracy? Not likely, but perhaps a step in that direction? Is democracy merely the handmaiden for Islamist theocracy? Will the army have the final say? Does one strong-armed autocrat replace another? We don’t know. Political revolutions take on a life of their own. The drama is real and the stakes are enormous.

Historical examples of other nations can only teach us so much but they might teach us something. I’ve been reading a book called Cosmopolitan Patriots by Philipp Ziesche. It’s about the French Revolution as seen through the eyes of Americans who were living in Paris and witnessing the momentous events firsthand, from the storming of the Bastille in 1789 to the seizure of power by Napoleon Bonaparte a decade later, and the great political upheaval in between. These Americans – including Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Gouverneur Morris, James Monroe – had their own ideas about revolution and nation-building. In 1789, the ink on the U.S. Constitution wasn’t even dry.

In the beginning, the Americans in Paris embraced the French Revolution wholeheartedly. They saw it as an extension of their own revolutionary experiment in self-government, but they had no way of knowing how things would turn out. Even Jefferson, probably the most fervent American supporter of revolution in France, didn’t initially hope for more than a constitutional monarchy. These cosmopolitan American ambassadors did not support anything like “democracy” as we understand the term today. Democracy was understood as mob rule and chaos. It was equated with a breakdown in the social and moral order.

When Jefferson returned to the newly formed United States in late 1789, he was practically giddy about the prospects for revolution in France. But then, Jefferson had seen none of the violence. His replacement, the new U.S. minister to France was the well-heeled New Yorker, Gouverneur Morris, surely one of the more underrated Founding Fathers. Morris is most famous for his role in drafting the Constitution and, in particular, for adding the phrase “We the People.” Even the conservative Morris clearly understood that sovereignty, the very authority to govern, resided in the People.

By 1792, the streets of Paris turned bloody and heads began to roll, literally. (Thomas Paine almost lost his own.) In the first two weeks of September, more than a thousand prisoners were massacred by Jacobin radicals. Morris witnessed these events and, in a letter to Jefferson, he described the killing of a noblewoman, Madame de Lamballe, by a Parisian mob. He noted that her head and entrails were paraded through the street on pikes and her body was dragged after them. (Power to the people? Sounds fine. But THOSE people? On second thought…) Seeing a revolution up close can have a way of cooling the passions for change.

Last week, the demonstrations in Cairo took a bloody turn. The blame is generally placed on Mubarak who evidently didn’t get the memo announcing: The tides of history are against you! Please step down so that an orderly transition of power can be arranged! By cracking down on the demonstrations and the media’s coverage of them, Mubarak and his supporters are only delaying the inevitable. What’s more, they showed the world what many Egyptians have experienced for years – the blunt inclination of an autocrat to crush dissent. How could Mubarak be so foolish? So tone-deaf?  That’s what it is to be a dictator. But sometimes the devil that you know is better than the one that you don’t. Imperfect order is preferable to perfect chaos. That’s the argument in defense of Mubarak. It’s credible to a point, but it isn’t nearly enough. Events have pushed things too far.

Cairo, 2011 is not like Paris, 1789 or, for that matter, Berlin, 1989. The forces of revolution and reaction aren’t truly comparable. Could this be like Tehran in 1979? Yesterday happened to mark the 32nd anniversary of Iran’s Islamic revolution. Superficially at least, the Iranian example seems instructive – a secular autocrat, backed by the West, overthrown by a popular movement. But there’s good reason to think that Tehran isn’t the right example either. For one thing, Egypt is not Iran. While there is a long history of Islamist activity within Egypt, there is no galvanizing clerical figure in Egypt comparable to the Ayatollah Khomeini. Perhaps more importantly, 2011 is not 1979. Unlike the Iranians of 1979, Egyptians have the Internet (or at least they did before Mubarak’s crackdown). Facebook, Twitter, smartphones and satellite television mean that authority figures can’t control or filter information the way they once did. The revolution will not only be televised – it will be tweeted.

These communication technologies can have a democratizing effect but democracy is no guarantee of a liberal government or good result. One of the greatest foreign policy mistakes the U.S. has made in recent years was to promote “democracy” without adequately supporting the architecture that enables democracy to safeguard basic human rights. As if the mere holding of elections will somehow change what’s broken in a corrupt and backward political and economic system.

Here, the lessons of the U.S. founders are instructive. They created the United States as a constitutional republic and not as a democracy.  The distinction meant a great deal to them. Democracy amounts to elections and majority rule – it is two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner. But a republic includes constitutional protections, rights for minorities, an independent judiciary and a balance of power. The word “republic” seems quaint now. For many years, we referred to the free nations of the west as liberal democracies. The adjective "liberal" signalled a certain kind of democracy - one with constitutional provisions and a commitment to the political ideals of the Enlightenment.  But now the word has been swallowed up by partisan politics and is most often used either defensively or as a pejorative. Meaning becomes diluted. Now we hear “democracy” and we decide that’s a good thing but we don’t bother to make the distinctions that were so important to the founders.

The fear is that Egypt will go radical and the Muslim Brotherhood, the ideological forbearers of both Al-Qaeda and Hamas, will rise to power. Or that chaos will reign, resulting in a much bloodier crackdown and Egypt will end up exactly where it was – with a strongman ruling the nation by force. We will be reminded that Mubarak, for all of his faults, at least kept the Muslim Brotherhood from the levers of power. Of course he did this by outlawing the Brotherhood, torturing their leaders and tossing their members in prison. But he tosses lots of other people in jail for the crime of political dissent. Those jailed have included Saad Eddin Ibrahim, Egypt’s leading human rights advocate and Ayman Nour, a political opponent who champions a democratic movement that is neither Islamist nor autocratic. In the U.S., we often hear politicians and commentators ask “Why are there so few moderates in the Islamic world?” Well, it’s worth considering that at least some of them have been rotting in Mubarak’s jails.

Students of political science and European history learn that there are different theories of the social contract, that famous principle of the Enlightenment which explains government's legitimacy. Government authority comes from the consent of the governed. The concept was popularized by Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century, but his particular version provided the justification for monarchy and absolute rule. Another variation on the social contract was devised a century later by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, although the populism inherent within his version is blamed for the excesses of the French Revolution. In the United States, it has been the social contract theory of John Locke that is most often celebrated because of its emphasis on natural rights and individual liberty.

How does social contract theory apply to Egypt and the Muslim world? Does it apply? Reformers and critics alike have noted that the Islamic world has not experienced anything like a philosophical or cultural movement like Europe’s Enlightenment. Whether this is because of the severity of Islam’s religious doctrine or because of other political or cultural developments within the Islamic world is a favorite subject of historical debate. But it is fair to say that in Islam, government authority does NOT come from the consent of the governed, but only from Allah. This poses quite a challenge for Islamic reformers and legal scholars, like UCLA professor Khaled Abou El Fadl, who strive to reconcile Islamic faith with individual rights and popular sovereignty.

There are skeptics who don’t think meaningful democracy can succeed in the Islamic world. There are still others who don’t want it to. But what is widely agreed upon – by critics and supporters alike – is that what the Islamic world needs is a reformation on a large scale. Given the reality of terrorism in the nuclear age and the threat that failed states pose to the global order, we need this reformation too. What if THIS is it? Sure, political revolution is a risky proposition. If it goes badly, it might fuel terrorism, pose a threat to Israel, spread chaos throughout the region and crush the hopes of millions of Egyptians. But what is the alternative? To support a regime that denies basic human rights? Can we rationalize the fixed elections and suppression of free expression by telling ourselves that the worst of the Islamist radicals are held in check? (Is that even true?) Shall we make the condescending excuse that the people of Egypt cannot handle freedom? What is the price for supporting the status quo? What is the cost of being on the wrong side of history? Talk about risky.

But the reality is that we are bystanders. President Obama and other world leaders have called for Mubarak to step down. They seek an orderly transition of power, but do they have the ability to shape events on the streets of Cairo? The likely successor, Vice President Omar Suleiman, is seen by some Egyptians as just another Mubarak. He is also the commander of Egypt’s military. Mubarak, who was expected to resign, announced yesterday that he wasn’t ready to do so. Victory celebrations in Tahrir Square turned to demonstrations of outrage.

Cairo, the city of a thousand minarets, is a massive place. Each day now there are many peaceful protests and great showings of solidarity. There is also anger and tension, clashes with police and roving gangs of looters in the streets. Tanks and armored military vehicles are on stand-by. Today, millions have gathered in Tahrir Square to answer the Friday call for prayer. One suspects that this is still the beginning. The world holds its breath.


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