“A republic if you can keep it”

I closed my reflections on Egypt with the title’s Ben Franklin quotation. And I want to expand on that point briefly, because there’s often confusion about what it takes to make a republic. We sometimes think that a nation has become a democratic republic because it elects its leaders and has a constitution that checks the right boxes. But we know that some of history’s greatest monsters first came to power through legitimate elections, seizing and consolidating power through constitutional means, until their republic atrophied into dictatorship. Examples of this process stretch back at least to the rise of Julius Caesar himself, and certainly include Mubarak.

A democracy demands more than elections, and more than guarantees on paper about democratic processes. For the United States, proof that we’d keep our democracy took 12 years after the first president was elected. The first great moment was George Washington’s decision not to run for re-election. He could easily have had himself crowned king, and named his successor. But he stepped aside and remained largely distant from politics after leaving office, allowing a fair playing field for subsequent presidential elections.

The other great early moment in democracy was when Thomas Jefferson took power from his bitter rival John Adams. Such a smooth shift in power was unprecedented, and set the tone for later electoral rivalries. Al Gore’s concession of the 2000 election was filled with echoes from the civil transfer of power 200 years earlier. Adams (or Gore) could have kept his cabinet as a shadow government, fouling every act of the new government, but instead he allowed his rival to take power smoothly.

The key to these moments was a dedication to the principles of a shared revolution. Adams and Washington and Jefferson disagreed about many things, but they fought together to bring about this government, and they would not betray their principles. They built institutions and norms of government that, while not in the Constitution, are constitutional to the United States of America. Some, like limiting a president to 2 terms, have become constitutional. Others, like electoral opponents uniting behind the eventual victor of an election, exist more as established conventions than as laws. Perhaps the greatest of these quasi-constitutional norms is the principle of judicial review, the notion that the President and Congress must obey the rulings of courts who declare their actions unconstitutional.

i-21f6b33e1a56665e13b3bfdb185c73b8-rebuildegypt.jpgThe reason I reject the cynicism we see from some quarters (e.g., also lots of twitter comments yesterday) is that Egypt has demonstrated that it has many of the key traits it will need. There is a unity to the demands of protesters, and the celebrations across Egypt, the rolling strikes that preceded Mubarak’s resignation, and especially the unity of message from opposition parties and even the military and some members of Mubarak’s own party, all signal that the Egyptian people are united behind their new democracy. Just as the protesters are now repaving Tahrir square with stones torn up as they defended it from Mubarak’s forces, they’ll have to rebuild their democracy. But the fact that so many are out rebuilding the nation already is a strong sign.

Furthermore, despite Mubarak’s depredations, the constitution provides a good framework. Some amendments will be necessary, the protesters identified the changes that must be made, and the transitional government has committed to making them before the next elections. This democracy isn’t being imposed by a UN mandate or by a military coup seeking to legitimize itself, it is a promise that the people made to themselves, and they will not see it betrayed.
Moreover, all the reports I’ve seen from experts suggest that the courts in Egypt have a strong independent streak, and will be prepared to ensure justice as soon as the emergency powers law is repealed. The culture of democracy already exists, and the challenge will simply be to channel it in healthy ways.

Finally, while some have fretted that a military coup is hardly an auspicious start to a democracy, it should be noted that the army has consistently signaled its intent to transition to a democracy swiftly, and at least some of the protesters in Egypt had been looking to the military for exactly this sort of transitional role. One of the things that has contributed to the stability of US democracy has been a strong tradition of civilian control, a tradition inculcated in politicians and into military culture. But that isn’t the only way it can work. In Turkey, the military operates essentially as another level of checks and balances on the civilian government, using its might to prevent extremist politicians from violating the nation’s tradition of secular government. It’s not a system I’d want in the US, but it isn’t inconceivable that the Egyptian army could serve a similar role, an institutional defender of liberal democracy against demagogues. Throughout this crisis, the army made clear that it would not allow Mubarak to use violence to put down dissent, and its intervention allowed this revolution to be remarkably free of violence. There’s no reason to doubt its commitment to this transition. There’s a reason protesters are now taking time to clean graffiti off of the army’s tanks in Tahrir Square: those are the people’s tanks, now.

It also doesn’t hurt that the US government has given tons and tons of money, training, and goodwill, to the Egyptian military. That should give the US and other international observers some leverage on the transitional military government, as well as credibility in whatever negotiations we might have with the transitional government. The Egyptian people want democracy, the formal and informal structure of the government is conducive to democracy, and Egypt’s international partners want democracy.

Let’s enjoy the warm glow.

i-51c57cc179440d9502ce884117db5291-cleantank.jpg
Images via Arwa Mahmoud’s twitter stream.

Comments

  1. #1 John Pieret
    February 12, 2011

    Hey, Josh … off topic, sort of … you attended the 2005 Kansas science standards hearings, didn’t you? The producers of Kansas vs. Darwin, a documentary on the the hearings, have made it available for viewing, for a limited time, free on the web for Darwin’s birthday, here:

    http://www.kansasvdarwin.com/

    I saw a brief shot, at around minute 63:15, during testimony by a Turkish creationist, Mustafa Akyol, that I could swear was a glimpse you. Anyway, it is an interesting documentary, especially towards the end when the proponents of the fake standards started admitting their motivations were religious.

  2. #2 Josh Rosenau
    February 12, 2011

    John, yeah that’s me. Didn’t know it was streaming for free today, must blog it!

  3. #3 John Pieret
    February 12, 2011

    I put that badly … it is in honor of Darwin’s birthday but it’ll be available until March 12th. I’ll put up a post shortly at my place but please do so also since you have a much bigger audience.

  4. #4 rturpin
    February 12, 2011

    I’m keeping my fingers crossed, that Egypt goes well!

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