A Little Rebellion Now and Then

The decision by Egypt’s military to intervene and force out the country’s Islamist president has produced a lot of hand-wringing about how this is an attack on Jeffersonian democracy.

The irony is that this is “democracy” in the most literal, original sense, in a way that would have been easily recognized by the Ancient Greeks who invented it: a giant mob gathered in the agora to demand, by overwhelming acclaim, that an over-ambitious demagogue be ostracized.

As for Thomas Jefferson, I can’t do better than to quote the first two lines from the Independence Day compilation I recently posted: “A little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical. What country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance?”

The New York Times has a detailed account of how the deposed president, Mohamed Morsi, overreached and provoked his people’s spirit of resistance. The article is what journalists would call “well-sourced,” meaning that the reporters talked to a lot of people with inside knowledge of the regime. It is perhaps a little too well-sourced, because it reads at some points like a transcription of how events look from the perspective of the Muslim Brotherhood. Nevertheless, that perspective is instructive. The article describes “what [Morsi’s] advisers and Muslim Brotherhood leaders now acknowledge was the defining blunder of his one-year presidency.”

“After Mubarak-appointed judges dissolved the Islamist-led Parliament, Mr. Morsi in November declared his own authority above the courts until a constitutional convention could finish its work.

“Tens of thousands of protesters denounced his tactic as authoritarian, setting off the first major street fighting between his supporters and opponents. Even some of his allies in the Muslim Brotherhood were angered, the group’s leaders and presidential advisers said. They complained that he had not consulted them, but still expected them to defend him in the streets.

“‘If I were not in my place, I would think he wants to be a dictator,’ one Muslim Brotherhood leader said when he heard the news on television, a colleague recounted on condition of anonymity.”

The problem the Egyptians were up against was the old Islamist policy of “one man, one vote, one time.” Islamists are happy to allow free and fair elections—until they win and take power, at which point they begin the task of suppressing all political opposition.

Jeffrey Goldberg sums up the Egyptian liberals’ dilemma.

“If the anti-Morsi demonstrators had exhibited the patience the president lacked, they would, theoretically, at least, have had their chance to remove him at the ballot box. They would also have exhibited a maturity about the processes of democratic governance.

“Had the military not intervened, though, the Muslim Brotherhood may have tried, over time, to make sure that Egypt’s first free and fair election was also its last. A number of Egyptian friends have written me in the past day, arguing that what the Egyptian people did—or, more to the point, what the Egyptian army, responding to the will of the people, did—was to forestall the rise of a new Hitler. If the Germans, who chose Adolf Hitler in a democratic election, had turned on him a year later, well, you know the rest. The analogy is overdone for so many reasons, but it is absolutely true that the Muslim Brotherhood is a totalitarian cult, not a democratic party.”

That last part, about the Brotherhood being a “totalitarian cult,” kind of nullifies his disclaimer about the Hitler analogy being “overdone.” When you’re dealing with actual totalitarians, Godwin’s Law does not apply.

For American readers, perhaps the best overview of what’s going on in Egypt is a note posted by Bret Baier from an Egyptian in Alexandria.

“A lot of my dear American friends still ask me what on earth really happened in Egypt, for their benefit, and anyone else on earth genuinely trying to make heads or tails of us ‘crazy Egyptians’; here’s exactly what happened in Egypt over the past 12 months, but expressed in ‘American’ terms…

“There are no exaggerations or lies, these events all took place:

“On June 30th 2012, democratically elected Barack Obama wins the election with 51.7%, takes the oath, and is sworn in as president of the United States.

“First five months of his term go relatively smoothly, where he makes almost no decisions (except for some dubious presidential pardons to a dozen convicted terrorists, including some convicted for their part in the assassination of a former US President).

“Suddenly, on November 21st 2012, president Obama issues a presidential decree giving himself sweeping powers, to the extent that his future decrees become un-contestable in any court, in effect his decisions henceforth are akin to the word of God.

“His laws a new Bible….

“Nationwide protests erupt as a result of this decree and 1.5 million people organize a sit-in at the White House to peacefully request he rescind it.

“Some of Obama’s democratic party supporters attack the peaceful sit-in outside the White House with guns & shoot 5 peaceful protesters dead.

“A few weeks later president Obama dissolves the US Supreme Court and labels them all ‘traitors to America.’

“One short week later, he fires the United States District Attorney and personally appoints a Democrat to replace him.

“A month later he annuls the US Constitution and forms a ‘constitutional committee’ to draft a new constitution (committee includes no Republicans or Independents, no Moslems or Jews, and only a handful of women. And is composed primarily of Democrats & religious preachers.)

“In a referendum not supervised by any judicial branch, this constitution narrowly wins, and President Obama ratifies it the very next morning (despite it having only gotten the approval of 18% of all Americans).

“Within a month he invites top global terrorists, known jihadists and Al Qaeda members from all over the world, to a rally in Yankee stadium, where he cuts ties with and declares war on, Canada.

“Throughout this whole time, the US economy is sinking, the stock market collapsing, foreign investment has all but stopped, tourism has died, and electricity, fuel, and water shortages are a daily occurrence.

“Unemployment has almost doubled, and the US$ dollar has lost 20% of its value globally.

“Oh, and president Obama also outlines his new plans to lease the entire Silicon Valley area to China for 50 years (with full administrative control)….

“Democratically elected president Barack Obama has done all the above in his FIRST YEAR IN OFFICE!!!

“Ultimately, on June 30th, 2013…

“110 million Americans take to the streets in 50 States peacefully and politely demanding—for 4 straight days—that democratically elected Obama leave immediately, and not continue his remaining 3 years….

“That’s it in a nutshell

“Who would you say had ‘legitimacy’ in this case if it had been America?

“‘Democratically elected Barrack Obama,’ or the 110 million Americans who fired him…?”

If anything, this is understated, because it leaves out torture chambers being set up in the White House. This is, as Jefferson might have said, a long train of abuses and usurpations.

As I noted in my RCP newsletter, this American analogy only goes so far, because the Egyptian context is very different. When Morsi overturned the existing Egyptian constitution, for example, he was overturning a constitution left over from an authoritarian regime.

We American don’t quite realize how lucky we got when it comes to revolutions. In The Old Regime and the French Revolution, Alexis de Tocqueville noted how the French Revolution ending up producing a system very much like the one it overthrew, because the basic institutions of government remained even as the leaders at the top were switched out. About a hundred years before the French Revolution, Louis XIV had quashed local institutions and centralized everything in the capital, and that’s how the system remained.

America escaped this dilemma—a new dictatorship, just with different rulers—because we were not rebelling against the existing order. We were trying to re-establish it. As British writer Daniel Hannan observes in an eloquent July 4 commentary, “The American Revolution was motivated, not by a rejection but a reaffirmation—indeed, an intensification—of British national identity…. The Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution that followed, distilled and fortified the principles on which British exceptionalism was held to have rested since the Great Charter.”

More specifically, the Americans were fighting to restore the British constitutional order established about a hundred years earlier in the Glorious Revolution of 1689, as well as restoring the authority of our existing colonial parliaments. Now that I think of it, this explains why today’s conservatives are so comfortable laying claim to the legacy of the American Revolution, because if you were to project the seemingly paradoxical idea of a revolution mounted by conservatives, that would be it.

The Egyptians are not in such a happy position. They do not have a morally and politically legitimate existing order to restore. They have to create legitimate institutions for the first time, largely from scratch. That is why the pro-freedom constituency in Egypt has been forced to triangulate, as it were, between the Islamists and the military. At the beginning of the revolution, and in the early stages when the remnants of the Old Regime were still clinging to power, the liberals made common cause with the Islamists against the military. Now they’re making common cause with the military against the Islamists. That in itself is important because it draws a more natural dividing line; the Islamists are a greater long-term threat to freedom than the military and the old regime.

As one observer puts it, we have just seen the liberals’ declaration of independence from the Islamists.

All of this had been aided by the failure of the Islamists, whose ideology is turning out to look a lot like its totalitarian predecessor, Communism: nobody hates it more than people who have been forced to live under it. The biggest dilemma for the old Communists was that they promised to deliver prosperity but delivered permanent poverty. The biggest dilemma for the Islamists is that they promise to deliver virtue but deliver corruption and brutality. This is how the Morsi regime lost the support, not only of young, secular liberals, but of a vast swath of the country’s moderates. A good roundup of the Brotherhood’s failures quotes one such opponent.

“‘They promised us that Islam is the solution,’ said the old, bearded man in Tahrir Square. ‘But under Muslim Brotherhood rule we saw neither Islam nor a solution.'”

We he says that they didn’t see Islam, what he means is that they didn’t see the superior virtuousness that the Islamists promised.

This is obviously a big opportunity for us to help discredit the Islamists and establish a more stable free society. So naturally we’re flubbing it. The Obama administration is phoning it in. And any sense I had about how much better John McCain would have been on foreign policy was diminished when he favored suspending foreign aid to Egypt because of the coup. So it’s OK to give money to the Muslim Brotherhood, but not acceptable to give money to the folks who saved Egypt from the Brotherhood?

In fact, there’s a good argument that the best thing we could do for Egypt is to offer more aid, since the nation’s financial crisis—which the Brotherhood made worse—is one of the big factors dragging it down into chaos and oppression.

Then again, what Egypt really needs is more capitalism.

“Take, for example, the case of Mohammed Bouazizi, who started this chain of events by burning himself alive on a Tunisian street market two years ago. As his family attest, he had no interest in politics. The freedom he wanted was the right to buy and sell, and to build his business without having to pay bribes to the police or fear having his goods confiscated at random. If he was a martyr to anything, it was to capitalism.

“All this has been established by Hernando de Soto, a Peruvian economist who travelled to Egypt to investigate the causes of the Arab Spring. His team of researchers found that Bouazizi had inspired 60 similar cases of self-immolation, including five in Egypt, almost all of which had been overlooked by the press. The narrative of a 1989-style revolution in hope of regime change seemed so compelling to foreigners that there was little appetite for further explanation. But de Soto’s team tracked down those who survived their suicide attempts, and the bereaved families. Time and again, they found the same story: this was a protest for the basic freedom to own and acquire ras el mel, or capital….

“To de Soto, this explains much of world poverty. Step out of the door of the Nile Hilton, he says, and you are not leaving behind the world of internet, ice machines, and antibiotics. The poor have access to all of these things if they really want it. What you are leaving behind is the world of legally enforceable transactions of property rights.”

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. In the short term, it’s important to recognize that a military coup is not exactly the ideal mechanism for protecting freedom.

After the big June 30 demonstrations against the Muslim brotherhood, I got a note from a reader who said, “I’ve got to hand it to you Robert. I thought your optimism for the Middle East was crazy. I’m glad that I’m being proven wrong. I am simply blown away by what happened in Egypt.” I appreciate the reaction, and it’s good to take a moment to appreciate the sight of something going right in the world. But there is a lot of trouble still to come.

Michael Totten offers a grim one-line prediction: “Terrorism is coming to Egypt.”

You bet. When Islamists don’t get their way at the ballot box, they will try to get it through force and terror. Jordan’s King Abdullah II, who is proving to be as good a friend to the West as his father, quotes that other fake Islamic Democrat, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “Erdogan once said that democracy for him is a bus ride. Once I get to my stop, I’m getting off.” And if the bus doesn’t take him where he wants to go, the Islamist will blow it up.

Thus, an ideologue for Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a North African jihadist group, offers the following charming advice: “The youth of Egypt should learn that the price of applying principles on the ground is a mountain of body parts and seas of blood, because evil must be killed and not shown mercy.”

One Egyptian Islamist group has called for an uprising or “intifada.” You probably would have seen more than a few sardonic grins in Tel Aviv when that news came out. However, “they failed to bring enough people on the streets to pose a threat either to the army or to the dominant anti-Morsi cause in the capital…. They also seemed reduced to an Islamist core, with a greater preponderance of religious beards and robes.”

Walter Russell Mead expresses the bleakest outlook on Egypt’s prospects.

“Egypt has none of the signs that would lead historians to think democracy is just around the corner. Mubarak was not Franco, and Egypt is not Spain. What’s happening in Egypt isn’t the robust flowering of a civil society so dynamic and so democratic that it can no longer be held back by dictatorial power….

“The White House needs to purge all short or even medium term thoughts of promoting Egypt’s transition to democracy. There aren’t enough ‘good guys’ in Egypt to Americanize or even to Malaysianize the place. Democracy in Egypt right now is an ‘if we had some eggs we could have some ham and eggs—if we had some ham’ kind of dream. Our first goal must be to help prevent Egypt’s descent into starvation, misery, anarchy and despair.”

There are a lot of people in both political camps—from cynical non-interventionist “realists” to pessimistic conservatives disillusioned by Bush’s debacle in Iraq—who would agree with this assessment.

In response to that, however, I would offer this (by way of Michael Totten): an interview filmed during the first big wave of anti-Morsi protests last November, in which a 12-year-old boy named Ali Ahmed explains to a befuddled reporter what the protests are about—and does so with remarkable sophistication, confidence, and eloquence. For me the highlight of the interview is this exchange:

Interviewer: “Who taught you all this?”

Ali Ahmed: “I just know it.”

Interviewer: “How do you know it?”

Ali Ahmed: “I listen to people a lot, and I use my own brain.”

Using his own brain—now there is a revolutionary notion. This interview has become something of a sensation on the Internet in the past few days, and one commentator responded that “if this kid is the future of Egypt, I’m not even worried any more.” Well, it’s not clear that he is the future of Egypt, so I’m still worried. But the possibility that he might be the future of Egypt is what makes me optimistic about what can be accomplished there, if the forces of Islamic obscurantism can be beaten back for long enough.

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