Was what happened in Tahrir Square an Egyptian Declaration of Indpendence?

TahrirSqAmr Nabil/AP

Sometimes a journalist, even a pundit on occasion, although less often, seems much closer to the meaning of the day’s happenings, to the reality of events than our nation’s leaders (or more accurately our elected representatives, for they mostly don’t lead).

This time our journalist, Christopher Dickey, is writing about Egypt, and in particular what happened the last week of June, and is still happening the first week of July in Tahrir or Freedom Square. Is it an “Arab summer” if no longer an Arab Spring?

For Dickey the meaning of the Tahrir events was clear. And it didn’t hurt at all his particular interpretation of the events that this week was also our own freedom week, the celebration of our own independence.

So what happened in the Square? The Egyptian people did take to the streets in huge numbers, millions, if not tens of millions of them (of that there’s no dispute) to demand the removal of a “democratically” elected leader who, no less than Mubarak before him, had failed miserably to meet anyone at all of his people’s aspirations for a better life, a normal life, a life like ours in the Western world, a life where people have rights and responsibilities, and opportunities and can look to a better future for themselves and their families.

Dickey saw it like this, the removal of Morsi being not a failure of democracy but the rightful stirring of a people’s yearning for freedom, not unlike our own of 1776, and Dickey faults our present leaders including President Obama for not immediately interpreting the events of the Square in this manner, for not speaking up publicly in support of the legitimate aspirations of the demonstrators. He faults our leaders, correctly I believe, for being hesitant, seemingly fearful of supporting what did seem to be a coup, an army stepping in and deposing an elected president.

Especially he faults our leaders for giving too much weight to only one of the trappings of democracy, and not the most important one at that, the popular election of a president.

He writes:

“For starters, you will note that there is nothing in the American Declaration of Independence about elections, yet U.S. policy often treats them as if they were ends in themselves. Constitutions are rushed into print. Voters are stampeded toward the polls. And then Washington is surprised when the best organized, most disciplined and most ruthless organizations in Iraq or Gaza, Tunisia or Egypt, emerge victorious and rule remorselessly.”

And isn’t this exactly what happened in Egypt, following the election of Morsi remorseless rule? For the victorious Brotherhood immediately proceeded to make of the country their own fiefdom, placing their people into all positions of importance and excluding all others from taking part in the country’s direction. At least they did this to the extent they were able to do so. If they were held back at all it was only  because there were still some external forces, and as it turned out the army, that they didn’t control.

“The Brotherhood,” in Dickey’s words, “thinks strategically about how best to dominate the Middle East an eventually the whole Muslim world, and electoral victories are just a means to that end, and as the Morsi government proved in Egypt, the consent of the governed and the guarantee of liberty are not part of the program.”

And given this situation who would fault the rebellion for driving out a tyrant. Rather the military, whose help was essential, ought to be thanked for deposing an “elected” despot, and for doing so relatively peacefully, very few lives being lost in the process.

Democracy is about a lot more than just elections. Don’t our own leaders understand that? While we debate whether what happened in Egypt was a “coup” (and if it was it was “bad”) the people themselves are looking to begin once again with some of the elements of a real democracy, such as that all the people have a part to play in any new government. And that’s where we should be, helping them to move ahead, as this democratic process unfolds.

Well this is how Dickey sees it anyway:

“On this Fourth of July I’d like to suggest that our lawmakers take a look at another bit of American heritage that gives a much clearer idea of the emotions behind the ongoing Egyptian uprisings. What the masses in Tahrir Square want their rulers to understand, precisely, is that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” And as the American Declaration of Independence proclaimed without equivocation, governments derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

“If a regime loses that consent, as President Mohamed Morsi’s government clearly did, then the people have the right “to alter it or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundations on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”

And finally: “... if Washington would emphasize those broad outlines rather than questions of procedure, it could actually develop policies in the region that make some sense. It might also stop falling prey to the notion that the Muslim Brotherhood offers a shortcut to democratic stability.”

I think that most of us, unlike our leaders, would like to believe that Dickey’s interpretation is the correct one, that the recent events in Egypt “have shown us that the street is real and the millions there are demanding to be heard as they declare their unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

But, and you may be there yourself, there is a problem, a fly in the ointment. Where is the evidence? Where are the voices, the Egyptian voices, speaking the language of our own Declaration of Independence?  Who among those millions in the Square clamoring for change, for the ouster of the Brotherhood, a King George of the time, who there is talking at at all like our Founding Fathers?

Where are the “founding fathers” of the new Egypt? Has even one among those millions even thought about, let alone said anything about the “unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?” Again are we deluding ourselves about what might be possible in the Middle East?

Or is it that once again, even a journalist whom I admire, may be projecting onto the people demonstrating in the street what he, and we along with him, would like them to be. In some ways it’s Bush in Iraq, who did seem to believe that the Iraqi people wanted our rights and freedoms and we had only to help them get started for them to finish the job. Well we know how that turned out.

While the Iraqis did want what we had it was probably and mainly in the form of technological marvels such as tablets and iPhones, and of course arms and money for oil wealth. They were certainly not taken up in their thinking and actions by our founding documents, the words and ideas that still make us what we are, a liberal democracy, —by the rule of law, the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, by such words as those of Lincoln at Gettysburg, that our government will be of the people, by the people, for the people.

In short, was there anyone in the Square speaking the language of our declaration, of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

But then, I suppose you might say that in 1776, these words were the words, as they are today, of a single man, Thomas Jefferson. For at that time could anyone else have written them, let alone have understood, have felt as deeply their meaning?

Furthermore the nearly two and one half centuries since the moment of our own Declaration might be seen as our own catching up with Jefferson, assuming that he himself knew exactly what he was talking about at the time. In any case we are still learning the meaning of unalienable rights, all men are created equal, life liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and such. There’s no evidence that the people in the streets of Cairo have even begun our own long learning process.

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