Events in Egypt during our July 4 celebration of independence reaffirmed the genius and considerable good fortune behind the birth of our democracy two and a quarter centuries ago.
In this period of broad national discontent about the way our federal system is (or is not) working, we should look at Egypt as a demonstration of what is at stake in how we resolve the dilemma of our discontent.
Our history is not a sacred narrative written by people of infallible wisdom, and the Constitution is not scripture. If the people who wrote it had seen themselves as infallible and had conceived of it as scripture, it could not have been amended 27 times, women would still not vote, white men would still own black slaves, and our defenseless nation would have been easily overrun by one or more dictators in other lands.
The Constitution was a blueprint for a form of government. It emerged from a process of compromise by pragmatic men guided by the hard-won Enlightenment ideals of personal liberty, tolerance for others’ ideas and the rule of law.
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By a fortunate accident of history, they were writing on a blank sheet of paper on an isolated, sparsely populated continent, so had the opportunity to craft a structure unencumbered by much history of its own and not easily subdued by its European opponents.
Their legacy to us was not the documents but the ideas that informed the documents: a conviction that personal liberty is essential to self-governance and that any diminution of it must be by popular consent.
They are embedded in our national DNA and, despite all, have sustained us through more than two centuries in which most other nations have been victims of constant internal battles for control by shifting minorities willing to subvert personal liberty to narrower considerations.
Egypt’s strife is the latest demonstration that an election, even a free and fair one, does not guarantee a viable democracy. Only those elected can do that, and Mohammed Morsi was either not up to the task or never intended to build the inclusive, tolerant governing coalition promised in his campaign.
Instead, he and his minority Muslim Brotherhood rapidly accumulated all power exclusively for their believers and shaped the new constitution to their beliefs.
While the idea of yet another military coup is unsettling, there may have been no other viable response to the determined street demands of the majority of Egypt’s voters, many of them originally Morsi supporters, who rightfully expected some reasonable approximation of a modern democracy.
Islam and democracy can coexist in nations with strong democratic traditions and institutions, but Egypt proves once again that radical Islamists have neither the capacity for nor interest in democracy.
When people hold beliefs that they deem to be ultimate – and therefore see all other beliefs as heretical – they will always seek to impose those beliefs on everyone.
People can disagree strongly about economic or legal or even cultural matters, yet still compromise for the broader good of democracy. But when political disputes take on religious patina and intensity, the core ideas of personal liberty, tolerance for others and the rule of law are at risk.
We must be very watchful lest our current discontent leads us away from our core democratic values.