Egypt Needs a US History Lesson

The good news is that Egypt has held its first democratic election. The bad news is that they held their first democratic election. If Egyptians were looking for change, they are getting it, but not what they had envisioned after the Mubarak government was toppled by a popular uprising.

The military appears to be in charge and can veto anything that the new leaders propose. Many of Mubarak’s confederates remain in power. And there will not be a parliament or constitution for years.

If Egyptians wanted to see how a revolution is carried out so the rights of the citizens are protected, they need to open a U.S. history book and read about the American Revolutionary War and the government that followed it.

In building a new government, our Founding Fathers understood the importance of establishing a government with an army that could properly defend the country. But they also understood if the military force was not adequately controlled, it could be used to seize control of the government and threaten democracy. How many times have we seen this occur just in our lifetimes!

This is precisely what has occurred in Egypt. The people wanted the military to run the government, and they did. The trouble is, power is the ultimate aphrodisiac, and now the military doesn’t want to let go of power.

After watching the British use their army to erode American rights and squash dissent, our Founders had a genuine fear of the abuse of military power. So one of the first moves they made was to create a Constitution where the military would be subject to civilian authority in order to protect democracy.

Alexander Hamilton wrote at the time:
“Independent of all other reasonings upon the subject, it is a full answer to those who require a more peremptory provision against military establishments in times of peace to say that the whole power of the proposed government is to be in the hands of the representatives of the people. This is the essential, and, after all, the only efficacious security for the rights and privileges of the people which is attainable in civil society.”

The Founders recognized the importance of a standing army for protection and defense but believed that considerable care should be taken in order to preserve liberty and prevent abuses of power.

The other genius of our Founders was to “separate church and state,” a phrase first used by Thomas Jefferson and others expressing an understanding of the intent and function of the Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution. The phrase has since been repeatedly cited by the Supreme Court of the United States.

In fact, Jefferson summed it up when he wrote: “Religious institutions that use government power in support of themselves and force their views on persons of other faiths, or of no faith, undermine all our civil rights. Moreover, state support of an established religion tends to make the clergy unresponsive to their own people, and leads to corruption within religion itself. Erecting the ‘wall of separation between church and state,’ therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society.”

Consequently, the First Amendment to the Constitution provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ….” and Article VI specifies that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

Now in Egypt, a formerly secular state, citizens are facing the rise of an Islamist movement under the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi. Although he claims an open government, we must remember that Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian doctor and member of the Muslim Brotherhood, along with other Muslim Brotherhood members, were indicted in the assassination of Anwar Sadat. Al-Zawahiri went on to become the Number Two leader in al-Qaida, which kept the Taliban in power. The Taliban brought Sharia Law to Afghanistan. Connecting these dots cannot be good news for the Egyptian people or any of their neighbors.

This is an ominous sign for the millions of Egyptians and others who participated and even died during the Arab Spring. They yearned for an open, democratic society, nation, but with the election of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Assad clinging to power in Syria, the Arab world seems to be heading further away from their aspirations.

When millions of people yearn for peace and stability, and want the basics of life – a job that provides sufficient food and shelter so they can raise a family and where they can enjoy the fruits of their labor without the government stealing it and their pride – and instead get a military and a government that will make it nearly impossible for them to survive, they are no better than when they started.

If they really want to find a roadmap for their dreams, look to the example set by America.

In a little over 200 years the United States of America has established the greatest democratic nation on earth. In a little more than 6,000 years, the Egyptians still haven’t been able to create a democracy for its people.

As author James Baldwin write in “Notes of a Native Son”: “People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them. “

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