Vox Populi. Voice of the People. The People of Egypt have spoken. Far from anointing an idol, they tore down a dictator and established a new direction for this most ancient of nations. The Egyptian people found their voice in the last three weeks. The silence of the Sphinx is shattered, replaced with the songs of liberty and chants of freedom, tens of millions of voices broadcast in shouts and tweets and airwaves and triumphant rides atop tanks around Tahrir Square.
Will the joyous moment become permanent power for the people?
Democracy is a precarious idea in post-revolutionary days. If John Adams or Thomas Jefferson were in Cairo today, they might reprise their classic arguments about populism versus federalism, according strength to the politics of the town square or retaining authority in the central government. The heirs of their revolution, if we were truly honest, might admit that we have not quite resolved that debate, so our Egyptian friends should not look for perfection while trying to establish a good democracy. The fact of the debate itself, carried on in freedom and peace, is evidence of the real strength of a free nation. The apparent fickleness of the American electorate, never quite satisfied with any leader and swinging wildly from liberal to conservative with each passing election season, simply manifests both the glory and the aggravation of the democratic form of government — we are free to vote ‘em in and vote ‘em out, no tanks snaking down Pennsylvania Avenue. (We pray!)
Other revolutions have not turned out quite so well. Reading a new biography of the great theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer over the weekend (Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Thomas Nelson: 2010), I was reminded, with a shudder, that the overthrow of the German Kaiser after World War I gave rise to Hitler. In Iran, the overthrow of the Shah in 1979 put the Ayatollah Khomeini in power, and today, the increasingly repressive President Ahmadinejad.
Perhaps it is necessary for the Egyptian military to take control of the country, since the opposition appears to have no singular leader to speak for the people — it’s a true “people’s revolution.” Of course, the obvious danger is that the military, despite promises, will like control too much, and the revolution will be incomplete.
Writing in Saturday’s New York Times (Egypt’s Path After Uprising Does Not Have to Follow Iran’s, February 12, 2011), Anthony Shadid offered this insight into the potential backlash that could destroy the revolution’s ultimate good outcomes:
“There is a fear in the West, one rarely echoed here, that Egypt’s revolution could go the way of Iran’s, when radical Islamists ultimately commandeered a movement that began with a far broader base. But the two are very different countries. In Egypt, the uprising offers the possibility of an accommodation with political Islam rare in the Arab world — that without the repression that accompanied Mr. Mubarak’s rule, Islam could present itself in a more moderate guise.
“Egypt’s was a revolution of diversity, a proliferation of voices — of youth, women and workers, as well as the religious — all of which will struggle for influence. Here, political Islam will most likely face a new kind of challenge: proving its relevance and popularity in a country undergoing seismic change.
“Choosing a regime will become the right of the people,” Ali Abdel-Fattah, a Muslim Brotherhood leader, said Saturday. “The nature of the regime will be decided by elections. And I think Egyptians agree on the demands and how to realize them.”
Nicholas Kristof offers some very cogent ideas today in his column “What Egypt Can Teach America” and as always, if you want to understand what’s going on in Cairo, read Thomas Friedman, “They Did It.”
In the hiatus between the Packers’ victory and the first crack of the bat in spring training, Americans will be dividing their time between March Madness brackets and the tragic fates of American Idolettes. Oh, and the Oscars, of course. Maybe we can also find the time to take in a few lectures, articles, books and discussions of what’s happening in the Middle East. The fate of our own nation and culture in the future is being shaped in many ways right now by people marching on streets in places we rarely think about, cannot pronounce correctly, and often consider less important than our own exceptional lives.
The American Revolution, still evolving, depends heavily on the oil, the allies, the spies, the treaties, trades and ability to control terrorists in countries on the other side of this planet. We must hear the voice of the people in places other than our own backyard; their fate is our fate, their cause is truly ours as well.