by Austin Bay
February 16, 2011
As revolutions go, it was the first liberal democraticdomino -- and 235 years later, its proclamation that human beings are endowedwith the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness continues toempower democratic revolutionaries challenging autocracies and dictatorships.
The American Revolution also provides the emergingarchitects of Egyptian democracy with very practical advice: Hang together, oryou'll substitute one tyrant for another.
As the Continental Congress prepared to ratify the Declarationof Independence, John Hancock urged the opinionated rebels serving in theassembly to pass it unanimously. "There must be no pulling in differentways," Hancock said. "We must all hang together."
To which Benjamin Franklin allegedly quipped: "Yes, wemust indeed all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hangseparately."
Franklin may not have actually delivered this perfectrejoinder -- it remains a point of academic debate.
However, there is no debate about Hancock's crucial point.Tyrants can focus their instruments of power -- secret police, armies,controlled media, terrorists and assassins. Democratic movements, however, areaggregations of individuals united by an idea that commits a society to aprocess -- a pursuit that will always be imperfect and therefore generatedisagreement.
A democratic movement will never march in lockstep, butcommon principles -- such as dedication to individual rights -- must translateinto a common spine to resist, with armed force when necessary, inevitablemanipulation, threat and attack by tyrants, terrorists and their viciouspartisans.
Recent history bears tragic witness. In the aftermath oftheir popular rebellion of 1979, the hodgepodge collection of Iranian liberalsand nationalists fragmented. The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's radical Islamictotalitarians divided the democratic coalition and attacked them individually.
Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, Iran's first president after the 1979revolt, identifies the failure to form a unified democratic front as theIranians greatest strategic error. In an essay published in the ChristianScience Monitor last month, Bani-Sadr said most Iranian political organizations"did not commit themselves to democracy. Lacking the unity of a democraticfront, one by one they became targets of power-seeking clergy in the form ofthe Islamic Republic Party ... ."
The Iranians hung separately.
Iran's bitter legacy informed a column written two weeks agoin which I argued that America's foremost diplomatic goal should be encouraging"a resilient alliance of Egyptian secularists, moderate Islamists and themilitary." Events this week suggest the Egyptians are in the process offorging a democratic front that includes the Egyptian military -- luckily, an organizationpacked with committed Egyptian nationalists.
Furthermore, it seems the Egyptians are creating the frontthemselves, thank you. That sends a very positive signal. Despite the turmoiland uncertainty, they aren't reacting as tyrannized subjects, but as active,responsible citizens.
Over the weekend, the Egyptian military presented a group ofyouthful Egyptian revolutionaries with its plan for handling the transitionfrom authoritarian regime to government by consent of the governed.
Twenty-first century technology promotes transparency, soparts of the plan were posted on the Internet. It called for amending theconstitution and holding a referendum on the changes within the next twomonths. Revolutionary leaders are scrutinizing the military plan, for manysuspect the military's motives. Since the rise of Gamal Nasser six decades ago,the military has buttressed one strong man government after another. The NewYork Times reported one revolutionary leader's assessment: "We have askedfor another meeting this week to tell them (the military) about our plans. Thenwe'll see."
How the military receives the counter-proposal is crucial.Rejection or ambivalent delay sends the ominous message that there is at leastone strong faction of military Bonapartists who prefer pharaoh to freedom. Thegive and take of sincere negotiations among revolutionary factions and themilitary, ending in authentic compromise, however, will not only forward theprocess of building a democratic front but signal the emergence of genuinedemocratic politics.
Pray Egypt's senior military leaders take John Hancock'sadvice and pull with the public will to secure liberty.