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COMMUNITY VOICE

Egypt's 'constitutional moment' must prompt proper American response

Sunday, July 7, 2013 - 12:11 pm

For the vast majority of Americans, our attention on July 4 focused most likely on family, friends, food and fireworks.

Most of us probably gave little attention to the freedom or, more importantly, the principles which inspired the defining treatise of human liberty, our Declaration of Independence, which champions all people's birthright to freedom.

Too few likely paused to consider how our Founding Fathers' declaration of the essential principles of liberty, universally applicable, remains deeply inspirational for people the world over suffering under tyranny and how these principles are directly relevant to current events in Egypt and broader desires for representative rule throughout the Muslim world.

Americans must not ignore the profoundly important revolutionary events transpiring in Egypt and their implications for human freedom and our own national security.

Two years ago, the Egyptian people's peaceful protests, with a strong assist from the military, toppled one of the Middle East's most authoritarian thugs, Hosni Mubarak. After 18 months of military rule, one year ago Egyptians celebrated the inauguration of the Arab world's first democratically elected leader, Muhammad Morsi. Now, a year later, Egyptians once again populated Tahrir Square in protest of their president.

Two realities motivated 20 million Egyptians to sign a “rebel petition” calling for his resignation: Morsi's failure to deliver on promises to improve the lives of Egyptians and his unwillingness, or inability, to unite the anti-Mubarak, pro-democracy revolutionary voices into a broadly representative coalition that could effectively govern.

Since the Egyptian revolution first erupted in February 2011, the economy has tanked, unemployment has soared and crime has skyrocketed. Chaos ensued. The lack of security has discouraged external investment and curtailed tourism, both critical to Egypt's economy. The result has been a profound lack of confidence in Morsi's leadership.

But, I believe, there is far more to this popular protest than widespread dissatisfaction with the lack of jobs, bread or safe streets.

Egyptian aspirations are not far different than that of the American colonists in 1776. They desire true representative democracy. They do not wish to replace a secular dictator (Mubarak) with an Islamist counterpart (Morsy) who has displayed no more of a commitment to inclusivity and broad-based consensus rule than his predecessor. Egyptians have a growing sense their revolution has been hijacked.

Morsi has repeatedly broken promises to broaden the ruling coalition beyond the Muslim Brotherhood he represents. Egyptians are concerned about what they call the “Brotherhoodization” of Egyptian life as the Muslim Brotherhood takes control of state institutions and is perceived as using them to impose Islamic law upon the population.

This broad-based disaffection prompted military action — an occurrence not unprecedented in the Egyptian experience. On July 3, the military deposed the Arab world's first democratically elected president. For political reasons, the Obama administration will engage in verbal gymnastics to avoid calling this a coup, but when military generals usurp civilian rule and reverse the results of a free, fair and legitimate election, it is a coup.

Why does the deposing of a democratically elected Islamist president in Egypt matter to Americans? Why should we care if a military, with whom we have a strong institutional relationship and provide support to the tune of $1.6 billion annually, steps in to force political change in support of the desires of its people?

Americans should care about what happens in Egypt for three reasons. First, as Egypt goes, so goes the rest of the Middle East. Egypt's experiment with the process of democratization and, more specifically, how as a Muslim society it reconciles the tensions between secular and Islamist voices in a quest to achieve democratic governance is a bellwether for the broader move toward consensus rule in the Middle East. How Egyptians navigate the challenges of democratization will either inspire and educate other Arabs and Muslims desirous of representative rule or it will ignite destabilizing violence with widespread ramifications for millions of people, the global economy and the advance of human freedom.

Secondly, the world will watch Egypt — and the United States — in the coming weeks to see how both countries respond to the suspension of Egypt's constitution and reversal of its first democratic election. As the leader of the free world, how America responds will send a powerful message to friends and foes of freedom everywhere. If we are quiet, our silence will speak volumes to those who question our true commitment to freedom. Worse yet, if we are perceived as complicit with a benign nod to a clearly undemocratic action, American credibility in the Arab and Muslim world will be irreparably damaged for decades to come.

Why does this matter? It matters because the United States has longstanding national security interests in the Middle East we must protect and secure. Since World War II, peace, security and stability in the Middle East have defined these interests. The stability of the global economy, the ability to defend our allies and contain our enemies requires stable governments and friendly relations with the leaders and peoples of the Middle East. For 30 years, Egypt, a strong American ally, was the linchpin of stability in the Middle East under Mubarak's iron fist.

Now, one of the most geo-strategically significant areas of the world faces unprecedented instability that threatens America's interests. This includes Iran's nuclear ambitions, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, a resurgence of sectarian violence in Iraq, and a brutal civil war in Syria that now extends beyond its borders threatening our allies in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Israel. The Middle East is now a potentially explosive tinder box. The coup in Egypt, despite popular rationale for it, may well prove to be the match that ignites a firestorm of unprecedented violence and chaos, a resurgence of undemocratic rule and the political destabilization of other friendly regimes.

Some have called this Egypt's “constitutional moment.” It is. This is a time for Egyptian statesmen to emerge who take a long view of history and who understand what truly is at stake in this critical moment — for Egyptians and all Arabs and Muslims who aspire to freedom.

This also is a time for active American leadership. Not in dictating the course of Egypt's revolution, but as a strong voice for restraint and a return to civilian rule. This defining moment also calls for an American policy that moves away from a disproportionate investment in guns to a more robust investment in governance. What Egypt's revolutionary reversal calls for is a desperately needed investment in the infrastructure of democracy — the building up of the institutions of civil society that are essential for mediating between the will of individuals and the strong arm of the state.

The voices of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams exist in the Arab world. And they exist in Egypt. The United States must invest in these voices as they seek to create the space to articulate their own declaration of liberty for Egyptians and all Arabs who aspire to their own birthright to freedom. Investing in the infrastructure of democracy — political parties, constitutional processes, citizen-led advocacy groups, voluntary professional associations, trade unions and a free press — represents the best opportunity we have to nurture, encourage and sustain the hopes and dreams of Egypt's modern day champions of liberty.

And this is our best hope to secure real peace and stability in the Middle East.

Christina K. Smith is a Fort Wayne native and Middle East and Central Asia policy specialist.