What Americans should learn from Egypt

I have a new piece up on GOOD magazine about what Americans can learn about democracy from Egypt, namely that protests are a useful tool to push for change. You can read it here.

I initially wrote this a while ago, while the both the Tahrir sit-in and the US debate over the debt ceiling were going on. (Also before the London riots, which I think is a tangentially related issue.) The essay was also (very understandably) cut down to a more manageable size for publication, but I’m posting the whole thing here because I think it deals with a lot of other interesting issues about how democracy is practiced in the United States that I couldn’t get to in the GOOD piece. Also, you can do stuff like that when you have a blog. Read it after the jump.

And with that, I make yet another attempt to revive this blog. Hope I’ll be back soon. Bizarre to think that the last time I posted was on January 26

IS EGYPT A BETTER DEMOCRACY THAN THE UNITED STATES?

Over the past three weeks I have been intermittently visiting the ongoing sit-in protest in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, sometimes as a reporter, sometimes as a curious (and, I admit, sympathetic) onlooker. All around me, men on stages shout speeches into crackling microphones and crowds chant anti-military slogans, while Egyptians of every stripe, poor and wealthy and middle class, Muslim and Christian, leftist and liberal, engage in some level of political debate—about the role of the military in political life or the future of Egypt’s constitution or the most productive path forward for the protesters. When I stand there amid the tents, in the heart of downtown Cairo, in the brutal heat of July in Egypt, in the overwhelming excitement of a continuing revolution, I often think about politics in the United States, where I was born and raised.

“America is a shining city upon a hill whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere,” Ronald Reagan famously said. (Let’s ignore, for now, the hollowness of this statement for Egyptians and others who have lived under the rule of Washington-backed dictators.) Since the era of Woodrow Wilson the United States has been in the business, one way or another, of promoting democracy abroad. And while it is true that the United States has one of the oldest multiparty democracies in the world, does longevity imply quality?

As I watch the current debt ceiling spectacle from almost 6,000 miles away, I am struck by how ossified American democracy appears to be. Faced with a major crisis that could fundamentally destroy the US and world economies, Washington lawmakers, ostensibly the bulbs that brighten the beacon of freedom, remain deadlocked by partisan acrimony. And of course this isn’t the first time. A look back at any of the major policy debates of the last few years reveals that this is a pattern. Any potential for creativity, in Washington or on the streets, has been stifled, it seems, by American democracy itself. Our two party system and obsession with elections has allowed us to lose sight of some of the real values of democracy, like open debate and responsive government.

Egypt, six months into a revolution that intends to re-imagine the country’s entire political life, is not yet a functioning democracy in any normal sense. A military council runs the country and continues Mubarak-era practices like torture, military trials for civilians, and harassment of journalists and dissidents. There is currently no parliament, nor technically a constitution, though (Egypt’s first free and fair) parliamentary elections are expected in November with a new constitution to be written shortly thereafter. Despite this, the spirit of democracy in Egypt is alive and well in these heady revolutionary days. Egyptians seem to be enjoying democracy more than Americans have for a long time.

***

A couple weeks ago, I found myself in a cramped, stuffy theater adjacent to a community art center in downtown Cairo, just a few blocks from Tahrir Square. The stadium-style wooden benches were packed with people, listening intently as a panel of five economists and activists discussed their visions for Egypt’s economic future. For the most part, the conversation leaned heavily to the left, but still, genuine debate was taking place about tax structures, subsidies, and priorities for the state budget. This event, organized by a prominent Egyptian online activist, is called a “Tweet Nadwa”—a forum in which activists and concerned Egyptians take their discussion off the Internet and into real life.

The Tweet Nadwa is an interesting and unique exercise, with a specific goal (bringing together bloggers and Tweeps) but it exemplifies what is happening in Egypt right now: A tremendous openness of conversation and willingness to look creatively at political assumptions and norms, from leftists who want to do away with Mubarak’s free market reforms to Islamists who want to introduce religious law. In Tweet Nadwas and taxi cabs and coffee shops, Egyptians are discussing supra-constitutional principals and presidential councils and proportional representation.

The equivalent of a Tweet Nadwa in, for example, New York would not involve questioning assumptions or proposing radical solutions. It would mostly likely be about organizing support for Democrats or Republicans (?). Indeed, to the extent that these kinds of events exist, they are in the form of MoveOn house meetings or Democracy for America meet ups. With a system as completely focused on the electoral aspects of democracy (i.e., winning elections rather than addressing issues), creativity and conversation are stifled. Certain words (like “socialism”) are conversation killers. In Egypt, where dozens of parties have mushroomed from the fertile ground of the revolution since February, there is no time yet for that kind of stale debate. In the United States, where government and public opinion are essentially paralyzed by the stalemate of the two-party system, we could benefit from this kind of open debate.

***

On February 15, 2003 I took a bus to Manhattan from my home in suburban New Jersey to join a march against the impending US invasion of Iraq. I marched up First Avenue with hundreds of thousands of other angry Americans, mostly New York-area residents, mostly middle class. We carried signs that said “The World Says No to War” and chanted “We say no to war!” But through it all, I recall there was a sense of hopelessness, a knowledge that the American president didn’t care what a million people in the streets of New York City had to say about his war. And we were right: the war was inevitable.

Perhaps the greatest lesson I’ve learned from the Egyptian revolution is something that Americans seem to have forgotten since the 1960s and 1970s when my parents generation marched for women’s rights and against the war in Vietnam: Street protests can bring about change. On that grey February day eight years ago, we all went home afterwards, turned on our televisions and stewed in our living rooms, feeling livid that we weren’t being listened to. In Egypt, they don’t go home.

Sign-carrying and street-marching and slogan-chanting aren’t completely dead as means of pushing for social and political change in the United States. A few, select groups keep the art of the street protest alive. The radical left is still able to muster up a few thousand diehards to take to the streets of Pittsburgh or Seattle once a year or when the G20 or World Trade Organization convenes. CODEPINK and pro-Palestine activists know how to make a dramatic interruption to make a point every once in a while. And, of course, the far right has learned how protest rallies can be useful as a tool. Since early 2009, the Tea Party has gathered in city centers from rural towns in Tennessee to the National Mall, waving banners and flags, wearing costumes, and chanting in unison with the goal of moving the political conversation further to the right. They have largely succeeded, proving again to Americans that protesting can work. (The fact that the Tea Party is a populist movement with the support of corporate money calls into question its status as a real protest movement, but that is a conversation for another day.)

What these few remaining protest movements have in common is that they exist on the fringes of American political discourse. The so-called mainstream has been so thoroughly dominated by two political parties that most Americans feel that the best way to voice their political opinions (if they ever feel that need) is through party-based activism.

During the uprising last winter that brought down Hosni Mubarak, and to a lesser extent that continues, demonstrations in the streets of Cairo have been the domain of every political stripe, from the hard-line Salafi Islamists to the hard-line Trotskyists to the liberals who want an American-style multiparty democracy. While there are debates over the efficacy of the protests (the ongoing sit-in in particular), few Egyptians treat the act of marching in the street as fringy.

There is one notable exception to this pattern that comes to mind. Just a few months ago I remember watching from my home in the Middle East an incredible protest movement unfolding in Wisconsin in response to Governor Scott Walker’s budget cuts. Thousands of Wisconsinites, including teachers and nurses and police officers, members of the middle class and the “mainstream,” descended on the Capitol in Madison to voice their outrage. And while they did, they carried signs that said, “Hosni Walker, Elected Dictator” and “Walk like an Egyptian.”

***

I spent the night of January 8, 2008 in a crowded high school gymnasium in Nashua, New Hampshire. I had spent the majority of the day driving my parents’ car around the center of the state, up long driveways attached to secluded houses, so that I could tell a handful of surly people that, in case they had forgotten, they should go out to vote for Barack Obama in the Democratic primary. While standing in the gym, I got what felt like a sufficient payoff. The future president delivered an amazing speech.

“We know the battle ahead will be long. But always remember that, no matter what obstacles stand in our way, nothing can stand in the way of the power of millions of voices calling for change,” Obama said in the “Yes We Can” speech.

I’ve thought of that moment often during the Egyptian revolution. When I first entered Tahrir Square last winter at the height of the protests against Mubarak, I encountered a certain sensation of inspiration, of “hope” and “change” that felt familiar from the days of the Obama campaign. The difference, though, is stark.

Obama’s speech in New Hampshire drew on the legacies of labor struggle and the fight for civil rights. Drawing on some of the most impressive successes in the history of American social and political change, Obama inspired a real belief in American democracy. The struggles that the candidate referenced, though, were not tied to partisan politics or electoral victories. They were about hard-won fights for change that took place, for the most part, outside of the halls of power. The inspiration he drew on was about the potential of the unlikely minority to overcome the power.

But the power that Obama was fighting, the change he was advocating was far from revolutionary. Beneath the inspiring language and the poignant allusions was simple electoral politics. “Yes we can” meant more than anything else that we could defeat Hillary Clinton, Obama’s primary opponent.

Egypt is a long way from a perfect democracy. Remnants of Mubarak’s regime seem eager to find a way back into the government. The military may not give up power. Even after elections, there is a potential for the nascent electoral democracy to crystallize into the kind of stasis with which Americans are so familiar. (Already, a schism may be opening between Islamists and secularists, along a worryingly two-party-like spectrum.) But for now, at least, “yes we can” still feels like it means something here.

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Filed under American Politics, Democracy, Egypt

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