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The Arab Spring & the History of Democracy

Friday, September 6, 2013

We are seeing a replay of the French Revolution right before our eyes.  And the same lessons from 200 years ago can guide us in our approach to this part of the world today.

The French Revolution, of course, followed the American Revolution.  It was directly inspired by how we threw off the tyranny of the British monarchy.  But interestingly enough, our founding father John Adams opposed it.  David McCullough discusses this in detail in his biography of Adams.  He was accused of being a 'monarchist' because of his opposition to the French Revolution, but he was no such thing.

John Adams had thought very carefully about what we would put in place of the British monarchy.  He opposed the French Revolution because they had not.

Consider a trivia question: What is the oldest continually operable constitutional government in the world today?  And a little hint: It is NOT the United States.


The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is the oldest continually operable constitutional form of government in the world, and its constitution was written largely by Adams.  Because he reasoned that a majority could be just as tyrannical as any monarch, the first order of democratic government for Adams is the circumscribing of the power of the majority.

Now there is a more fundamental idea at work here.  Whether one is a member of a minority or of the majority, both enjoy what Jefferson called "unalienable" rights -- rights belonging to them by nature and not by the act of any government.  If this is true, there must be things the majority - by way of their government - cannot do.  First the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, then the Constitution of the United States of America created a form of government with three co-equal branches, each with their own signature power to check and balance the others.  This is what ensures the majority in America does not descend into the tyranny of the mob.

This is what happened in France.  The majority overthrew the monarchy and France very quickly descended into mob rule.  The tyranny of the monarch was replaced with the tyranny of the mob.  The guillotine was the instrument of choice for this new tyranny.

And this is why we must not support the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.  Some will point to the fact they were duly elected.  And they were.  And they failed to recognize the first duty of a democratic government; they failed to circumscribe their own power in a way in keeping with the natural rights of the minorities in their midst.  So we have seen the tyranny of the strongman (Mubarak) replaced with the tyranny of the majority in the Muslim Brotherhood.

There is an alternative, but it is one which must take on a form which is tailored to the specific challenges of the Arab Spring.  In our history we faced a tension between the small states and the large states.  The small states insisted their interests be guarded against the large states.  So we created a house of the legislature where each state - big and small - would have the same number of representatives.  This is our Senate.  The large states, however, rightly felt their larger contribution to the nation's economy earned them an appropriate level of say in the affairs of government.  So we formed a lower house of the legislature where the number of representatives would be based on population, to be counted and adjusted every ten years.  This is the House of Representatives.  That all matters of law have to be agreed upon by both houses ensures a balance in the interests of both groups.

This, of course, is nothing like what Arab society faces today, so the specifics here would not fit.  But they do have a tension to address.  In Egypt there is a modern constituency which wants Egyptian society to be integrated into the modern world, enjoying the economic benefits of the modern world.  But there is also a constituency which looks suspiciously at the modern world with respect to their historic Islamic traditions.

While the specific implementation of our "bicameral" form of legislature would not fit, the larger idea still has merit.  An Egyptian legislature could consist first of a "Council of the Books."  In Arabic this would allude to a phrase which would translate to "People of the Books."  This is an Islamic phrase referring to Jews and Christians, who share with Muslims the same roots in the "prophet" Abraham.  This body would be chartered to ensure Egyptian society retain its visible "reach-back" to its Islamic heritage.  But in order to circumscribe the passions and power of the majority, a "Council of the World" would also be formed.  This body would be chartered with making sure Egyptian society was positioned to enjoy the benefits of the modern world.  Any matter of law would have to be agreed upon in common by both.

How these bodies would be selected would have to be a matter for Egypt to decide.  For us, Senators used to be appointed by state governments and are now popularly elected.  The Council of the Books might be appointed by Islamic and Coptic scholars.  The Council of the World might be popularly elected.

Whether these bodies would together select the "Prime Minister" as in a traditional parliamentary form of government, or a "President" would be popularly elected, would also be something for the people of Egypt to determine for themselves.

This would position Egypt to enjoy the fruits of the Arab Spring in a way which would ensure the natural rights of minorities, honor its Islamic heritage and secure the economic benefits of the modern world.  It would also position Arab society for a renaissance.  Few people realize our "base 10" math - meaning how we notate math using ten symbols, the numeric symbols 0 through 9, comes to us from the Arab world.  Our numbers are Arabic numbers.

Roman numbers have no symbol for zero.  Now think about that for a moment: if you are a computer geek type like me you know what you are reading right now all boils down to two symbols - 0s and 1s - or "base 2" math.  The entire digital world depends on the idea of using zero in mathematical notation.  This idea comes to us from the Arab world.

We should embrace the promise of the Arab Spring - but be clear from our own history that the first business of a modern democracy is the circumscribing of the power of the majority to ensure the rights of the minority are honored.

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