BoomerCafé is from, for, and about baby boomers. But every once in a while we stray from our theme when we think it’s worth it. This is one of those times. Executive Editor Greg Dobbs was a longtime foreign correspondent, first for ABC News, then for “World Report” on HDNet television. And he has written a perspective about the chaos in Egypt that you might find helpful, whether you’re a baby boomer or not.
If you measure all forms of democracy by the standards of our democracy, of course they’ll most likely fall short. But more important, you’ll fall short yourself, because democracy in some parts of the world doesn’t look anything like ours. Which is why it’s so hard, but so important, to understand what’s going on in Egypt. You would shortchange the democratic ideal if you simply write off Egypt’s effort as a failure.
Why does it even matter? Because the Middle East is still a powder keg — and maybe it always will be — and Egypt is the most important Arab nation in the world. It fields the biggest army, has the most people, and not just incidentally, gets the most money from the United States. Moreover, hard though it might be to accept, in some ways it is still an American ally; Egypt helped us bring a truce in Gaza, and so far at least, helps us by honoring its treaty with Israel.
But here’s the kicker: yes, for all the chaos, Egypt is still a democracy. A messy one to be sure … and that’s on a good day. But when you see and hear about dictatorial government edicts and angry street responses and violent police retaliation, consider the alternative, the kind of no-holds-barred battles I’ve covered everywhere from Iran and Afghanistan to Zimbabwe and Mozambique. When you think about it, that “alternative” is exactly what we’re seeing these days in Syria.
Think of what you’re watching in Egypt as the production of a Hollywood film. The difference is, the moviemakers in Hollywood do countless “takes” on the set ‘til they get it right. Egypt can’t do that. One reason is, they don’t have the luxury of a closed set; the whole world gets to watch. Another is, they’ve never made this movie before.
So when it comes to the elected President, Mohamed Morsi, he’s been on a learning curve since the day he took office. With no role models in his part of the world, he still doesn’t seem to understand the difference between a plural democracy like ours, and a winner-take-all democracy like, say, Iraq’s. His efforts to soften his blunders, if inept, seem genuine. Credit where credit is due: he has tried.
But democracy is more about the people than the President, and beginning with the revolution against Hosni Mubarak two years ago, the people of Egypt have had a taste of something they’d never tasted before. It’s like what I saw in Communist Poland a quarter century ago, when a limited democratic revolution called “Solidarity” was slapped down, but people everywhere told me, We’ve tasted it and we won’t forget. They didn’t. And eventually they were free.
So, the demonstrations against everything from closed constitutional assemblies to death sentences for soccer rioters are an extension of the first heady days in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where the forces of Egypt’s revolution coalesced. The difference between the bloody outcomes there and the peaceful air of almost all American protests arguably is only a matter of degrees. In both nations, it is a picture of people who believe that in a democracy, open, even angry protest against their government is an intrinsic right.
The President of Egypt still has a lot of lessons to learn … if the military is disposed to give him more time for his painful education. The people of Egypt have some lessons to learn too … if the government is disposed to let them vent their rage and everyone eventually learns that no blood need be shed to have one’s voice heard. But it’s all part of the passage to democracy. In the context of “be careful what you hope for,” it’s probably better than the alternative.