Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

C&D: American dissent vs. Egyptian dissent

February 24, 2011 by NCC Staff


On March 26-27, the National Constitution Center will host an interactive, interdisciplinary forum and workshop titled “Can We Talk? A Conversation about Civility and Democracy in America.”

Conference participants, drawn from such fields as history, political philosophy, political science, law, sociology, journalism, and communications, will explore both the historical and contemporary context of civility, dissent, and democracy.

As a warm up, we asked some of our guests: "What lessons from movements of dissent in American history have or could inform the protests in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world?"The revolution that began in Tunisia is now, hopefully, sweeping across the Middle East. The American Revolution can’t provide an exact blueprint for these uprisings, but the Founding Fathers’ vision of religious liberty is indeed a model for all. We’ve seen how unrest in Iraq and Egypt has led to the persecution of Christian minorities and violent clashes between Muslim factions.

The new leaders of the Middle East must embrace liberty of conscience as an indispensible component of any democratic order. Religious liberty does not require a secularism that is antagonistic to faith per se. It simply means that the government will no longer choose sides in religion, penalizing no faith group and seeking to maximize free exercise of religion for all.

Thomas S. Kidd, Senior Fellow of the Institute for Studies of Religion, Baylor UniversityI’ve often wondered why Palestinians didn’t take a page from Martin Luther King’s book and use nonviolent protest to shame Israel into according them their civil rights.  Now they can look at the recent protests in Tunisia and Egypt and, perhaps, be influenced by them.  To some extent it is clear that the Tunisians and Egyptians have shown how to use nonviolent civil disobedience to achieve their goals.

I would not be in the least bit surprised to learn that many of the protestors were reading and quoting from King’s speeches and Thoreau’s “Essay on Civil Disobedience” during the recent demonstrations.  It remains to be seen how far the influence of the protests will spread throughout the rest of the Middle East.  Nonviolence only goes so far; some regimes cannot be shamed by the moral rectitude of the protestors and they will resort to brutal measures to crush dissent.

Ralph Young, Professor (Teaching/Instructional), Department of History, Temple UniversityThe people who led the brave and effective protests in Tunisia and Egypt learned much from other movements of dissent around the world. They were very taken with the writings of Gene Sharp, an American peace activist and scholar of non-violent resistance. They were inspired by and met with young Serbian dissidents who had helped topple Milosevic. (See the excellent New York Times story Feb 14, page1.)

No doubt there's more to learn from the U.S. case, particularly the civil rights movement, if it's the actual history and not the fairy tale version that we teach our children. Contrary to what many of our school books say, Rosa Parks was not just Everywoman, a kind lady who was tired of the indignities of segregated buses -- she was a long-time community leader and NAACP activist. As the Times' story observes, the Egyptian protesters had been at work for years in activities leading up to January 2011, the events of January were not spontaneous.

Michael Schudson, Professor, Columbia University Graduate School of JournalismThe recent demonstrations in Egypt have been described as historic and unprecedented—and in many ways they were.  New technologies were used to organize the protests, and the movement frustrated the efforts of both the Egyptian government and the international news media to identify the charismatic leaders behind the protests.

In other ways, however, events in Egypt seemed very familiar to students of social movements, as the ideals motivating the protestors, as well as their strategy of non-violent civic disobedience, have inspired grass-roots protestors throughout history.  And once again it confirmed the famous observation of the French writer and poet Victor Hugo: “An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come.”

J. Michael Hogan, Liberal Arts Research Professor and Co-Director, Center for Democratic Deliberation, Dept. of Communication Arts and Sciences, Penn State University The rising tide of non-violent protests throughout the Arab world are an inspiration to behold.  They are, however, only an initial step.  The work of constructing a new public sphere - including a Democratic government, a free press, and multiple venues for civil discourse and debate - provides less of an uplifting spectacle, but also determines the long-term gains of these protest movements.  Power is mediated through institutions, and new Democracies should pay close attention to the institutions they build and the actors they empower.David Karpf, Assistant Professor in the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University; Faculty Associate with the Eagleton Institute of Politics and Visiting Fellow with the Yale Information Society ProjectI am reluctant to argue that direct lessons from domestic American history should be applied to the current revolutionary fervor in the Middle East. There is no question that courageous dissenters in American history have inspired peoples around the world by helping to shake off colonial overlords and fighting against great odds for racial, religious, and gender equality, particularly when that dissent came in nonviolent form.

But Egyptians, Tuisians, Bahrainis, Yemenis, and others across the Arab world are currently protesting very different kinds of regimes than ours, and they are doing so in the context of very different civil societies, with different cultural and religious reference points. There are common themes to be noted­—for example, the reluctance to relinquish power (whether held by leaders or majority groups) and the moral authority that accompanies nonviolent protests—but the differences are so great that I would prefer to start with the specific circumstances there instead of here.

Erik Owens, Associate Director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Theology and International Studies at Boston College.It is noteworthy is that the recent move to democracy in the Middle East seems to go against US foreign policy. The US always pushes for democracy yet seems to support dictators and monarchs such as Mubarak, Kings Abdullah of Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and the dictators of Yemen, Tunisia, etc. Even Saddam Hussein received US support during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.

Moves to democracy bring leadership such as Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the current government in Iran (although questionable, still far more democratic than under the Shah who enjoyed great support from the USA). Although too early to call, the new government of Egypt with almost certainly not be as friendly. It seems previous US support of dictators and monarchs lead to resentment by Arab masses thus opposition to the US when the people finally do get a voice. Perhaps the US should strive to match rhetoric with action.

Munir Kreidie is a teacher with the Philadelphia public schools and an actor.I’ve watched the protests in Egypt and its aftermath with great interest, as have my AP Government students. The attention the social media buzz afforded the Egyptians was almost as awe inspiring as the protests themselves. However, one concern plagues me. Will the citizens of Egypt continue to rally in the coming months in order to ensure that Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces follow through with elections or will the Egyptians end up no better than they were under Mubarak’s control?

This question serves as a reminder of the revolutionary Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. We must remember it was not merely one protest that helped to achieve equal rights, but an intense series of struggles that culminated in the passage of legislation such as The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and The Voting Rights Act of 1965. One might argue that the struggle continues today, albeit in lesser actions. However, the lesson for the Egyptian people remains; in order to bring about widespread change, “revolutions” must have more than one victory.

Dayna Laur, Social Studies Teacher, Central York High School: York, PA and Buck Institute for Education, National Faculty MemberThe conference is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities' Bridging Culturesprogram. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this website do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.Answers curated by Paige Scofield.

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