Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

Egypt's revolution and our own

February 16, 2011 by Dr. Steve Frank


This editorial was originally published in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Whatever comes next in Cairo, there are lessons from the American Revolution that should be taken to heart by all who wish the revolution in Egypt to succeed.

A poster, with a nod to Obama's "Hope" campaign. Illustration by Nick Bygon

The causes of unrest in Egypt – the political oppression, impoverishment and grossly inequitable distribution of wealth – bear little resemblance to the impulses behind the American Revolution. And clearly men who wore knee breeches and powdered their hair inhabited a world very different from the demonstrators in Tahrir Square.

But the principles for which the Founding Fathers fought kept the American Revolution from ending badly, in tyranny, as so many revolutions do. And the foundingest principle of them all – the one codified in the first three words of the Constitution -- is that governments should reflect the will of the people, a sentiment that Egypt’s young revolutionaries clearly share.

America and Egypt

President Obama made this point when he visited Cairo in June 2009 and said that “all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas; they are human rights.”

And to American eyes, at least, one of the most memorable images from the uprising’s early days was the demonstrator in Liberation Square who carried a sign reading: “Yes we can, too.”

With a little luck, they can. The brightest lesson of the American Revolution is that a severe political crisis, like the one unspooling in Egypt, can give birth to a polity dedicated to rights, equality and liberty, even against tremendous odds.

Each nation takes its own path toward those ideals, a path grounded in its own history and traditions. But at least three ingredients present in the American Revolution seem necessary for success: leadership, commitment to the rule of law and solidarity.

Leadership is indispensable, of course, and Washington is aptly described as the indispensable man of the American Revolution. As the historian Ron Chernow recently reminded us, Washington was a remarkably persevering military commander and a political genius who knew how to inspire and motivate people. He surrounded himself with the likes of James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, all of whom, sometimes grudgingly, acknowledged his gifts and preeminence as a leader.

But it was not just Washington and those other remarkable leaders who account for the American Revolution’s success. The events of 1776 did not devolve into anarchy or mob rule simply because ordinary Americans placed their faith in extraordinary men. They also adhered to the rule of law, which President Obama identified as a universal value.

How might the Egyptians find their Washington?”

Americans of the revolutionary era realized that ridding themselves of one form of government required replacing it with another, and to that end they looked to the Continental Congress for guidance. One of Congress’s first acts was to instruct each colony to rewrite its constitution, in accordance with republican principles.

That Egyptians are discussing amending their constitution is a hopeful sign. To succeed, the diverse band of protesters gathered in Tahrir Square must embrace opposition leaders committed both to democracy and the rule of law.

But if sectarian violence is to be avoided, one other ingredient will also be necessary: national solidarity. Recently, the historian T.H. Breen pointed out that even before the first shot was fired on Lexington Green, the American patriots worked hard to forge unity. The boycotts and resistance that preceded the Revolution were used by ordinary citizens to promote a common American cause. Without that felt sense of shared sacrifice and purpose, the inhabitants of 13 squabbling colonies could not have come together to mount effective military resistance to Great Britain, then the most powerful nation on Earth.

The war itself, especially service in the Continental Army, reinforced those bonds of solidarity. Most of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention did not know one another. But the veterans among them shared a frame of reference – what Hamilton called a “continental vision” -- that helped them to set aside narrow regional or ideological interests in favor of national ends.

For the uprising in Egypt to succeed, the sacrifices the Egyptian people are now enduring will have to coalesce into similar bonds of solidarity. And if that comes to pass, a movement organized by Egyptian young people on the Internet will resemble in important ways one organized more than 200 years ago by young Americans, with pamphlets and quill pens. And the human rights an American president championed in Cairo 19 months ago can become an Egyptian reality.


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