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Tear it Down, Build it Up: The Architecture of Democracy

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Jami Floyd

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

—U.S. Declaration of Independence

These words were the building blocks for our democracy in 1776. At the time, however, there were very real questions, even among the signatories, whether the colonies were ready for revolution and, if so, what would follow. After all, how does a nation lay the foundation for democracy? 

Even after we declared separation, and fought and won the Revolutionary War, the debate continued. Consider, the Federalist papers: 

[D]emocracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and in general have been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths...

—James Madison, Federalist Papers, Federalist Paper #10, 1787.

In Cairo, while the cry for democracy comes in a modern context (and a different language), Americans are still tempted to frame the debate in terms of U.S. history. And it is true, the question whether Egyptians are ready for democracy is reminiscent of the insecurities the Founders felt at the birth of our nation.

Egypt in 2010, however, is radically different from our British colonies in 1776. Before the American Revolution, we enjoyed more than a decade of democratic development and discussion. We enjoyed the foundation of a chain of local popular governments. Those then yielded to a revolutionary government, based on elected legislatures. There is nothing approaching that political infrastructure in Egypt. 

That is why Mubarak argues he must retain power until September. Chaos will ensue, he claims, should he step down precipitously. In other words, the U.S. model of a slow transition to democracy supports his slow departure from power, he claims.

But of course, the U.S. model is not the only model available to societies in search of the true republican freedoms we enjoy. While time is ideal, we have only to look to Eastern Europe and the post-communist countries of the 1990s (eight of which are now members of the E.U.) for examples of swifter transitions to democracy.  In some cases, the transition can happen rapidly, even in countries that do not yet have substantial democratic infrastructures.   

As we have seen in Tunisia, a democratic resistance movement can overthrow a dictatorship. At the same time, revolution alone cannot establish democracy. To build a democracy requires more than a civilian resistance movement. Building democracy requires the leadership thereafter to rebuild — to establish a critical society. 

John Adams understood as well as any of our Founders. Even after our own successful American Revolution, he fretted about the French Revolution:

Everything will be pulled down. So much seems certain. But what will be built up? Are there any principles of political architecture? … Will the struggle in Europe be anything other than a change in impostors?

In Egypt, the struggle must be more than “a change in impostors.” The old and new opposition, the Nobel Prize winners, the Muslim Brotherhood must do more than talk about working together. They must find the political maturity to do it — to in fact, work together to write the “political architecture” of a democratic Egypt.

They must hold elections. They must form a political body. They must draft documents. In short, they must form an interim government.

Which gets us to the Constitution. The Constitution of the Arab Republic of Egypt was ratified in 1971.

The Egyptian Constitution protects human rights, individual rights, free elections and the sovereignty of the people. In many ways, it is more expansive than our own (for example, it expressly forbids torture). 

Having a constitution and respecting that constitution, however, are clearly not synonymous. Without legitimacy, a constitution is nothing more than words on a page. The importance of a constitutional system has less to do with the actual words in the document than the commitment that the people have to respect it. A large number of Egyptians clearly do not think their Constitution has secured what it promises.

In America, as a practical matter, we were working on our Constitution, well before 1776, since our state constitutions informed the federal Constitution. Perhaps, Egyptians need not rewrite theirs. But again, our example is instructive, not dispositive. 

Whether Egyptians want to work with the Constitution they have, amend it, or scrap it and write a new one remains to be seen. But, let us not jump the gun. Whether Egypt moves forward to a new democracy that would require any reconsideration of its constitutional values has also yet to be determined.

Jami Floyd is an attorney, broadcast journalist and legal analyst for cable and network news, and is a frequent contributor to WNYC Radio. She is former advisor in the Clinton administration and served as a surrogate for the Obama campaign on legal and domestic policy issues.