Egypt, America, and the Democratic Pact

"When activists call for demonstrations, that is activism. When generals do, that is Peronism."

I'm going to be wholly unoriginal here and suggest that you check out Juan Cole as you absorb the dire events overseas. Cole gives a brief and nuanced snapshot of what went wrong over the past two years, of how a desire for one-party rule undermined the dream. Money quote:

In my view Morsi and the Brotherhood leadership bear a good deal of the blame for derailing the transition, since a democratic transition is a pact among various political forces, and he broke the pact. If Morsi was what democracy looked like, many Egyptians did not want it. Gallup polls trace this disillusionment.

But the Egyptian military bears the other part of the blame for the failed transition. Ambitious officers such as Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Morsi's Minister of Defense, were secretly determined to undo Morsi's victory at the polls. They said they wanted him to compromise with his political rivals, but it seems to me they wanted more, they wanted him neutered. When the revolutionary youth and the workers and even many peasants staged the June 30 demonstrations, al-Sisi took advantage of them to stage a coup. Ominously, he then asked for public acclamation to permit him to wage a war on terror, by which he means the Brotherhood. I tweeted at the time: "Dear General al-Sisi: when activists call for demonstrations, that is activism. When generals do, that is Peronism."

There's a lesson here for us--and the lesson is more than "How could the United States have prevented this?" About a year and half ago I debated with my colleague Jim Fallows about the fate of American democracy. Jim argued that American democracy has to be more than the naked pursuit of interest--that using every legalism at your disposal to make sure your side, in the short-term, wins is ultimately suicidal. I countered that in America it always has been about pursuing your own short-term interests. I'm less sure about that now.

When I was a child, West Baltimore ran on a democratic pact. We used to play basketball. But we had no refs. If you got fouled you yelled "Ball," and the other team respected that. Or sometimes they didn't and you argued about it. But the ideal of calling your own fouls was generally respected--even as it relied on each team sacrificing the short-term interest. If we had started calling Ball every time we went to the hoop, or if we had decided to not respect any such calls, the entire game would have collapsed--and then West Baltimore would have collapsed taking that particular form of democracy which governs the ghettoes and gyms of America along with it.

Please forgive that America-centric highjack. I don't want it to bind the conversation below. On the contrary, as always, I'm depending on The Horde to bring more links, and more information about Egypt. My hope is that the commenter who wrote this a few months back (@jshilad is the handle) will return.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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