Egypt’s lesson for America

Americans look at the turmoil in Egypt and see a an experiment in democracy that may be on the verge of failure.

Our ability to view that country’s turmoil with the objectivity that comes from distance provides useful insights into the political woes of the United States.

Egyptians elected Mohamed Morsi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, as president. His short tenure generated massive unrest. Poverty is dramatic and growing, which always fuels the disenchanted. More to the point, Morsi rejected pluralism and seemed determined to undermine the democratic principles that got him elected.

David Brooks, a conservative columnist with the New York Times, theorized that Islamists are not capable of democratic governance.

“They reject pluralism, secular democracy and, to some degree, modernity,” Brooks wrote. “You have empowered people who are going to wind up subverting democracy.”

Responding to popular protests that took millions of Egyptians to the street, Egypt’s military ousted Morsi. The obvious question is whether democracy would have been better served to wait until the next election, when Egyptians presumably would have used the democratic process to send Morsi packing. Brooks, though, agrees with the reasoning that led to the coup. When a democratic nation is led by officials who are seeking to undermine democratic principles, it is imperative to remove them immediately.

“The important thing is to get people like that out of power, even if it takes a coup,” he wrote.

Especially in Alabama, we see many instances where our politicians, like Morsi, use religion as a justification for rejecting pluralism and individual rights. Whether Alabamians like it or not, women have a constitutionally protected right to abortions until the fetus is viable. Last legislative session, politicians used Christianity as a justification for a law that would effectively end that right. Christian doctrine is likewise the excuse for laws condemning homosexuals and subsidizing parochial schools with tax dollars. Just as the majority of Egyptians practice Islam, the majority of Alabamians practice Christianity. Resistance, if it comes at all, typically arises among citizens who subscribe to the faith but resent the use of government to impose it on others.

I think, however, that in Alabama and nationwide the political use of Christianity is usually disingenuous. It is a ploy designed to create unity and, too often, to create hostility toward political enemies. If Democrats are a godless party — if President Obama is a Kenyan Muslim — it is easy to gather political support for Republicans.

The dominant force against democracy in Egypt may be Islam, as Brooks theorizes, but in America it is money.

America’s capitalist economy makes it easy to determine who benefits from the status quo: the wealthy. Those with a rational desire to upset the status quo are in poverty.

Americans like to think they are free to pick any candidate they want when they go to the polls. This is the core right of citizens in a representative democracy.

The truth, though, is that those who benefit from the status quo — the wealthy — dictate which candidates appear on the ballot.

We have a two-party system — one not mandated by the Constitution — that goes to great lengths to prevent other parties from gaining political significance. Both parties want to win. In selecting candidates, they necessarily gravitate toward those with the ability to raise money. Most Americans give no political contributions. People with the most urgent incentive to upset the status quo — people living in poverty — have no money to give.

The choices we have on the ballot have been vetted by those who may differ on specifics, but who have a common desire to avoid major disruptions to a system that benefits them. They are the source of the political contribution that determine Americans’ choices on voting day.

This system not only flouts effective democracy, it is dangerous. It disenfranchises those with the greatest frustration. The poor will always be with us, but one of the functions of democracy is to allow them meaningful political input into a system that plays a role in their desperation. As U.S. poverty continues to increase, and the gap between the poor and the wealthy becomes a chasm, frustration intensifies. A look at the role poverty and wealth polarization plays in unrest in Egypt, in Syria, in Turkey and even in Spain and England should haunt Americans. It should also have them scurrying to increase the political channels open to the poor.

The effort to “centralize power” — the term Brooks used in condemning Morsi — continues once the vetted candidates take office.

The routine use of the filibuster in the U.S. Senate is a transparent effort to block the will of the majority, particularly remarkable given that the Senate is designed to temper democracy by giving the same power to states of vastly different populations.

In the House, the “Hastert Rule” is another effort to thwart democracy. Rather than all of our representatives voting on bills, most bills only come up for a vote if a majority of the majority caucus — currently Republicans — approve of them.

Some efforts to centralize power are a more direct affront to democracy. The literacy tests and poll taxes of old have given way to requirements that voters obtain photo identification before they can vote. No single vote has significant financial value, which is why neither Alabama nor any other state can come up with examples of in-person voter fraud. The transparent purpose — recently admitted by Pennsylvania lawmakers defending their law — is to hurt Democrats, who are three times less likely than Republicans to have a driver’s license. Alabamians who are too poor to have a car — who already are frustrated by their political impotence — now have an extra hurdle before they can exercise their right to vote.

We struggle to see the enormity of the problem when looking at our own nation, but the anti-democratic tendencies of Egypt bring our own into focus. We have strayed far from the ideal of representative democracy. We need to find solutions before the disenfranchised poor get tired of waiting.


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Filed under Alabama politics, Democracy, Poverty

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