Thinking about Egypt this Fourth of July

Blood runs down the head of an Egyptian protester injured during clashes with riot police in Tahrir square in Cairo in the early hours of June 29, 2011. Egyptian security forces fired tear gas on protesters in Cairo during violent clashes that erupted and left several injured.</p>

Blood runs down the head of an Egyptian protester injured during clashes with riot police in Tahrir square in Cairo in the early hours of June 29, 2011. Egyptian security forces fired tear gas on protesters in Cairo during violent clashes that erupted and left several injured.

CAIRO – As Americans gather today amid all the red, white and blue bunting and the fireworks and the smoke snaking up from backyard barbecues to celebrate the Fourth of July, they might do well to take note that a living revolution is still underway in Egypt.

It’s a revolution that is inspired by the promise of a universal declaration of rights spelled out in the words of the Declaration of Independence signed on this day in 1776.

And it’s a revolution as messy and sometimes violent as our own. A popular revolt with freedom fighters, religious fundamentalists, mercenaries, business interests and a highly opinionated free press all colliding in a public square called "Tahrir,” which is Arabic for “Liberation.”

In the coming months, Egypt faces an extraordinary challenge as it moves toward what this country hopes will be its first free and fair parliamentary election in September after at least 60 years of authoritarian rule. The newly elected parliament will then nominate a 100-member constitutional congress which will be empowered to draft a constitution. The document will then be submitted to a referendum.

At the core of the debate in Egypt is how to balance religion and the state, a struggle that was equally fraught with emotion and meaning for the U.S. as it is for Egypt. In an impatient world of Twitter feeds and Facebook pages, all calling for swift movement in Egypt, it might be good to remember that it took the United States 12 years to write its constitution following the Declaration of Independence. But it was worth the wait as the American constitution – while still living and breathing and facing challenges every day – remains intact and its words still represent a radical blueprint for freedom.

In a March referendum in Egypt on the country’s 1971 constitution, Egypt rejected "emergency laws" that allowed the president to rule the country with an iron fist but by a very wide margin it upheld Article Two. That article describes Egypt as an Islamic state and Sharia (Islamic law) as the basis of legislation. Small secular parties opposed the article, but the overwhelming majority of Egyptians want their faith to inform and shape their democracy. And in wanting that they are no different than the founding fathers of America.

The significant difference is that the American founding fathers believed the best way to have faith thrive and inform the debates of the day was to create a wall of separation between any single religion and the state. That’s not what Egypt is setting out to do and that worries many in Egypt, particularly its more secular elite, advocates for the rights of women and the Coptic Christian minority, which represents at least five percent of the population. It’s also worrying the U.S. State Department, which fears the ire America could face from a government dominated by Islamists. To its credit, the State Department announced last week it would reach out to the largest Islamist party, the Muslim Brotherhood, and be open to dialogue. It’s a confident and practical thing to do.

But the reality right now in Egypt is that neither Egypt’s pro-democracy movement, which leans far to the left and includes socialist and anarchist ideology, nor its Islamic movement, embodied by the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, are in any mood to be lectured by America about the meaning of universal rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Not after the U.S. backed the corrupt and brutal regime of Hosni Mubarak for 30 years.

The road to this revolution is about the dignity of Egyptians finding their own way forward after all these years, and it will almost inevitably take them down a path that seeks separation from overt American influence in Egypt even if the country will still desperately need the several billions of dollars in funding it receives from U.S. taxpayers.

But whether the Egyptians want to hear this or not, the truth is that America offers more than just dollars. It also offers the ideals of its own history of revolution against tyranny and the ideas of Jeffersonian democracy and the words of a universal declaration of the rights of man. They are words that live not only in the American Constitution, but are embedded in the Constitution of France and in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the hopes expressed in scores of countries that have liberated themselves from past oppressors. As I travel home from Cairo to our own small New England town to celebrate the Fourth of July, I leave here hoping Egypt can hear the words of our own American revolution. Candidly, I am not sure they can.

And for now, Americans will just have to quietly accept that their foreign policy actions in the Middle East over many decades have made it hard for the Arab world to hear these words. The actions of our government, supporting tyranny in the name of stability, prevent us from celebrating our contribution to the definition of freedom. Or, at least, the actions make such proclamations ring hollow. The truth is that the revolution unfolding in Egypt presents an extraordinary challenge to the ideals that America claims to uphold. A good thing to think about as America celebrates with hot dogs, hamburgers and fireworks bursting in the night sky over towns and cities across the country on this Fourth of July.