Felicia Muftic: Founders set tone for Arab Spring
June 29, 2011
No one meeting in the Continental Congress in 1776 could have imagined that their Declaration of Independence from Britain would inspire popular revolts and uprisings 235 years later in lands very different and far away.
The young people leading the Arab Spring used the words of the Declaration and the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights to rally supporters and to couch their goals as rights to pursue life, liberty, and happiness.
Principles so eloquently put to quill pen in 1776 by Thomas Jefferson were fleshed out and codified in the first 10 amendments of the Constitution (the Bill of Rights) later during its ratification process. Both documents have become the ideals and aspirations of many young leaders in the Middle East and North Africa, which they extolled in text messages, Facebook, Twitter, and oratory.
Elections this fall in Egypt and Tunisia will tell whether the meaning of those words will be fully understood and applied by those going to the polls. There is always the possibility that some non-democratic force will win out, but a semblance of a Jeffersonian democracy is possible in those countries.
The transition from oppressed subject of a monarchy to revolution to democratic self-governance was relatively easy for the newly minted 13 not yet fully united states of America. The colonialists had experience in decades with the practice of self-government through their colonial legislative bodies. They used the English parliamentary procedures as a model, a structure that translated to order of debate, compromise, and law-making. For that reason John Adams and Thomas Jefferson worked effectively in a familiar process, though they were temperamentally and culturally very different.
Colonialists also could draw on a legal system based upon English law. In short, they spoke a common language of governance.
Independence in that hot summer of 1776 was not a revolt against the form of democracy. The patriots were in revolt against a monarchy and parliament that would not let them use the tools of democracy to pass their own laws they themselves could enforce, levy their own taxes, control their own militias or even have representation in the British parliament.
When the colonies attempted to boycott British goods and refused to pay taxes levied on them, the British parliament set about to punish and penalize them, closing their colonial assemblies and dictating their governance. By July 4, 1776, the patriots had already fought at Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill and had come to the conclusion that any change in British policies would not happen. Independence was the only option.
Unlike American patriots, those in North Africa who successfully overthrew dictators and monarchies do not have much of a democratic platform on which to build, though Egypt does have a structure in place. Unlike a tribally fragmented Afghanistan where loyalty to a national government is at best secondary and Jeffersonian democracy is not even a dream, Egypt and Tunisia have loyalty to a national identity and a group of activists willing to die for their rights .
Knowledge of the form of democratic government is no guarantee that democracy will take root. I recall a conversation with a Ugandan diplomat attending his first United Nations session on the eve of his country becoming independent. I expressed concern that they would be able to govern themselves. The diplomat assured me that as a former British colony, Uganda would be successful.
Instead, Uganda devolved into 25 years of tribal bloodshed, revolution, ethnic and tribal cleansing. President Idi Amin became the icon of bloody dictatorships that would haunt the rest of the former colonies of sub Sahara Africa for many decades.
We can hope countries throwing off oppression can develop their own democratic institutions and traditions. It will be particularly difficult for those divided by ethnic, tribal, religious differences with a citizenry that puts loyalty to their nation secondary. They can succeed if their citizens unify and do not abandon goals to protect inalienable human rights which our own patriots and founders pioneered.
For more commentary, go to http://www.mufticforum.com
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