On the Egypt revolution and America’s War of 1812

This has been a tough week for anyone who cares about the Egyptian revolution or the future of the country.  As Egyptian headed into the final round of voting for a new president — which appears to have been won by the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsy — the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) took the precaution of using quasi-constitutional means to gut the revolution.  Wendell Steavenson at the New Yorker catalogues the SCAF’s crimes against democracy:

Parliament was suddenly dissolved on a legal technicality. Martial law was re-declared, affording the military the right to arrest and try civilians for such crimes as disobeying orders and obstructing traffic. The only-just-formed Constitutional Committee was suspended along with the parliament, apparently to be replaced with a body chosen by the military.

And there is more to come as we await a ‘legal’ decision on whether the Muslim Brotherhood is banned — this would be one way of denying Morsy the presidency — and the official results of the election, which might still be finagled to give victory to the military’s preferred candidate, Ahmed Shafiq.

Steavenson, trying to find grounds for optimism amid the gloom, takes heart that at least now the veil has finally been stripped off the SCAF’s profoundly undemocratic tendencies, which have been evident all along but obscured from view.  My optimism, such as it is, comes from a most unexpected place.

Yesterday was the 200th anniversary of the start of the War of 1812 — America’s forgotten war, that involved a failed invasion of Canada and the British burning of Washington, D.C. — and I was reading Gordon S. Wood’s review of several books on the subject in the New York Review of Books (subscription required) aptly titled “Mr. Madison’s Weird War.”  That is James Madison and in a long and glorious political career the war was far from his finest hour.  One of the things that made it ‘weird’ is that no one can agree on why it was even fought since the ostensible reasons seem so frivolous, but Wood makes the point that the British practice of stopping US merchant marine ships at sea (which was one of the catalysts) was a declaration that Britain did not recognize American sovereignty.  My point is that this was happening in 1812, nearly four decades after the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and three decades after the completion of the Revolutionary War.

Revolutions only look coherent and quick in retrospect, sometimes in long-distant retrospect.  It is easy, now, in the thick of the Egyptian revolution to be dismayed by how few of the actors appear to have a vision for a better Egypt or are looking to create a system and institutions and a constitution that will protect the long-term interests of the Egyptian people and not merely their own short-term interest in grabbing power or protecting their privileges.  Many in the US who are watching this wonder (sometimes derisively, sometimes sincerely) where are the high-minded visionaries equal to our own Founding Fathers, who gave us the Federalist papers and Jeffersonian democracy.  But Gordon Wood, referring to an author’s claim that Madison was “nuts” and guilty of “paranoia” and that the early years of American political life were witness to “a closet full of maniacs,” says that “This kind of scorn is a common tendency of historians dealing with the 1790s.”  Certain aspects of the early years of American political life might have been as disheartening to witness in real time as the shenanigans in Egypt are today.

The US did not get its first president and secular saint, George Washington, until 1789, thirteen years after the Declaration of Independence, and even then he was not elected by a popular vote — not even by a popular vote of white, land-owning men.  So maybe it just takes time.

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Incidentally, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson were Republicans and one of the things they opposed was the creation of a standing national army rather than raising temporary militias because they believed a military establishment would lead to tyranny by the executive branch and the suppression of liberty among the citizenry.  Or, as their fellow Republican John Taylor of Caroline put it, a large, permanent military would “only serve to excite wars, squander money, and extend corruption.”  They were onto something there.

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