Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Tahrir Square or Philadelphia?

What were America's Founding Fathers doing 237 years ago tomorrow?

Here's a clue:  they weren't signing the Declaration of Independence.

Did you know that the Second Continental Congress actually drafted our country's founding document on July 2, 1776?  John Adams, who played a key role in writing the Declaration, along with Thomas Jefferson, actually expected July 2 to be immortalized as America's independence day.  Thanks to the machinations of the self-aggrandizing Jefferson, however, the date an edited and polished Declaration of Independence was ratified became "the great anniversary festival" Adams envisioned.

Picky and charismatic, Jefferson likely controlled the final edits and revisions to the document he and his peers initially approved on July 2, which could explain how his version of events eventually trumped that of the more reserved Adams.  It's believed Adams played the role of consensus-builder during the Second Continental Congress, carefully and tenaciously wooing support for both the concept of independence and the Declaration itself from the delegates.  For several years after America's establishment of independence from Britain, the two men fell into a bitter political rivalry.  Ironically enough, they both died within hours of each other on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of their document's ratification.

To most Americans, such technicalities between July 2 and July 4 make no difference.  We also don't really care that, during our country's formative years, Adams and Jefferson detested each other.  What matters today to us is that this grand experiment the two of them helped launch during the Summer of '76 has lasted this long and has been as productive and beneficent as it has.

In Tahrir Square today, however, Egypt's raucous lurching from underneath the rule of Hosni Mubarak had another convulsion with the country's military staging a coup against Mohamed Morsy, Mubarak's replacement who'd only been in office a year.  Thousands of anti-Morsy demonstrators filled Cairo's Tahrir Square in a sustained, continuous roar of discontent that has been streaming live to the rest of the world over the Internet all day.  I've been watching off and on, as people have been waving Egyptian flags, chanting, yelling, and blowing whistles, their noise never relenting, even as the hours have come and gone.

At one point, the camera panned down to record the crowd passing up to a group of men the body of somebody who'd died down on the square.  It was on a makeshift stretcher, covered with the Egyptian flag.  Some men procured a rope, tied the corpse under the flag to the stretcher, prayed over it, and then lifted it up high for those nearby to see.  I also saw the crowd separate from time to time, and from the Washington Post, I learned that volunteers were trying to keep throngs of men away from a large circle of women who were demonstrating in part of the square.  Numerous rapes have been committed in Tahrir Square since the start of this demonstration earlier in the week, grossly marring what's supposed to be a call for human dignity in the face of oppression at the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood, which put Morsy in power.

In Egypt, however, at least women can vote.  Women in 1776 America couldn't.

When the Arab Spring swept across the Islamic world two years ago, experts warned that Muslims generally have a different view of democracy than we do in the West.*  Ours is the democracy of people like Adams and Jefferson, in which political freedom is sort of a perpetual gamble on the ability of people to govern themselves.  The type of democracy for which groups like the Muslim Brotherhood advocate is more of a one-time vote for long-term tyranny.  Persecution of Christians, intellectuals, and women shot up exponentially after Mubarak was overthrown, and the Muslim Brotherhood tried to justify their punitive regime as the will of the people, since they were voted into power.  As we've witnessed today, that was not the type of democracy many Egyptians thought they were getting two years ago.

What happens now, of course, is anybody's guess.  Pundits are just now trying to piece together plausible scenarios for Egypt's immediate future.  You wouldn't know anybody was worried, however, by looking at the live video feed from Tahrir Square, where people appear jubilant, even after cheering for hours, shooting off fireworks, flashing green lasers, and generally acting like nobody has to go to work tomorrow.

Here in the United States, few of us have to work tomorrow, since it's our national holiday commemorating our nation's birth.  Even if it was technically on July 2, 1776.  Our country's history has a history of being romanticized, blurred, forgotten, embellished, and revised, but we haven't become the world's primary defender of and advocate for freedom by voting people into office on a platform of coercion.

Even if opposing political parties might beg to differ.

The democracy Egyptians seem to be saying they want for themselves is likely modeled on what they see in our country.  What they're probably forgetting, however, is that our path was not pretty, or smooth, or even short.

There's a discrepancy of two days in the annals of our Declaration's auspicious history.  And 237 years between what our Founding Fathers envisioned, and what the world sees today.  What we've got isn't perfect, but then again, we neither segregate men and women during our political demonstrations, nor do we have to maintain a gap between the genders to protect women.

Adams believed fireworks provided a suitable celebration for the hope represented by our Declaration of Independence.  And the fireworks in Egypt's sky tonight mean the same thing as the fireworks that will be in America's sky tomorrow.  May that stay true for both our countries long into the future.

* Don't believe me?  Then consider this quote in July 5th's New York Times, by an Islamist democratic activist in Libya:  “I have been saying all along, ‘If you want to build Shariah law, come to elections.’”

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