What Makes Democracy — in Egypt and the U.S.?

Voting Rights Is Key Issue, From Cairo to South Carolina

Democracy for the People? A supporter of ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi demonstrates. What’s right and wrong is not always easy to assess, whether in the streets of Cairo or the halls of the Supreme Court.
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Democracy for the People? A supporter of ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi demonstrates. What’s right and wrong is not always easy to assess, whether in the streets of Cairo or the halls of the Supreme Court.

By J.J. Goldberg

Published July 15, 2013, issue of July 19, 2013.
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“… whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.”

U.S. Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776

It’s funny how watching the news can take you to new places and remind you how alike we are under the skin. Take this voting rights business. What is the proper role of federal law enforcement in guaranteeing the people’s right to free and fair elections? You’ll find it depends partly on where you live, and partly on who you are.

Let’s consider a place somewhere that’s been governed so unfairly for so long that most folks can’t remember what a fair election looks like. Throngs of protesters take to the streets. The noise reaches the capital, which finally intervenes. In the process it crafts new rules to protect fair voting.

But fairness isn’t what happens. This is the Bible Belt, and religious fundamentalists quickly emerge, manipulating the system to meddle in everyone’s private lives. Eventually the protesters return to the streets. Again the noise reaches the halls of power. The forces of law take action, and the next thing you know:

Ending A: President Mohammed Morsi is under house arrest, the Muslim Brotherhood is tossed out and all of Cairo is preparing for another try at real democracy, which was the goal of those brave protesters in 2011. Hopefully this time, fundamentalists won’t be exploiting the system to impose their values on everyone else.

Ending B: The Supreme Court decides to gut the Justice Department’s authority to ensure fair elections, which was the greatest achievement of those 1960s-era civil rights protesters. Within days, legislatures in Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and North Carolina are changing election rules and restricting access to the ballot box. Not coincidentally, they’re also busy passing laws to impose their religious values on everyone else.

Are the situations the same? No. But the parallels are striking, and raise some intriguing questions. What makes a democratic government democratic? Is it how it was chosen, how it governs or some combination? When are democratic elections undemocratic? And who makes the call? The Justice Department? The army?

Egypt’s crisis has folks in America and worldwide asking just those questions. Not that it’s really our business. We’ve had recent experience installing and uninstalling other countries’ governments. It hasn’t gone well.

In Egypt’s case, though, they’re questions we can’t avoid. We’re involved because the rest of the world thinks we are. We’re the superpower. Besides, our aid is critical to Egypt’s economy.

Happily, we have laws detailing how to respond to such crises. Title 22 of the United States Code, Section 8422, which governs foreign aid, “restricts assistance to the government of any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree.” That seems pretty clear, which is why the White House has been trying to squirm out of calling this coup a “coup.” We don’t want Egypt going broke and deciding peace with Israel isn’t worth it.

Look closer, though, at those pesky words, “duly elected.” Who deserves protection? Hosni Mubarak was elected (over and over).


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