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Egyptian Choices

The revolution sweeping the Arab world is both exhilarating and frightening, and it is understandable that fear is overtaking excitement in the hearts of many American Jews. We are anxious about threats to Israel’s safety and the waning Western influence in a region that suddenly has exploded with populist rage. Our geopolitical expectations are violently scrambled, leaving the sort of cognitive dissonance that invades the mind when what you thought you knew for sure no longer seems true.

But this isn’t about us.

While, as of this writing, uncertainty and ugliness reign in the streets of Cairo, this much seems clear: The revolt was fueled by domestic discontent that erupted after years of political oppression, growing economic inequality, crushing poverty and stifled hopes. It wasn’t caused by a U.S. military invasion, or directed into war with Israel, or tied to the anti-American passions that have fueled so much terrorism in the last decade.

The sight of Egyptians trying peacefully to exercise the rights of free speech and assembly that we have come to take for granted ought to stir something profound in anyone who believes in the sovereignty of the human spirit.

But the violence, looting and lawlessness that gripped Cairo also provide an unsettling lesson. Democracies can’t be imposed, and they aren’t born fully formed. They take years, decades, even centuries, to mature and stabilize. We forget that long before America had its vaunted Constitution, its individual states had already experienced years of self-governance, learning how to use their civic muscles. Because of President Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian rule, those civic muscles atrophied in Egypt, leaving a dangerous vacuum that, we can only hope, will not be filled by a different version of extreme governance.

The early leaders of Israel knew this well, which is why the structures of governance were established long before independence was declared. Many observers believe that Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian Authority’s prime minister, is following such a route in his strengthening of security forces and civil society in the West Bank before any peace treaty is signed.

There is one other lesson from America’s founding that is pertinent here, and it stems from President George Washington’s decision not to seek a third term, to voluntarily relinquish his authority. The power of that precedent cannot be underestimated, as embattled authoritarian Arab leaders are now rushing to signal their willingness to step down. Imagine how different the Middle East might look if Mubarak had done that years ago.

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