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

“… 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).

But he jailed opponents and stifled free speech. When the army toppled him in 2011, it was responding to nationwide demands to alter or abolish him. Besides, it promptly organized free and fair elections.

Except that it didn’t. Remember, Egyptians were arguing furiously that year over the elections’ timing. The earlier they happened, the bigger edge they’d give the previously banned, deeply undemocratic Muslim Brotherhood, which happened to be the only group around that was organized and ready. The Brotherhood wanted elections right away. Everyone else needed time to organize.

The army picked an early date, mostly to get out of the governing business and keep foreign aid flowing. As expected, the Brotherhood won. Equally predictably, it proceeded to draft an oppressive constitution, install fanatics in key positions and unleash attacks on Christians, Shi’ites and other minorities. Within a year the people were back on the street. And again the army removed the president.

Yes, it was a coup. But was a “duly elected” leader deposed? Not really. In a way, the voters didn’t have much more choice in the rushed 2012 balloting than they’d had under Mubarak’s famous one-man, one-vote (one man is running for your vote) elections.

It matters how we look at this. Others around the world are looking to see what we consider democratic. Islamist governments in Tunisia, Libya and Turkey want to know how far they can go in imposing their views on their people. Reports from Cairo indicate the army is about to repeat its mistake, rushing the elections to please our Congress.

It matters, too, because how we act in the world reflects the way we understand governance. What does it mean for a government to “secure” the people’s rights? When are “the people” entitled to “alter or abolish” a government? Which “people” do we mean?

Consider, for example, Michigan. The Republican legislature there passed a law late last year empowering the Republican governor to replace an elected local government with an “emergency manager” when he finds mismanagement — including a single missed pension-fund payment or even “probable financial stress.” This updates an earlier law overturned by referendum in 2012.

Since the law took effect in March, six municipalities and two school boards have been taken over, including Detroit. All of them are majority black. In fact, half the state’s black population is now under emergency management. Several are suing in federal court. Which side is the unjust government, and which side is altering or abolishing it?

In the end, it comes down to appearances. But there’s a way to tell the sides apart. In Cairo, for example, law enforcement wears snappy jackets and pants, whereas religious extremists wear robes down to their ankles. In Washington it’s the other way around. Sort of.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at [email protected]

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