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What the United States Can Learn from Egypt About Democracy

Egyptians seem to be enjoying democracy more than Americans have for a long time.

For the last six months, I've visited the protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, sometimes as a reporter, sometimes as a curious (and, I admit, sympathetic) onlooker. At these demonstrations, men on stages shouted speeches into crackling microphones and crowds chanted anti-military slogans, while all around me, Egyptians of every stripe—poor and wealthy and middle class, Muslim and Christian, leftist and pro-market liberal—engaged in debates about the role of the military in political life or the future of Egypt’s constitution. As I stood there amid the tents, in the heart of downtown Cairo, in the brutal heat of July, in the overwhelming excitement of a continuing revolution, I often thought about politics in the United States, where I was born and raised.

As I watched the debt-ceiling spectacle unfold from almost 6,000 miles away, I was struck by how ossified American democracy appeared and how complacent the public was. Faced with a major crisis that could destroy the U.S. and world economies, Washington lawmakers, ostensibly the bulbs that brighten the beacon of freedom for the whole world, remained, until the last possible minute, deadlocked by partisan acrimony. And this wasn’t the first time. A look back at the major policy debates of the last few years reveals a pattern. Meanwhile, Americans stay largely quiescent. Any potential for creativity, in Washington or on the streets, has been stifled. Our devotion to a two-party system and our obsession with elections have caused us to lose sight of some of the real values of democracy, like open debate and responsive government.

Egypt, six months into a revolution that intends to re-imagine its entire political life, is not yet a functioning democracy in any normal sense. A military council runs the country and continues Mubarak-era practices like torture, military trials for civilians, and harassment of journalists and dissidents. There is not yet a parliament, nor, technically, a constitution. And Egyptian political discourse still has the potential to harden along rigid party lines. Nonetheless, ever since the revolution began in January, Egyptians have been enjoying one valuable aspect of democracy that Americans seem to have largely forgotten: Protests.

Americans' last major effort to rally in the streets wasn't so effective. On February 15, 2003, I took a bus to Manhattan from my home in suburban New Jersey to join a march against the impending U.S. invasion of Iraq. I marched up First Avenue with hundreds of thousands of other angry Americans, mostly New York-area residents, mostly middle class. We chanted, “We say no to war!” But through it all, I recall a sense of hopelessness, a knowledge that the American president didn’t care what a million people in streets around the country had to say about his war. And we were right. On that gray February day eight years ago, we went home afterward, turned on our televisions and stewed in our living rooms, livid that we weren’t being listened to.

In Egypt, they don’t go home.

Sign-carrying and street-marching and slogan-chanting aren’t completely dead as means of pushing for social and political change in the United States. A few groups keep the art of the street protest alive. The radical left is still able to muster up a few thousand diehards to protest the G20 or World Trade Organization. CODEPINK and pro-Palestine activists know how to make a dramatic interruption every once in a while. And, of course, the far right has learned how protest rallies can be useful as a tool. Since early 2009, Tea Partiers have gathered with the goal of moving the political conversation further to the right. They have largely succeeded, proving again to Americans that protesting can work. (The fact that the Tea Party has the healthy support of corporate money calls into question its status as a grassroots protest movement, but that is a conversation for another day.)

What these few remaining protest movements have in common is that they exist on the fringes of American political discourse. The so-called mainstream has been so thoroughly dominated by two political parties that most Americans feel that the best way to voice their political opinions (if they ever feel that need) is through party-based activism and donations. With Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, the Democratic Party inspired the activist spirit, employing street-art-style posters and powerful slogans like “yes we can” to call on young people around the country to volunteer for the campaign. College campuses around the country exploded with a zeal for politics unlike anything since the 1970s—but this time for a Democratic presidential candidate.

During the uprising last winter that brought down Hosni Mubarak, demonstrations in the streets of Cairo were the domain of every political stripe, from hardline Salafi Islamists to hardline Trotskyists to liberals who want an American-style democracy. Six months later, those same factions are still mobilizing in the streets. While the efficacy of the protests is questionable, few Egyptians treat the act of marching in the street as a fringe tactic.

There is one notable exception to the American pattern that comes to mind. When thousands of Wisconsinites, including teachers and nurses and police officers, members of the middle class and the “mainstream,” descended on the Capitol in Madison, just days after Egypt’s uprising, to voice their outrage at Governor Scott Walker’s budget cuts, they carried signs that said, “Hosni Walker, Elected Dictator” and “Walk like an Egyptian.”

With the American economy still ailing, a debt-reduction deal that will push forward austerity measures that hurt the middle and working classes, and little prospect for an end to the deadlock that has paralyzed Washington, Americans should look beyond congressional and presidential elections and two parties if they want to enact real change. In fact, they should look 6,000 miles away, to Tahrir Square, where “yes we can” still means something.

Photo (cc) via Flickr user gr33ndata.

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