Lessons on Liberty from Egypt

“Is that the Salem Fair, mommy?” my five year-old son asks. The flat screen in our living room broadcasts roaring crowds gathered in Tehrir Square, Cairo, as fireworks explode in the night sky.

“No, sweetie. It’s Egypt. They’re getting a new government. Again.”

The timing is ironic, but perhaps instructive. As we prepared to celebrate our nation’s unique commitment to freedom and its 237-year anniversary, we watched the Egyptian people demand the ouster of their democratically-elected president Mohammad Morsi on the 1-year anniversary of his rule. The military obliged with a coup.


The coincidence of these two events teaches us an important lesson about liberty. Namely, freedom is more than the ability to vote for the person who will control your life for a set period of time. Democracy is not synonymous with liberty. The only reason we cherish the former is its ability to help us secure the latter. Democracy is but a means (and an unreliable one at that); liberty is the end.

Democracy unconstrained by the rule of law—i.e. a Constitution that limits the powers of government and protects the rights of minorities—is no more than mob rule. It is violent, temperamental, and fundamentally unstable. This sort of unrestrained democracy inevitably results in tyranny, as it is incapable of providing a secure foundation for either the economy or society to function. The crowds that once danced in the promise of their own power soon turn it over to someone—anyone—capable of restoring order and normality.

This cycle is not a recent phenomenon, as this excellent 10 minute video illustrates. It goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks. The most infamous example is the French Revolution of 1789, when the same mob that stormed the Bastille also suffered under the Reign of Terror and cheered the dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte.

When we really think about it, what we value in our country is the rule of law, not the rule of the majority. In a democracy, the fate of the likes of George Zimmerman would be determined by a national poll. Instead, he gets a jury trial where the burden of proof is on the prosecution and guilt must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. In an absolute democracy, 51% of the people can vote to confiscate the private property of the other 49%. Ben Franklin put it best: “Democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner.”


Our founding fathers understood the difference between a republic and a democracy, wisely choosing to give us the former. They knew that monarchs, despots, and princes are not the only ones who can trample man’s liberty. A group of men—even an elected one—is more than capable of that.

The Declaration of Independence states: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” How do governments protect these freedoms? With laws. The word “democracy” is nowhere mentioned in the entire document.

To understand what all this means for Egypt, let’s look at what has happened over the last couple years. Here’s the super-condensed version: Hosni Mubarak was an autocrat who used the power of the military to suppress dissent for 30 years. He grew increasingly unpopular largely as a result of his inability to deal with a poor economy. Caught up in the “Arab Spring,” the Egyptian people took to the streets and demanded Mubarak step down, which he eventually did. Power was turned over to the Egyptian military until elections could be held. Despite the fact that Islamists had not been the driving force behind the anti-Mubarak protests, they managed to gain over 60% of the Parliament and the presidency.

The Muslim Brotherhood attempted to present itself to the West as democratic and moderate, even fooling our own president. But their history and professed ideology prove otherwise. The goal of the Brotherhood is theocracy, not democracy. Their credo is: “Allah is our objective; the Quran is our law; the Prophet is our leader; Jihad is our way; and death for the sake of Allah is the highest of our aspirations.” As this article by Michael Totten shows, the Brotherhood is committed to radicalism and unwilling to compromise with liberal elements in Egyptian society, to the extent that they exist. Here is one telling excerpt:

“The Western worldview is not very popular in Egypt,” Egyptian journalist Mohamed Ahmed Raouf told me. “They watch American movies, they drive American cars, but they don’t accept Western culture or values of democracy, pluralism, and enlightenment. They don’t accept it. People have to be open-minded, and that’s not the case here.”

Hala Mustafa, a liberal intellectual at the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, told me the Muslim Brothers grotesquely distort the words “freedom” and “democracy.” “I heard one of them just the other day referring to individual rights,” she said, “but in a very backward way. He thinks Islam already has all rights for everybody and that we have to respect that. He thinks this is freedom, but it’s completely different from any liberal concept of freedom. The Muslim Brotherhood is against individual freedom not just for women and Christians, but also for Muslims and men.”

Morsi and the Brotherhood are Anti-Semitic and hostile to Israel. “We must never forget, brothers, to nurse our children and our grandchildren on hatred for them: for Zionists, for Jews,” Mr. Morsi declared in this video. Egyptian children “must feed on hatred; hatred must continue,” he said. “The hatred must go on for Allah and as a form of worshiping him.”

Hillary Clinton, Mohammed Morsi

Now does that sound more like Thomas Jefferson or Adolf Hitler? (Hitler, by the way, was democratically elected. That didn’t stop him from ordering the executions of 11 million people, and it didn’t stop us from opposing him. If only the German military had overthrown the Nazi party, the world would have been spared the most costly conflict in terms of human life in the history of the planet.)

So, what should the United States do? Continue to support Morsi, as President Obama did up to the eleventh hour, just because he was “democratically elected?” Accept military rule and the jailing of Brotherhood leaders? Just phone it in, golf, and go yachting, like Obama and Kerry? For the moment it seems that we have settled on the genius approach of appearing to support everyone and no one, thus alienating both the pro-Morsi and anti-Morsi camps. If there is one thing both sides agree on, it’s that they are anti-Obama. Both sides suspect the United States of sabotaging their interests.


On the one hand, it’s hard not to see the fall of Morsi as a good development. Egypt’s wealthy Gulf neighbors certainly do. Some have suggested the Egyptian military has offered the nation a rare “second chance” at democracy. We can hope that Egypt will proceed in time along a path to real liberty and opportunity for its people, but the outcome is far from certain.

In the best case scenario, Egyptians draft a constitution this time before selecting a president to carry it out. This constitution protects the rights of women, Christians, and other minorities and guards against the type of executive overreach that Morsi engaged in, essentially declaring himself pharaoh last November. We can hope that over time the moderate and liberal voices come to dominate the culture and that society rejects the lure of Islamic radicalism. If young Egyptians agree with this amazing 12-year old boy, then there may be reason yet to have faith in Egypt’s future. We have already seen that economic realities can trump political ideologies. To many Egyptians, the Muslim Brotherhood was just fine in theory until they completely failed to improve the economy, making matters much worse.

The worst case scenario—unfortunately also the more likely one—is a struggle between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military that runs the risk of civil war. So long in the shadows, the Brotherhood got a tantalizing taste of power. Now that they can claim the legitimacy of having won elections, this can only embolden their cause.

But as the situation in Egypt plays itself out, we can take a moment to truly appreciate the extraordinary freedoms we enjoy as citizens of this great nation. We can pause in gratitude to our founding fathers—to Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, and Madison—and be glad they were not Napoleon or Khomeini or Morsi. We can be grateful that we live in a society founded on Judeo-Christian principles where a woman can walk through a crowded street without being sexually assaulted by a crowd of jeering men.

We can also take a moment to recall this important lesson on liberty: a democracy is only as good as the laws, the culture, and the morals of its people.

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