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What America's founding fathers can teach us about Egypt's future
Cairo is gripped by popular protests and chaos. Were he alive today, Thomas Jefferson might be pleased.
Thomas Hobbes and Thomas Jefferson would probably have a lot to say about the chaos gripping Egypt.
Thomas Hobbes and Thomas Jefferson would probably have a lot to say about the chaos gripping Egypt. Illustration by Lauren Hansen | Images courtesy of AP Photo, Getty Images (2)
O

n July 4, I expressed reservations regarding the coup that ousted the leader of Egypt's Islamist government from power. The main reason was this: There's an uncomfortable but seldom-acknowledged reality that the line between an expression of the popular will and the act of a mob or the act of a criminal is and has never been as neat as we are comfortable with.

Today, the violent and startlingly Draconian crackdown of Egypt's military government against the popularly elected but suddenly unpopular and overthrown Islamist government reminds us that revolutions and the concept of democratic governance is very messy.

Thomas Hobbes, the granddaddy of modern political science, famously argued that organized governance arose not because it was inherently just or that it provided individuals with the maximum amount of liberty, but rather as a response to the unbearable conditions of the state of nature in which life is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." As Hobbes saw it, government restrained our freedom, but it did so in ways that provided a security that could never exist in the state of nature. Nevertheless, in Hobbes' world, force still played a prominent role, for without a centrally dominant actor capable of enforcing its will, there would be no order, thereby defeating the purpose for which government was created in the first place.

With the exception of a few truly crazy anarchists, you are unlikely to find many people anywhere in the world who would suggest that humans ought to head back to a state of nature and resume the insecure, dangerous lives that come with that condition. That said, while virtually every state agrees that its people should live under some form of government, there is considerable disagreement and fighting over who should run these governments.

Which brings us to the tricky concept of democracy. Amongst the secularists and most of the Islamists in Egypt, there seems to be some level of acceptance that "democracy" should prevail. But what does that mean, exactly? Is democracy an ideal? Is it a system? How are we to weigh systemic concerns against the broader idea that government should reflect the popular will of the people?

I will not presume to attempt to answer that question, but I can place it in historical context. Contrary to the rather simplistic view one is likely to learn in third grade history class or by listening to cable news commentators, America's founders disagreed sharply with one another over the proper purview and orientation of government. Those debates have not gone away. Those who are sympathetic to the coup by the secularists in Egypt (if not the excesses that flowed from it) can trace their trust of the people back to none other than Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson's political thought tended to skew toward fantastical idealism, and to his dying days, he believed quite fervently that the popular will ought not be overly constrained by institutional arrangements, especially those created by previous generations without the input of the parties now living under those formal mechanisms. Jefferson's idealized vision of democracy led him to throw his support behind the French revolution, which, suffice it to say, had its excesses.

The second group of people, like myself, who worried when the Egyptian people threw out their democratically elected leader even though we didn't much care for his politics, were wary of the idea that the ends justified the means. Like James Madison, we doubted whether, in the long term, the ends always justify the means. We value systems and stability, which makes us cautious, but also maximizes legitimacy and stability while keeping open avenues for reform without threatening individual rights in the ways that popular revolutions tend to.

No one knows whether, in the end, the secularist coup will prove a victory for freedom in Egypt. But we do know this: In overthrowing their newly formed, legitimately elected government, the secularists and protesters chose to throw their nation back into a violent situation more closely resembling the state of nature.

Now, as the Egyptian people evaluate how to go forward, they face a choice: Will they trust in the whims of the masses and embrace the chaos that Jefferson famously described as the refresher of the tree of liberty? Or will they accept that men are not angels, and that as such, the rule of law must trump any one policy agenda? How they decide may well determine if there is even a scintilla of hope for peace in the Middle East during the next 100 years. Let's hope they choose correctly, for their sakes, and ours.

Jeb Golinkin is a graduate of the University of Texas School of Law and writes about U.S. politics and policy for TheWeek.com. From 2008 to 2011, he served as an editor and reporter for Frum Forum/New Majority. Email him at jgolinkin@gmail.com.

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