Egypt’s revolution and our own

This editorial was originally published in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Whatever comes next in Cairo, there are lessons from the American Revolution that should be taken to heart by all who wish the revolution in Egypt to succeed.

A poster, with a nod to Obama's "Hope" campaign. Illustration by Nick Bygon

The causes of unrest in Egypt – the political oppression, impoverishment and grossly inequitable distribution of wealth – bear little resemblance to the impulses behind the American Revolution. And clearly men who wore knee breeches and powdered their hair inhabited a world very different from the demonstrators in Tahrir Square.

But the principles for which the Founding Fathers fought kept the American Revolution from ending badly, in tyranny, as so many revolutions do. And the foundingest principle of them all – the one codified in the first three words of the Constitution — is that governments should reflect the will of the people, a sentiment that Egypt’s young revolutionaries clearly share.

America and Egypt

President Obama made this point when he visited Cairo in June 2009 and said that “all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas; they are human rights.”

And to American eyes, at least, one of the most memorable images from the uprising’s early days was the demonstrator in Liberation Square who carried a sign reading: “Yes we can, too.”

With a little luck, they can. The brightest lesson of the American Revolution is that a severe political crisis, like the one unspooling in Egypt, can give birth to a polity dedicated to rights, equality and liberty, even against tremendous odds.

Each nation takes its own path toward those ideals, a path grounded in its own history and traditions. But at least three ingredients present in the American Revolution seem necessary for success: leadership, commitment to the rule of law and solidarity.

Leadership is indispensable, of course, and Washington is aptly described as the indispensable man of the American Revolution. As the historian Ron Chernow recently reminded us, Washington was a remarkably persevering military commander and a political genius who knew how to inspire and motivate people. He surrounded himself with the likes of James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, all of whom, sometimes grudgingly, acknowledged his gifts and preeminence as a leader.

But it was not just Washington and those other remarkable leaders who account for the American Revolution’s success. The events of 1776 did not devolve into anarchy or mob rule simply because ordinary Americans placed their faith in extraordinary men. They also adhered to the rule of law, which President Obama identified as a universal value.

How might the Egyptians find their Washington?”

Americans of the revolutionary era realized that ridding themselves of one form of government required replacing it with another, and to that end they looked to the Continental Congress for guidance. One of Congress’s first acts was to instruct each colony to rewrite its constitution, in accordance with republican principles.

That Egyptians are discussing amending their constitution is a hopeful sign. To succeed, the diverse band of protesters gathered in Tahrir Square must embrace opposition leaders committed both to democracy and the rule of law.

But if sectarian violence is to be avoided, one other ingredient will also be necessary: national solidarity. Recently, the historian T.H. Breen pointed out that even before the first shot was fired on Lexington Green, the American patriots worked hard to forge unity. The boycotts and resistance that preceded the Revolution were used by ordinary citizens to promote a common American cause. Without that felt sense of shared sacrifice and purpose, the inhabitants of 13 squabbling colonies could not have come together to mount effective military resistance to Great Britain, then the most powerful nation on Earth.

The war itself, especially service in the Continental Army, reinforced those bonds of solidarity. Most of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention did not know one another. But the veterans among them shared a frame of reference – what Hamilton called a “continental vision” — that helped them to set aside narrow regional or ideological interests in favor of national ends.

For the uprising in Egypt to succeed, the sacrifices the Egyptian people are now enduring will have to coalesce into similar bonds of solidarity. And if that comes to pass, a movement organized by Egyptian young people on the Internet will resemble in important ways one organized more than 200 years ago by young Americans, with pamphlets and quill pens. And the human rights an American president championed in Cairo 19 months ago can become an Egyptian reality.




  1. Evan Queitsch says

    Steve…I read your Op-Ed in the Inquirer and came here to comment. I think you are largely right in what you say, that leadership, the rule of law and national solidarity were key components but there were two other components, possessed by the leadership and many of the people that you have missed: education & enlightenment.

    Our founders, including the everyday American as well as the men and women who worked tirelessly to build our nation, were enlightened spiritually to an understanding that the traditional rule of the British Crown through the Church of England was WRONG. They understood that their right were individual and given by their Creator to THEM…and that from there, rights are passed along to governments. This made SENSE to the average American colonist because they had an enlightenment period. In many ways it WAS the enlightenment that caused the uprising. I’m not sure that this is the case in Egypt but I pray that it is. They will need spiritual guidance to build a nation of liberty.

    While many of the average colonists were poorly educated by todays standards, they were far better educated than most of the English citizens and the leaders of America’s founding were greatly read from Aristotle to Locke and from Cicero to Adam Smith. These were men (and women, Abigail Adams was perhaps as well read as any of the Continental Congress with the exception of Jefferson who was in a class all his own) who read original sources and comprehended them. They understood individual rights, they had studied government from Ancient Egypt/Israel to Roman/Grecian Republics and on to the European Monarchs. They KNEW what they were talking about and again, I’m not sure that this is something the Egyptians have done. Maybe I am wrong…but I do not think I am.

    This revolution was started by global interests, labor unions, corporations, internation open society groups, etc. It has used the people for its purposes but look to where the power rests. Additionally, you bring up the flowery words from Obama in Cairo…it’s interesting that he did not have the same opinion of the TEA Parties when millions showed up around the country…just sayin.

  2. Dr. Steve Frank says

    Evan, thanks very much for this thoughtful response. As you suggest, the outcome of the Egyptian Revolution is still very uncertain, and I agree that there were more relevant ingredients to the American Revolution’s success than the three I highlighted in the op ed. I’m really delighted that you thought to continue the conversation here at Constitution Daily.

  3. says

    I very much enjoyed your op-ed piece in today’s Inquirer and I shared it with my American history class. It generated good conversation about the similarities and differences between our independence movement and their revolution.
    One difference that seems particularly striking to us is the extraordinary rapidity of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. The Americans had the tremendous advantage of a decade or so of struggle out of which a battle hardened (both in the military and political sense) leadership emerged.
    And the Americans had the great benefit of physical isolation from Europe.
    Both the Tunisians and Egyptians also have the complicated relationship between the people and established military forces to work out.
    My students are also fascinated by the role cell phones, the internet and social media seem to be playing in these revolutions. One can only hope that these electronic tools also help the speed the pace of establishment of freer and more open societies in those countries.
    Thanks for providing such good teaching material.

  4. Evan Queitsch says

    I also think it’s interesting to look at the propaganda (like th picture here on your article). Looks ALOT like Fascist/Communist propaganda to me.