The Power of Protests in Washington and Cairo

The power of protest depends not only on how many turn out, but also on what legislative, judicial, and civil society institutions exist to enact the will of those marching in the streets. Comparing the recently commemorated March on Washington with the massive protests in Egypt June 30th-July 3rd emphasizes the link between marches and political actions in both countries, but also shows how the lack of trustworthy political, judicial, and civil society systems have left Egyptians in the hands of their two strongest institutions — the military and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Celebrations of the March on Washington provided a vivid reminder that that massive gathering led directly to the long overdue criminalization of racism in the United States. Even with a 200-year-old democracy, it still took hundreds of thousands marching on the Mall to change America’s racist history, something seemingly forgotten by those who chided Egyptians for repeatedly taking to the streets instead of using the political process.

“This march and that speech [by Martin Luther King] changed America,” former President Bill Clinton noted in his speech at the commemoration. Clinton went on to observe that from momentum generated by the March on Washington “….flowed the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, immigration reform, Medicare, Medicaid, open housing.”

In his remarks on August 28, 2013, President Obama also praised the importance of the march in changing American history “Because they marched, city councils changed and state legislatures changed, and Congress changed, and, yes, eventually the White House changed.”

It took a massive protest march to jolt America’s conscience and jump start long overdue civil rights legislation, but while Egyptians have marched in opposition to authoritarianism — of Mubarak, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), or the Muslim Brotherhood — their country lacks the basic rule of law infrastructure to implement the sweeping economic, social and political changes its crowds have sought.

Like the hundreds of thousands of Americans who gathered on the National Mall in 1963 seeking to “redeem the promissory note” of the rights enshrined in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, Egyptians keep returning to the streets in an attempt to redeem the promise of their Revolution(s).

Their failure so far to improve their condition does not mean that Egyptians lack ” the basic mental ingredients .. for a democratic transition,” as columnist David Brooks claimed. Rather, Egyptians today, unlike the American protesters in 1963, do not have the democratic, transparent legal and legislative institutions, not to mention a healthy civil society, to respond to their goals of “bread, freedom, and social justice”.

Lacking these institutions essential to any healthy democracy, Egyptians instead have fallen back on the two strongest institutions in their country — the army and the Muslim Brotherhood. The SCAF and now the government of General el Sisi took over after the Revolutions of 2011 and 2013, and President Morsi won at the polls in 2012.

Both the SCAF and Morsi ruled autocratically, clamping down even more tightly than Mubarak on civil society in an increasingly repressive climate.

The current military-backed government under General Sisi has re-introduced emergency law, that hated instrument of repression under Mubarak.

Also, in today’s climate where security trumps human rights, censorship and suppression of the press has increased. State and private media alike are fanning the flames of division, indiscriminately labeling Islamists as terrorists and calling on authorities to stamp them out.

Although Syria, understandably, has pushed Egypt off the front pages, opinion leaders have noted the erosion of human rights in Egypt, and have called on the White House to respond.

President Obama’s muted, and somewhat baffling, response to this widespread oppression by a military-backed government — not to mention over 1000 killed in the August 15th attack on the Raaba and Nahda camps — has been to suspend the small fraction of the total of U.S. aid to Egypt that reaches civilians. Except for the “pinprick” of the delayed delivery of four F-16s, military aid, so far, has continued unabated.

It is a measure of the dismal state of U.S.-Egyptians relations that the U.S. has leverage only in the arena of military aid, if at all. The U.S. has long since lost the “Egyptian street”, having failed to defend the goals of the Revolution against the repression first of the SCAF and then of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Despite President Obama’s stirring words, most recently maintaining that “we [the U.S.] did align ourselves with a set of principles: nonviolence, a respect for universal rights, and a process for political and economic reform,” the U.S. government has, in fact, aligned itself before and since the Revolutions with the Egyptian government in place.

In addition, the U.S. has voted with its checkbook, dedicating the bulk of its aid to strengthening the Egyptians military, while letting civil society by the SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Egyptians have to fight to establish their own accountable legal, legislative, and civil society institutions, but shouldn’t the U.S. be more concerned with supporting these essential democratic developments than with maintaining a military alliance with an increasingly repressive regime?

A good first step would be to stand up for civil society, instead of standing by as human rights NGO workers, including Americans, were unjustly prosecuted and sentenced to prison.

If President Obama really means what he has said repeatedly about supporting the aspirations of the Egyptian people, then he will have to recognize that in Egypt today, as in America in 1963, that can mean opposing government policy.

So, the next time Egyptians take to the streets — and it will surely happen, they will chafe under Sisi’s authoritarian rule as they did under Morsi’s and Mubarak’s — let’s remember that the power of protest depends on the power of the legal, legislative, and civilian institutions to respond to the streets. It is about time that the United States stands by the strengthening of those institutions in Egypt instead of whatever government is in power.