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The American and Egyptian Revolutions: Not So Different After All

Lately, world news has focused almost exclusively on the crisis in Syria. The bleak situation has distracted many from the disorder in Egypt. It was not long ago that debates in Western media revolved around the Egyptian people's perpetual struggle for democracy. Was the overthrow of President Morsi a step in the right direction or the failure of a revolution? Was the ousting of his government a coup or not? Should the U.S. cut funding to the Egyptian military? Could this event further split the country into increasingly radicalized parties and explode into a civil war?

The situation leading up to the 2011 revolution was reminiscent of the American colonies before the Revolutionary War. Just as particularly violent instances of police brutality and the rallying effect of social media led to mass demonstrations against the Egyptian government, the Boston Massacre and the circulation of Thomas Paine's Common Sense pamphlet stirred the American population into action against the British monarchy. But in the heat of revolutionary fervor, not many people realize that it is much easier to tear down a government than it is to build one up.

It took the United States nearly five years -- from the end of the war in 1783 to the Philadelphia Convention in 1787 -- to establish a federal government and declare nationhood with the Constitution. It wasn't until 1788 that the Constitution was ratified, and George Washington wasn't sworn into office as first president until 1789. Granted, the U.S. Constitution was the first of its kind. But that doesn't change the fact that it took the U.S. half a decade to establish a semi-functional federal government.

The early years of the U.S. weren't without their revolts, either. In response to high taxes and other fiscally harsh government policies, Shay's Rebellion lasted for several months, while the Whiskey Rebellion would extend over the course of three years. When the French Revolution erupted shortly after Washington took office, Americans began to divide into political parties. Federalists scorned the violence of the French Revolution, while Republicans celebrated the ideology that was driving it. When Britain declared war on France with the intention of restoring the monarchy, these parties became increasingly radicalized as the Federalists wished to remain at peace with Britain while Republicans demanded that the U.S. ally itself with France. Newspapers split along party lines were rife with yellow journalism and mudslinging.

Worried that such journalism might incite insurrection or civil war, the Federalists under the Adams administration passed into law the Alien and Sedition Acts. With emotions rising in the wake of the French Revolution, Federalists were highly suspicious that radical Republicans and French-sympathizing immigrants might be inspired by the Jacobins to violently overthrow the government. The legislation allowed for the imprisonment or deportation of anyone caught inciting violence against the U.S. government.

By today's standards, it's hard to imagine that such censorship and limits to freedom of expression would ever have been tolerated. We are too prone to deifying the Founding Fathers as infallible men who embody the perfection of the American character. Sometimes we forget that they were capable of partaking in the same type of political corruption we condemn in present times.

John Adams signed bills that limited freedom of the press and allowed deportation without due process. Thomas Jefferson backstabbed both Adams and Washington on multiple occasions, and encouraged violent revolution. He believed that "the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants." Alexander Hamilton published public defamations of Aaron Burr, Jefferson's vice president. This ultimately brought about Hamilton's demise in a duel with the infuriated Burr.

The point is, the aftermath of this "successful" revolution was not without its low points. Slavery remained widespread. As Samuel Johnson remarked from England, "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?" Women's rights remained limited. Thousands of Native Americans were decimated. Freedom of religion pretty much extended exclusively to the various denominations of Christianity. Thomas Paine, once champion of the revolution, lived the remainder of his life ostracized after coming out against Christianity.

Now consider current events in Egypt. Throughout Mubarak's presidency, the government exploited the "emergency law" to extend the powers of the police and restrict freedom of expression. Until the revolution, this law -- designed to protect the country against the threat of terrorism -- had remained in effect for over 40 years. Just as the U.S. has violated a variety of its citizens' rights for the sake of "national security," Egypt has done so to an even greater degree. Tens of thousands of people have been detained under the law or taken as political prisoners. The law was also responsible for heavy censorship and the prohibition of political organizing. On the list of the demands of the revolutionaries, the discontinuation of this law was number one.

Despite disposing of both an established dictator and a prospective one, the Egyptian people have yet to create a strong constitution. The government remains extremely fragile. A hastily drafted constitution, arranged primarily by conservative Islamists, was signed into law during Morsi's brief presidency. It included articles that allowed freedom of religion to the Abrahamic faiths (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) exclusively, but made "the principles of Islamic law the main source of legislation." Accordingly, women and religious minorities were conspicuously absent from being specified in the freedom from discrimination. Freedom of the press was restricted to coincide with the principles of Sharia (Islamic) law.

With the ousting of Morsi came the suspension of this constitution, to the satisfaction of liberal secularists. But the recent coup d'etat has only served to increase the divide between political parties. On one hand we have the conservative Islamists and friends of the Muslim Brotherhood, who are outraged that their democratically elected leader has been overthrown. On the other, we have the liberal secularists who are becoming increasingly paranoid and supportive of violent suppression of pro-Morsi protestors. Both parties are becoming more and more radicalized. One side regards their rivals as "enemies of Islam." The other, "enemies of the state."

Both sides have control of their respective media outlets. Both sides have plagued journalism with propaganda. Citizens that were united in revolution in 2011 are now at each other's throats. Sound familiar?

Once again we see lying and mudslinging in the press. Once again we see the divisiveness of party politics stifling the growth of a nation. Once again we see freedoms restricted to keep an administration in power.

Hypocrisy and corruption have come hand in hand with government since the beginning of time. Egypt is no exception, but neither was the United States. As the Egyptians exploited the emergency law, the Americans exploited the Alien and Sedition Acts. As the Egyptian people rebelled against an unfair government, so did farmers in Shays' Rebellion in Massachusetts under the Articles of Confederation. As violence between liberal secularists and conservative Islamists threatens civil war, so did the dispute between Federalists and Republicans. The list goes on.

It's been two years since Egypt rid itself of institutional tyranny in 2011. At this point in time we have no right to stamp the revolution with the label of "success" or "failure." While it is easy to distinguish the moment a corrupt government was dismantled, the reconstruction of a country and its laws is an ongoing struggle. There was no specific day in American history when the U.S. sprouted from scattered dysfunction into a cohesive beacon of freedom and democracy. Let's not be so quick to judge Egypt. Give it some time.

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