Independence Days at the Pentagon and the Pyramids

07/04/2013 04:53 pm ET | Updated Sep 03, 2013

Egyptians awakened on July 4 much like Americans, celebrating with fireworks and hope and a renewed sense of popular independence, albeit with some vagueness, political divisiveness and concern for the future.

As Americans know very well, politics is often as much a battle about words and symbols as it is about substance. It is therefore hardly surprising that many of our immediate analytical reactions to Egypt's recent political drama are about what basic words, laden with symbolic meaning, to use.

Are we looking at a military "coup," a deviation from "democracy," or a renewed expression of "popular will"? Ex-President Mohammed Morsi himself helped advance simple political words over substance. In his final rambling speech to the Egyptian people early July 3, Morsi referred to his government as "legitimate" no less than 57 times, which only served to further prove the contrary to the millions of his opponents.

I would wager that if many of my fellow Americans were really pressed directly, we would say that what we celebrate on Independence Day is not so much the words relating to our founding, which conceal a lot of confusing and messy politics. Such messiness includes the dispossession of native Americans, the elite backgrounds of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and the anti-democratic provisions of the American Constitution deliberately inserted by its major framers to advance political stability over what they considered the excessive decentralization of the Articles of Confederation.

No; what (I hope?) we Americans embrace today is the sense of historical efficacy and endurance of our basic institutions (that is, long-term political outcomes), rather than simple symbolic words that belie complex contemporary tensions. So we may (or may not) have problems with the way Congress functions this term, or with some decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court, but what unites most Americans is a sense of basic respect, and perhaps pride, in the overall adaptability and durability of our major institutions, like Congress and the courts. In short, a basic sense of long-term and broadly representative institutional function unites Americans more than judgments based on evocative political words.

I think this is the same standard that those of us with thousands of miles of distance from Tahrir Square should use in thinking about recent events in Egypt. In other words, let's think about the prospects for the army's removal of power of Morsi for the growth of long-term political institutions that can make most Egyptians proud.

So instead of spending a lot of time arguing over whether Morsi, in his last months in office, acted any more democratically than the millions seeking to depose him, or whether what the army did was a coup, let's focus on why Egyptians mobilized en masse, and what they hope to achieve through the military's intervention.

On the first point, lots of Egyptians can give clear responses. These range from the non-inclusive, authoritarian process through which the ex-president developed and pushed forward Egypt's new Constitution, his lack of attention to minority rights, his inability to deal with his country's economic problems, his staffing and policy agenda that advanced members of the Muslim Brotherhood rapidly and at the expense of everyone else, and other ways in which his system in fact moved away from open politics.

These grievances have in common one basic point, which should be familiar to Americans on July 4. Namely, the country's new government was put in place on the basis of a social contract to advance broad citizen rights that too many crucial political stakeholders believed to have been violated.

The issue of what Egyptians hope to achieve is now what matters, especially as theirs is a large country of highly diverse individuals, again not unlike the U.S. What is emerging for now is a sense that Morsi's government could no longer stand because of its replication of previous coercive political structures, its lack of minority inclusiveness and its general ineffectiveness. All three of these are admittedly very difficult to remedy, especially in the short run, in a country of Egypt's population size, economic challenges and recent history of embedded coercive political forces.

More troubling, and part of the reason that the U.S. went along with Egypt's coercive regime before 2011, is that a stable government that can make rapid progress on issues like the economy can be in tension with diverse, political participation and possibly the maximization of minority rights. At the very least, a deliberative process of forming an ideal constitution and set of institutions that can realize diverse Egyptians' hopes is hard to do quickly, although the country's problems can't wait.

When the Egyptians whom I know talk today about "getting it right," they mean very generally trying to balance transparent, representative institutions, inclusiveness and governmental effectiveness in a way that can be stable. What those of us who care about their success in this undertaking can do now, whether professional "Middle East watchers" or not, is to collaborate with (and not impose on) these Egyptians with respect to what specific experiences, resources and benchmarks can help in that Arab country's particular context.

For example, rather than looking for a term for the Egyptian military's recent actions, we can think about what timeline and measures it might adopt that would be clear signals of its limiting its own role to midwifing a more stable system for representative, electoral governmental alteration. Or, instead of deciding whether the groups currently in power in the country are democratic, we can pay careful attention to exactly how they offer the possibility of renewed political involvement to the Islamist forces they deposed.

Helping, or at least simply not getting in the way of, Egypt's renewed prospects for "getting it right" is a large challenge. But it is one that may resonate with the Day of Independence from a perceived coercive political order that perhaps will endure as a common celebration between Americans and Egyptians in the future.