07/10/2013 07:52 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Some Perspective on Egypt

The recent developments in Egypt have caused an interesting reaction from American political commenters, because real-world events have an annoying way of not fitting neatly into our prepackaged political pigeonholes. The basic questions (such as: "Is the overthrow of Morsi a good thing or a bad thing?") have complex answers, because while many argue that Morsi was bad for Egypt, the way he was removed from office is certainly nothing to celebrate. The United States government can't use the word "coup" because that would mean we'd have to cut off aid, but outside the world of diplomatic fictions, that's exactly what happened: a military coup d'état. As coups go it was a fairly restrained one, but celebrating a populist/military overthrow of a democratically-elected leader is an unusual stance for Americans to take, for obvious reasons. Even if we do like the new guy better than the old guy.

Which brings us to a lesson many Americans find very hard to accept -- we do not actually get to dictate what happens in every country in the world. We just don't. It doesn't matter how militarily advanced we are as a nation or how super-duper a superpower we are, we still do not (and should not strive to) have the ultimate say in who governs foreign countries. Egypt (or Iraq, or Syria, or Israel, or Libya, or Iran, or any other country) is a sovereign nation -- not a U.S. state or territory. I am always struck by this disconnect in far too many politicians and pundits whenever anything happens in foreign lands -- the debate immediately begins as to "what we should have done" or "what we should be doing" to procure an outcome that we approve of. But you know what? Sometimes nothing we do makes much of a difference. It's a hard fact for those in the "America, world policeman" frame of mind to accept, especially when things don't turn out the way we like.

But there's nothing really wrong with admitting that we really shouldn't be dictating outcomes in every country on Earth. In fact, it is a healthy adjustment to make. After all, our stated foreign policy goal for many of these countries is to "promote democracy." What does this really mean? It means letting the people of that country choose their own leaders at the ballot box. What it does not mean is that we get a veto on their choice -- in any way, shape, or form. This brings us to a corollary to our hard fact -- sometimes other countries freely elect people that we don't like. Which is what happened initially in Egypt, when Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood won Egypt's first democratic election. America would have much preferred that someone else had won, but we don't get a vote, sorry.

We would really prefer to have it both ways, of course. We would prefer every country install democracy, and then elect people friendly to our interests. But it doesn't always happen that way, unfortunately. Our ability to influence elections in foreign lands is (and should be) quite limited. Because if it wasn't, then it wouldn't really be true democracy, would it? If America meddled in other countries' elections, it would undermine the democratic process and teach the lesson that "democracy" is what we say we're for, but in reality we don't believe in the concept for others. How would we feel, after all, if a foreign nation tried to influence an American election? We'd be pretty annoyed, wouldn't we? So why shouldn't other countries be equally annoyed if we tried to do the same to them?

Creating new governmental structures from scratch is not an easy task. A whole lot of countries in the world are currently doing so right now, making it an interesting time to live in for political science types. Some countries are further down the road of creating new democracies, some countries are just beginning the process, and some are hitting roadblocks as they make the attempt. This is to be expected, and is in fact quite normal. Again, creating a new governmental structure out of whole cloth is seldom easy, and getting it right the first time around is incredibly rare.

Consider Europe. The European Union is still in a period of coalescing, and has had its own problems along the way. For the first time (at least, since the Romans ran things), the continent is trying to become a single political entity... to some extent. How far they'll go is yet to be determined, really. They have one currency, but they obviously don't have one financial policy to go along with it. The European Union exists, but it is a long way from becoming a "United States of Europe." It may never become a single political entity, in fact. You think America has problems with English and Spanish? Imagine if each of the United States spoke a different language altogether -- and that's just the most obvious reason why Europe may never actually unify the way the American colonies did.

Which brings up another fact that Americans aren't fond of admitting -- we didn't get it right the first time around, either. It took a long time to get it right, in fact. If I stated that John Hancock was our country's first president, most wouldn't even know what I was talking about. But Hancock was President of the Continental Congress that signed the Declaration of Independence -- 13 years before George Washington was sworn in. That's right -- it took over a decade for the United States Constitution to usher in our second governmental structure. The Articles of Confederation period isn't dwelt upon in American thinking much, but that's what we had to work with up until the late 1780s. Or not work with -- because the Articles of Confederation didn't work very well at all. It was our country's first big failure, in fact -- which is the real reason why nobody brings it up in polite company these days.

Several attempts at rebellion happened during this period as well. Calling them military coup attempts might be overstating the case a bit (although there was that time when the American military beseiged Congress in Philadelphia to demand their back pay...). Whatever you call them, though, the people who took up arms in the Whiskey Rebellion, Ely"s Rebellion, Shays"s Rebellion, and Fries"s Rebellion (to name but a few) certainly were trying to force some changes on the governments of their time. None of these were ultimately successful (unless you count the formation of the state of Vermont by the Green Mountain Boys), but they all happened in the earliest years of our independence. Our American democracy didn't really settle down and live up to its name until the election of Thomas Jefferson (called the "Revolution of 1800" by some historians), which was the first time in our history that one faction or political party turned their opponents out of office at the ballot box -- peacefully, with no warfare in the streets to accompany it. It took us quite a while (an entire generation, in fact) to really get it right, to put this another way. And we had some major growing pains to cope with along the way.

Now, I'm not trying to draw direct parallels with what is happening in Egypt right now -- or anywhere else, for that matter. Each country's situation is unique and easy comparisons shouldn't really even be attempted with events that happened over two centuries ago. I guess the main point I'm trying to make here is to call for a little patience, that's all. I know it's more fun to argue with certainty about what is going right and wrong in other parts of the world, and it's more satisfying to come up with "here's what they need to do to fix their country" sweeping statements, but I don't think that, in the end, it's all that productive to do so.

Transitions take time. Sometimes they are quite messy. Sometimes they use bad means to get to a good end (or vice versa). Sometimes they lead American politicians and pundits to scratch their heads, wondering whether to cheer the ouster of an unfriendly leader or whether to condemn a country's military for overthrowing a democratically-elected government. Sometimes we must accept a role on the sidelines, to be blunt, no matter what we think of the methods or outcomes.

It may be small comfort to point out that even we didn't get it perfectly right the first time around. It also may be a bit embarrassing to point out the nakedness of our own Empire, too -- we're supposed to be setting an example for how well democracy works for all these fledgling democratic governments around the world, but our democracy isn't working all that well right now, either. Don't believe me? Check out the public approval ratings for Congress for the past few years. The moral of this tale is that perfect democracies don't happen overnight, whether in Egypt or anywhere else -- even here at home. Perfect democracies, in fact, don't exist outside the pages of political science textbooks. It's a hard fact to admit, but it does give a certain amount of perspective when attempting to judge other countries' efforts.


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