07/08/2013 08:02 am ET Updated Sep 07, 2013

Sunset on a Revolution

It's dusk on Tahrir Square. Below the balcony where I'm writing this, tens of thousands of anti-Morsi protestors are meandering noisily onto the streets. The Cairo sky, normally a dull yellow-brown, is coloring up into what an interior decorator might call "particulate peach." Car horns honk, incessantly. Plastic whistles blurt. Cheers erupt. I'm dusty-eyed, jetlagged. And I'm torn.

My cab driver just spent 40 traffic-snarled minutes railing triumphantly against the Muslim Brotherhood. His mood is by now familiar here: a giddy, jubilant schadenfreude. "Morsi cared only about his own people," he repeated, and repeated, and repeated, as we detoured interminably to avoid the Brotherhood protests in Nasr City. "He never cared about Egypt, about the people. This is a good thing, a great week!"

It's a tricky thing, isn't it, liberal democracy. It's tricky to know which bit is more important. The liberal bit, or the democracy bit? The coup that deposed Morsi was undemocratic, but, then, Morsi was illiberal. Which of the two values matters more?

That question -- which has underpinned every other question about Egypt this week -- never seems to arise when Western democracies elect terrible leaders. For folks like us, democracy is an absolute.

President Obama narrowly won the U.S. presidency by 51 percent of the vote because he managed to persuade many independent voters that he would govern from the center, focus on the economy and be inclusive. The Democratic Party never could have won 51 percent with just its base alone. Many centrist Americans chose to vote for Obama because they could not bring themselves to vote for Mitt Romney. So they talked themselves into believing what Obama was telling them.

As it gradually became apparent that Obama , whenever he had a choice of acting in an inclusive manner -- and pulling in all sectors of American society -- or grabbing more power, would grab more power, a huge chunk of Obama voters, Democrats and non-Democrats, started to feel cheated by him.

If those last two paragraphs sound clunky, it's because they're not my words. They're Thomas Friedman's, in the New York Times, defending Egypt's coup. I replaced the words "Morsi" with "Obama," "non-Islamist" with "independent," and "the Muslim Brotherhood" or "Islamists" with "the Democratic Party" or "Democrats" (plus a few minor contextual tweaks). Do Friedman's words provide a cogent rationale for a coup against Obama?

It's not only Friedman whose heart is aflutter. David Brooks is as giddy as my cab driver. The Wall Street Journal's Bret Stephens concludes that "the lesson from Egypt is that democracy may be a blessing for people capable of self-government, but it's a curse for those who are not. There is a reason that Egypt has been governed by pharaohs, caliphs, pashas and strongmen for 6,000 years." Right. Democracy is an absolute, except when it's not.

There's no doubt that Morsi was a disaster. There's no doubt that Islamism is the most pernicious strain of politics to grace the global stage today. There's no doubt that when I finish writing these words, I'll be running, not walking, downstairs to join the anti-Morsi protestors in their pro-coup revelry.

But I'm torn.

To believe in democracy is to believe that people have the right to make their own mistakes, to elect their own pernicious fools, and to suffer the consequences of their own bad choices. Few societies have matured into liberal democracies without first blundering through spasms of silliness. As inspired as I am by the fireworks exploding above me and the mad cacophony of celebrations below, I just can't muster a breezy optimism about a military coup. It might be a popular coup. It might be an easy coup. But no one ever said democracy ain't hard.

No matter how much you hated Morsi -- and Lord knows, I did -- what happened in Egypt this week is not how political disputes are supposed to be resolved. It's not how we do it in the West, and it's not what we should applaud in Egypt. This sets a precedent that makes it more likely that disagreements within Arab countries will be resolved through violent agitation rather than political negotiation. Would we welcome that at home? How much authoritarian incompetence would an American president have to exhibit for Thomas Friedman to get jiggy with a Pentagon coup against the White House?

Since I started writing this, the huge, red sun has sunk deeper into the horizon. Fighter jets are now streaking low overhead in roaring formations, spraying contrails in the colors of the Egyptian flag, across the particulate peach sky. The crowd has ballooned into a vast, impenetrable ocean of chanting and honking and hooting. The atmosphere is infectiously joyous. I'm heading downstairs, to celebrate. "A good thing, a great week!"


But I'm torn.