It might, therefore, come as a surprise to suggest that we Americans might have something to learn from the Arab world about standing up for democracy.
There are extraordinary developments in Egypt, a country that has experienced over half a century of authoritarian rule.
Citizens have taken to the streets, not to advance a particular political ideology or a sectarian inclination or a class interest, but rather to stand up for the abstract yet fundamentally important concept of the rule of law.
The story begins more than a year ago in the run-up to the Egyptian presidential and People’s Assembly elections. About 7,000 judges declared that they would not fulfill their constitutionally mandated duty to monitor the elections unless they were given complete control of the oversight process in order to curb fraud and a new law guaranteeing the financial and administrative independence of the judiciary.
Ultimately, the judges backed down from their threat, choosing instead to expose and document every bit of election fraud they saw, including ballot-box stuffing, physical coercion and fabricated election results. The boldness of the judges coupled with a long history of rights activism in the judiciary earned them the respect of Egyptians nationwide.
That respect was on display at a conference in April organized by the most outspoken judges pushing for reform and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. The three-day meeting brought together human rights activists, faculty of law, judges from throughout the Arab world and, interestingly, prominent members of the Muslim Brotherhood (who have, after all, suffered the most under state security courts). All were engaged in the question of how to build a stronger rule of law despite the massive concentration of power in the hands of the executive branch.
The government responded by initiating disciplinary measures against two of the most outspoken judges, Hesham Bastawisi and Mahmoud Mekki, and later against five other senior judges. But while the crackdown on dissent was predictable, the response from civil society activists was not.
When judges organized a sit-in at their social club in downtown Cairo, hundreds of citizens gathered to show their solidarity and their commitment to judicial independence, with signs reading “Egyptian judges, the hopes of the people are in your hands!” and “Free Judiciary = Free Nation” and the simple but effective “I Love Judges.”
State security forces eventually charged the gathering, beating dozens of people and taking many more into detention.
Yet despite the continuing repression (more than 500 detained and hundreds injured), supporters of judicial independence continued to turn out on the streets in even greater numbers.
Their efforts worked. The trumped-up charges against Judge Mekki were rescinded and Judge Bastawisi was not expelled from the judiciary, as most had expected.
We have much to learn from this unfolding drama at a time when the United States is steadily taking on more of the classic characteristics of an authoritarian state. Citizens are detained indefinitely without trial, torture is an instrument available to intelligence services and we still know very little about the extent of the National Security Agency wiretap program.
There is a great deal of naiveté in America about what these and many other steps may mean for the future of our democracy.
Egyptians turning out in support of judicial independence and the rule of law know all too well how rights are curbed to confront national security concerns, how easily those measures can be abused and how vulnerable citizens become as a result.
If we do not wake up to these risks, we may be due for a lesson on how precious the rights are that we seem to be giving away without question. Like those protesters in Cairo, it is time for us to stand up for the rule of law.
Tamir Moustafa, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, is a visiting fellow in the law and public affairs program at Princeton University. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.