The No.1 reason we're glad David Letterman didn't write the Bill of Rights

The upheaval in Egypt has forced many policymakers to grapple with issues of political philosophy that they probably have not considered since their introductory political science courses in college. What's more, the urgency with which they are doing so has only increased with the news from Jordan that King Abdullah succumbed to pressure and replaced his prime minister and his cabinet thus indicating that the demonstrations in Tahrir Square are a symptom of a much bigger phenomenon.

The core debate thus far has circled around whether to embrace democracy even if it might bring with it instability or governments with troubling views. A related question, posed indirectly by Mubarak and King Abdullah with their government reshufflings intended to placate protesting masses, is: "How much democracy is enough to restore calm?" (This is the politics of calculated symbolism: Let them eat window dressing.)

These initial questions however are related to even more important questions going forward.  Central to these is: What reforms are required if the Egyptian, Jordanian, Yemeni, Tunisian, Libyan, or other governments in the region are to actually make the great leap forward to being something more like genuinely free, democratic societies? (Are you listening in Baghdad and Kabul?)

We have repeatedly seen that elections alone are not the answer. They are too easily gamed and leaders too often use even sham mandates to then justify autocratic misapplication of power.  Further, we know that in a country like Egypt one of the threats is that extremist groups seek to use the transition to a new government to promote agendas that twist religious precepts into false justifications for intolerance or worse. We have also seen in the past several weeks that the ability to use all available technologies to communicate or to convene the public is essential to an open society. 

When representatives of Mr. Mubarak, like his newly appointed Vice President, Omar Suleiman, sit with representatives of opposition groups to negotiate reforms ... or when senior U.S. and other officials push for change in these societies ... there will be a tendency to negotiate the terms of change. While debating the timing for an election or how international monitors might participate is fair game, it is vital that such conversations do not establish any false hierarchies among the full range of freedoms that are essential to true democracy ... and are the birthright of all people everywhere. 

True freedom flows from elections, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, free access to information, freedom of assembly...and indeed from all those individual liberties described by philosophers throughout time. It's not a Chinese menu. You can't choose one from column A and one from column B. Part of the way there is, as we have repeatedly seen, none of the way there. And no freedom is more important than the others. That's why the U.S. Bill of Rights was not written like a late night comedy top ten list, as a hierarchy of ideas with a "number one" most important freedom of them all. The freedoms work together to ensure, qualify and balance one another. They can't and shouldn't be tossed about like elements to a deal being struck in a bazaar.

This is a particular flaw of the approaches being attempted by Mubarak and Abdullah.  In fact, it is both almost poignant and outrageous that they somehow think that shifting around a few hand-picked cronies in top jobs is a sufficient sop to their people when all it really does is underscore the autocratic nature of their regimes. 

Of course, it is also worth keeping in mind that the while in the West many of the views about individual liberties have been accepted since, oh, let's say around the time of John Locke and England's Glorious Revolution in the 17th Century, not only is the rest of the world not yet in step with these ideas, but they are by some measures losing ground.

Freedom House, which tracks the state of freedom in the world each year, in their 2010 report indicated that while 89 countries could be defined as "free," 47 or 24 percent were "not free" and 58, 30 percent, were only partly free. Egypt and Jordan, for example, were listed as not free.  What that means is that while about three billion people live in freedom in the world, 3.7 billion do not. While these numbers represent a significant improvement over the past several decades (not to mention all of history), they are still daunting and some trends are disturbing.  In the Middle East, for example, of 18 countries tracked, 14 were not free, 3 were partly free and only one was listed as free. In Sub-Saharan Africa, 16 were not free, 23 were only partly free and just 9 were listed as free. Most worrisomely, perhaps, despite the gains over the years, during the most recent year, Freedom House estimated that freedoms had actually deteriorated in 40 countries, with only 16 showing gains. In fact, after years of gainers outnumbering decliners, since 2007, the countries losing ground have strikingly outnumbered those whose people were making gains on their way to the rights that all individuals should enjoy.

In fact, equally powerful in their analysis is the fact that while much is made of the gains made by democracy in the world in the recent past, the total number of electoral democracies they have counted has remained essentially flat since the mid-1990s. (There were 115 in 1995 and 116 in 2009.) 

Perhaps we are a moment when those numbers will change again and show the kind of substantial leap forward that we saw in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But if the changes to take place are to meaningful, sustainable and above all, just and fair to the people finally being given the chance to claim their rights, we must assure that we remain firmly committed to a holistic vision of personal and societal freedoms and not just those that are tolerable to elites or factions seeking to maintain power or impose their will.


David Rothkopf

This just (not) in: What’s missing from the 24/7 Cairo news

Crises like the one in Egypt bring out the best and the worst in television news coverage. Twenty-four hour news, often a parade of pap and filler during ordinary slow periods, comes into its own. This is the kind of story that first sold the concept almost three decades ago. It's gripping and the news comes fast enough that at the best moments it's compelling viewing.

The problem is that when a story stretches out over the days and the "breaking news" stops living up to the breathless titles that are flashing below and atop the screen that the coverage becomes circular, repetitive and at times distorted. That happened this weekend. The distortions came as American audiences were frequently treated to American analysts talking about what America should do or what America wanted out of this revolution that was happening far far away in a place over which we have much less influence than our news broadcasts would have you believe.

That said what I found even more frustrating was that this story is full of fascinating elements that were often underplayed or ignored. Here are a few that struck me:

  • Who might have imagined when Joe Biden said during the 2008 campaign that Obama would be tested that one of the biggest tests would come not from some high profile adversary but from a 28 year-old Tunisian fruit seller who, fed-up with demands for bribes and a stifling dictatorship, set himself on fire and posed a loaded question to citizens across the entire Middle East?
  • I remember sitting with Condoleezza Rice in her West Wing office listening to her talk about the possibility of people power revolutions sweeping the Middle East. Like many, I thought that she had been too influenced by her background as an East Europe specialist and that what we once saw in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Roumania and the Soviet Union could not possibly happen in the much different cultural climate of the Arab and Persian worlds. She and her president were wrong to think that the invasion of Iraq might produce such uprisings...but they may have been right that the region was riper for change than many thought. It is interesting to imagine what a historian might think of this period and its events if the period from the late 1980s to through this decade might be seen as one of technology-driven revolutions and uprisings that echoed similar times in the late 18th and mid-19th Century. It is far too early to tell where all this goes in the Middle East but it is interesting to contemplate.
  • The technology component of this cell-phone and Twitter fueled popular wildfire is fascinating not only in that it feels both new and here to stay but that it suggests that democracy itself may have to be updated to stay abreast of contemporary realities. For example, the outrage at shutting down the Internet raises a real question about whether the natural extension of accepted beliefs about both a free press and the right to peaceful public assembly is a new right to virtual public assembly to e-association. Far more people have cell phone than had access to either printing presses or their products (or the ability to read them) in the day that the right to a free press was enshrined as fundamental.
  • The demands to shut down phones and networks promise to raise interesting challenges for private companies that provide those services who, by complying with a sitting government, might alienate successor governments or populaces at a time of change. It is not going to be easy to be government relations specialist for IT and telecom companies in the years ahead.
  • How long will it be before the conspiracy theorists are positing that Julian Assange was actually working for the CIA? (What a cover! How subtle and clever!) After all, his leaks that were seemingly intended to take down the U.S. a notch have had striking unintended consequences. Not only have they been broadly seen as showing U.S. diplomats in a good light as they worked hard behind the scenes doing what most would hope they were doing ... but the Wiki revelations have been very unsettling to Middle Eastern autocrats. Next up? Qaddafi coping with the embarrassing insights into his excessive and corrupt lifestyle?
  • Another stress factor leading in the eyes of some to the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and restiveness elsewhere is rising food prices. Of course, such rising prices are triggered in part by rising energy prices (energy makes up a large component of food prices). Energy prices are rising in part because of America's weaker dollar policies (as barrels of oil are seen as direct hedges against the greenback). Of course, uprisings like these might produce further upticks in energy prices...and thus more unrest. Further, higher energy and food prices can only stoke inflationary pressures that analysts are starting to worry may be one of the biggest macro threats facing the world.
  • The potential that what has spread from Tunisia to Egypt might spread elsewhere in the region has, of course, generated much commentary. It is very real but a couple dimensions of it are worth noting. In the near term, the development most likely to lead to war in the region has to do with the Hezbollah take-over of the Lebanese government and the increased tension on Israel's northern border. Take that, volatility in Egypt, fragility in Jordan and Iran's continuing nuclear threat and Israel's strategic position could change more in the months ahead than at any time since 1967.
  • The tone-deafness of Mubarak seems only to be matched by that of the Saudi regime as evidenced by the bizarre "he-said, he-said" reports of the U.S.-Saudi exchange over the weekend. The dueling press releases following the conversation could have been reporting on two different meetings. Why? Because few leaders could be as threatened by the uprising in the streets of Egypt as the Saudi royal family. Though not in jeopardy today, democratization or even a call for more responsive government is not something they are prepared for.
  • Finally, the possibility that sweeping change might come to the region from the street, driven by a demographic tsunami of young, frustrated, technologically savvy people with little to lose, has clearly risen in the past few days. Is America ready for this? Certainly, this is what Barack Obama called for in his Cairo speech...as it is what George W. Bush hoped for too. Our influence is more limited than we would like, as acknowledged above. But strategies and tactics for promoting change and for forestalling the rise of dangerous extremist actors clearly need to be rapidly developed in light of what we have recently learned. This could be one of those classic "be careful what you wished for moments"...but on the other hand, we need to be responsive to that which we don't control...and we need to clearly act in ways that are consistent with our most basic values including promoting democracy even if it empowers people with whom we have great differences.