Democracy is Inevitable

Why I believe in Egyptians.

Election Day, Cairo, May 23, 2012. Scott MacLeod for the Cairo Review

Events over the last year or more have been a credit to the people of Egypt. You have been able to overcome enormous obstacles. Developments have been sometimes uncertain, sometimes positive, sometimes negative, but there has been progress.  If Egyptians are successful in their democratic transition, not only will you correct the problems that have existed in this country, but you’ll set an example for other countries, Arab and non-Arab, that are moving from dictatorship or totalitarianism to freedom and democracy.

To succeed, it is important that you demonstrate that Christians and Muslims can live together in harmony and with mutual respect, and that Arabs and Jews, Palestinians, Americans like me, can work together for the common good. Human beings, no matter the color of their skin, no matter their religious beliefs, no matter whether they are a  man or woman, are equal in the eyes of God and should be treated equally by government as well. Freedom, democracy, human rights, the alleviation of suffering, peace––that’s what I see in the future.

I believe that many aspects of the revolution have been remarkably successful.  But, there also have been a lot of problems. There have been some doubts about the future—the duties and authority of the president, the stature of the Parliament compared to the president, the role of a prime minister, the role of the military, for example.

If asked about the role of the military, my advice would be to adopt a model similar to ours in America. We respect the military greatly. All Americans trust and revere and admire our military, so the military leaders don’t have to be worried about respect. But the civilian elected leaders, the president, and those in Congress, make the decisions about the military, and military leaders serve under the president. As president, I was the commander in chief of all the military forces—the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, the Marines, the Coast Guard. They had to do what I said. And that’s the way it ought to be in democratic societies with civilian authorities, and hopefully in Egypt. The elected president should be the commander in chief. Laws that would establish the budget for the military, the salaries for the officers and men, the retirement benefits for the veterans, the kind of weapons they have, should be made by elected civilian leaders.

While there has been undeniable progress, I am deeply troubled by events that indicate that Egypt’s transition has taken an undemocratic turn. The dissolution of the democratically-elected parliament in June and the proposed reinstatement of elements of martial law generated uncertainty before the election. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’ addendum to the Constitutional Declaration, in which they carved out special privileges for the military and injected themselves into the constitution drafting process, violated their prior commitment to me personally and to the Egyptian people to make a full transfer of power to an elected civilian government.

A constitution is a permanent foundation for the nation and must be fully inclusive and legitimate. An unelected military body should not interfere in the constitution drafting process.

Transitions to genuine democracy can be difficult and time-consuming, and they don’t always move forward in straight lines.  Egypt and the Egyptian people still have a way to go to complete the transition. Many questions still have to be answered. But based on what has happened already, and on the Egyptians’ collective ability to resolve those issues not only peacefully, but successfully, I have much confidence in the future of your great country. I believe that you will continue to do right and to demand a democratic society that respects human rights and enables broad participation in political affairs. I believe the trend toward democracy in Egypt is inevitable.

This essay is adapted from Jimmy Carter’s lecture, “Reflections on Democracy, Human Rights and Peace,” at the American University in Cairo’s John D. Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement, on May 26, 2012, and subsequent public statements.

Jimmy Carter served as the 39th President of the United States and later founded the Carter Center. He was the recipient of the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize.