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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.

 

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