The hideous events in Egypt make me ask (even as I shudder) how that country will ever settle back into a state of un-murderous co-existence. Can the savagery be forgotten? Is there any hope for political reconciliation? Actually, forget hope: Is there any mechanism for reconciliation? How on earth do you bring warring sides together when there is no national institution that would do so, no institution that can bridge a chasm?
Watching Egypt self-immolate, I am taken back to the time when the United States was alight with bitter conflict—to December 2000 and the unresolved presidential election. Admittedly, no one was killing political opponents, and but for a “bourgeois riot” in Tallahassee, Fla., there was nothing more violent than the trading of abuse across the political-party divide. But in a country unaccustomed to electoral ambiguity, there was fear in the air: It was palpable. America was in uncharted territory. The voting was over, the count was maddeningly inconclusive, and the country was on edge, electrified and shaken, awaiting resolution. Most disconcerting of all was the sense that this perilous post-election limbo was so very un-American. This sort of thing happened in Italy, in Argentina, in India, places less serene in their political culture, more turbulent in their ways. Not in America!
But this was America, and Americans got resolution in the form of Bush v. Gore, the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of George W. Bush, perhaps the most important ruling that court has made in its history. In it, there was none of the lyricism or passion one finds in so many of the court’s civil rights cases; instead, there was the assured tread of a court that was aware of how the “perfect answer” might be the mortal enemy of a pressing need for stability, and of how poisonous to social order—to social equipoise—is a disputed presidential election. No one will say that the decision was legally impeccable: in fact, there were no obviously correct answers based purely in the law. The decision was, instead, an intervention by a force of order into a sphere of mounting (and potentially catastrophic) disorder. It was the apotheosis of pragmatism, of “enough already.”
One needs to recall that America was acutely and almost exactly divided, which in many other places might have led the losing politician (here, Al Gore) to appeal to popular and inflammable sentiment above the process that had handed the presidential office to his opponent. (After all, there were enough voting improprieties and infelicities to put the count in doubt—not to mention the emphatic political divisions within the Supreme Court, riven 5-4 in the matter.) But not only did that populist appeal not happen, few in America expected it to happen. The dignified acceptance of the result by Mr. Gore rested on his (and everyone else’s) pre-existing faith in the process, the faith that America is solidly enough poised on its foundations that constitutional continuity matters more than the identity of the president. It was a matter of valuing—and saving—the Constitution for the future.
At the time of Bush v. Gore, one could not help but be impressed by the endless (and sometimes tedious) public legal debate: and it really was rather impressive, a display of another facet of American civilization. Crisis becomes less incendiary when it becomes legalistic and technical. Unlike in Egypt, the losing side accepted defeat, however bitterly. The democratic winner (President Bush) was placed in office by an institution (the Supreme Court) that sought to resolve a political crisis. American political life returned to normal and the Democrats took up their role as the party of opposition. In Egypt, by contrast, the democratic winner (President Morsi) was ousted from office by an institution (the Egyptian army) in order, ostensibly, to resolve a political crisis. And Egyptian political life has taken, thereafter, a cataclysmic turn for the worse. There is, now, scarcely any prospect of democracy’s restoration.
What will be restored to Egypt, however, is Hosni Mubarak, whose imminent release from jail has been announced by a court, even as the elected president languishes in prison. This is political shamelessness of an exquisite, almost magical realist, caliber. As a Cairene bookstore worker told the Washington Post, “We have woken up and found ourselves exactly where we were three years ago.” Those words, uttered by an ordinary Egyptian, sum up the bewilderment of a country that is watching, daily, its own disintegration. We wake up. Mubarak is back. What a spectacular unraveling of a revolution, what a dispiriting death of a dream.