Maybe discrediting the domino effect was premature. A month after Egyptian protests brought down Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship, oppressive regimes across North Africa and the Middle East are quaking and crumbling. Some experts are speculating about the dawn of a “fourth era” in the region. (The last one started in 1979, with the Iranian Revolution.)
With all this excitement, it seems tiresome to ask, “What does unrest in the Middle East mean for America?” Does everything always have to be about us? After all, if George W. Bush’s presidency taught us anything, it’s that world’s oldest democracy should not consider itself the center of the global freedom movement. Plus, for the vast majority of Americans, Egypt is distant and thus difficult to care about for too long in the first place. (Slate acknowledged this truth with its recent, desperate-sounding piece, “Ten Reasons to Care about Egypt.”) Still, it’s worth considering that the tumult half a world away has a more immediate connection to our own lives. Watching the first stirrings of democracy in despotic regimes brings home truths about our own society that we often forget.
The most fundamental of these truths involves how we think about ourselves. Watching and listening to Egyptians and Libyans, it’s interesting to note how often they refer to the collective “we”: “we’re all Egyptians,” “we Libyans deserve a good government,” etc. It’s also striking how people of different backgrounds—doctors, students, carpenters and Google executives—have come together to take a stand against oppression. Despite their differences, all these people are citizens struggling for the democracy that is rightfully theirs. In this struggle, they’re all equal in dignity and importance. Occupying Tahrir Square in Cairo takes a lot of committed people, whether they’re tall or short, educated or not.
Democracy, in theory, presupposes this type of explicit equality, but we don’t often see it in practice at home. For Americans, democratic citizenship is such a given that we tend to lose sight of its actual meaning. It’s relegated to the background of our lives, well behind our socio-economic status. When we’re meeting someone new, for example, we introduce ourselves by profession, not political association. Politics for us means government, and most people don’t spend their daily lives deciding issues of government. They go to work, make money, and maybe watch a movie or go to a bar at night. The government is there to ensure their daily security. Politics, then, is a means to an end, not an end in itself.
This central focus on socio-economic issues in our lives—a ubiquitous focus in economically advanced countries—was noted by one of the godfathers of modern capitalism, David Hume. Hume divided life into two spheres: civil society and politics. Civil society is the sphere of economic and social relations, in which the former determines the latter; how often, for instance, do you see a garbage collector and a doctor go out to dinner together? Politics, or rather government, exists on the fringes of our lives. The job of politics is to protect civil society by focusing on national security and economic assistance. (The U.S. government is actually pretty good at these two focuses: see the Pentagon’s current budget and the 2008 bank bailout.)
All in all, this is a pretty effective division of responsibility: government protects citizens, allowing them the life and liberty necessary to pursue private happiness, and citizens reciprocate with taxes. The only strange thing about this division between civil society and politics—the private and the public arenas— is that it is not complete in peoples’ minds. For example, one of the core truths almost every American believes, or pretends to believe, is that all human beings are created equal, which means that we all deserve equal dignity and respect. Yet our daily interactions in civil society are full of inequalities based largely on wealth and social standing. If a doctor can afford a car but a plumber cannot, people admire the doctor more because he’s driving that car. But it’s not just about restaurants or cars—wealthier or more successful people in society tend to get more respect than less wealthy people. It’s hard to dispute the fact that more people want to listen to Donald Trump’s thoughts about an issue then the local dry cleaner’s.
But when you’re an Egyptian or a Libyan in a crowded square, surrounded by lots of people from different socio-economic backgrounds, and paid mercenaries start attacking you, those distinctions start to matter a lot less. You become, first and foremost, a citizen trying to create a democracy, and the person next to you becomes your equal partner in that endeavor. You can’t succeed without him or her, and vice versa. It’s a short, special moment, but it’s a truly democratic one that fulfills democracy’s promise of equal human dignity. Americans talk about equality a lot, but in a society where politics is relegated to the back-burner of our everyday lives, we often forget what it means.