Part 1 | Part 2
The military coup in Egypt last summer holds some valuable lessons for Americans, especially with respect to such things as freedom, democracy, and the U.S. national-security state, which has been an important part of American life since the end of World War II. The coup provides an especially important lesson with respect to America’s founding principles of fundamental rights, freedom, and limited government.
Among the founding features of the United States was a deep antipathy toward standing armies. The reason? The Founding Fathers understood that standing armies posed a grave threat to the freedom and well-being of the citizenry of a nation. They recognized that standing armies were the primary means by which governments were able to subjugate their citizens and enforce a regime of tyranny against them.
The following quotes reflect this antipathy:
Commonwealth of Virginia, 1788: “Standing armies in time of peace are dangerous to liberty, and therefore ought to be avoided, as far as the circumstances and protection of the community will admit.”
Pennsylvania Convention: “As standing armies in time of peace are dangerous to liberty, they ought not to be kept up.”
James Madison: “A standing military force, with an overgrown executive will not long be companions to liberty…. Throughout all Europe, the armies kept up under the pretext of defending, have enslaved the people.”
Patrick Henry: “A standing army we shall have, also, to execute the execrable commands of tyranny; and how are you to punish them?”
Henry St. George Tucker: “Wherever standing armies are kept up, and when the right of the people to keep and bear arms is, under any color or pretext whatsoever, prohibited, liberty, if not already annihilated, is on the brink of destruction.”
In St. George Tucker’s reference to people’s right to keep and bear arms, he was referring to the right and ability of people to forcibly resist tyranny at the hands of their own government, a tyranny that inevitably was enforced by the standing army.
The Second Amendment
That was the principal idea behind the Second Amendment to the Constitution. It guaranteed the right to keep and bear arms as an insurance policy against tyranny being imposed and enforced against the American people by their own government. Our ancestors believed that without the right to keep and bear arms, all other rights and guarantees became meaningless, because would-be tyrants would have nothing to fear if they suspended other rights and freedoms. With a well-armed citizenry, on the other hand, there was always the possibility of armed resistance to tyranny, which itself served as a check on tyranny.
Many modern-day Americans are shocked to hear such things. They have been taught that the right to keep and bear arms is about defending one’s home against burglars, or self-defense against murderers, or just shooting deer. They have been inculcated with the notion that the federal government is a good, compassionate, and benevolent government, one that takes care of people with Social Security, health care, education, food, housing, regulations, and drug laws. The notion that the Second Amendment is a protection against federal tyranny just doesn’t jibe with how many Americans have come to view the federal government.
Not so with our American ancestors. When one carefully considers the nature of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, it is easy to recognize that our ancestors had no interest in bringing into existence a government of general powers, one in which democratically elected officials would be empowered to do whatever they felt was in the best interests of the nation. Such distrust was reflected in the fact that the Constitution itself explicitly limited the proposed government to the exercise of a relatively small set of specific powers, ones that were enumerated in the Constitution itself. If a power wasn’t enumerated, the federal government wasn’t permitted to exercise it.
To further weaken the federal government, the Framers divided it into three separate branches — the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, each with its own specified powers. For example, to ensure that the president could not easily send the nation into war, as rulers with omnipotent powers had done throughout history, the Framers delegated the power to declare war to the legislative branch and the power to wage war to the executive branch. Thus the president could wage war only if Congress declared it.
The Bill of Prohibitions
Still distrusting this new government with divided authority and limited powers, our American ancestors ensured the passage of the Bill of Rights, which really should have been called a Bill of Prohibitions, given that it doesn’t give rights but instead prohibits the federal government from infringing on rights. The Bill of Rights made it clear that the federal government would be expressly prohibited from having the power to deprive people of such fundamental rights as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, the right to peaceably assemble, the right to privacy, and the right to keep and bear arms. It also clarified that before the federal government could punish people for crimes, it would have to honor and ensure the exercise of important procedural rights and guarantees, such as trial by jury, right to counsel, right to confront witnesses, and others enumerated in the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendments.
Why were our American ancestors so insistent on the inclusion of the Bill of Rights? Because they were convinced that in the absence of the Bill of Rights, the type of people that federal power would attract to public office would inevitably do the sorts of things that the Bill of Rights prohibits. Therefore, people wanted to make it clear that no matter what the circumstances, the federal government was prohibited from infringing on or suspending the fundamental rights and guarantees of the people. Our ancestors believed that the express enumeration of the rights and guarantees in the Bill of Rights would reinforce the principle of limited, enumerated powers of the Constitution. And it is important to note that there were no exceptions provided, not even for “crises.”
Thus it’s no coincidence that for more than a hundred years after the ratification of the Constitution, Americans lived without an enormous permanent military establishment and with the right of the people to keep and bear arms.
Egypt: victim of its own army
Egypt’s military coup last summer would not have surprised our American ancestors. That’s precisely the type of thing they would have predicted for any nation that has a standing army and in which people are prohibited from owning guns.
For decades the foundation of Egypt’s government has been the military. Sometimes it recedes to the background, and other times it comes to the forefront with violent brutality. Regardless, Egypt’s military is the ultimate source of governmental power in Egypt.
To view it another way, the military forms the base of the national government. On top of that foundation are the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the government. As long as those branches are doing things that please the military, there is no problem. But if any or all of those three branches engage in conduct that displeases the military, they are subject to being shut down or reformed in ways that are pleasing to the military. In the final analysis, the military calls the shots in Egypt.
Some 30 years ago, the president of Egypt, Anwar Sadat, was assassinated. Seizing on the crisis, the military appointed one of its own as president — General Hosni Mubarak. To deal with that crisis, Egypt’s military regime assumed extraordinary emergency powers — “temporary” powers that remained in existence for some three decades and that still remain in existence today, including the power to arbitrarily arrest people, torture them, incarcerate them indefinitely without trial, and even execute them without due process of law.
By all measures, the Egyptian military regime, along with the extraordinary emergency powers it exercises, epitomizes the concept of tyranny. In fact, that is the reason the Egyptian people ultimately went into the streets during the Arab Spring to protest against Mubarak’s rule. The demands made by the protestors included not only Mubarak’s ouster but also the relinquishment of those “emergency” powers, which had repeatedly and consistently been employed against the people — decades after the crisis that gave rise to those powers.
What the Egyptian people failed to realize, however, was that the problem they faced wasn’t Mubarak but rather their governmental system itself, a system in which their standing army constituted the bedrock of Egyptian society. In fact, owing to its omnipotent position in Egyptian life for the past several decades, the Egyptian standing army has come to have a highly privileged position in society.
As the ultimate source of government power, the military answers to no one. It approves its own expenditures, which are kept secret from the public. Its tentacles run throughout the Egyptian economy, with the military owning and operating a myriad of commercial establishments to increase its income, including hotels.
The Egyptian military justifies its existence in part based on the same rationale that the U.S. military-industrial complex uses to justify its own existence here at home. The military says that it creates jobs for Egyptians and that the Egyptian economy would collapse without the enormous economic presence of the military. It also says that “national security” depends on its exalted position within Egypt’s governmental structure.
But nothing could be further from the truth. The Egyptian military, just like the U.S. military-industrial complex, is more in the nature of an enormous cancerous tumor that sucks the lifeblood out of an economy. And it serves as the principal means of enforcing a brutal tyranny on the Egyptian people.
In fact, by all measures the Egyptian system represents dictatorship and tyranny in their purest form.
The Arab Spring’s victory and defeat
As a consequence of the Arab Spring demonstrations, Mubarak was ousted from the presidency, at which point he relinquished his presidential powers to the Egyptian military, which proceeded to call for a democratic presidential election. However, it was always understood, at least by the military, that regardless of who won the election and regardless of any constitution that would be enacted, the military would continue to hold its exalted and privileged position as the bedrock of any governmental system. That demand, the military constantly made clear, was nonnegotiable.
When the presidential election was finally held, the result stunned most everyone. The winner, Mohamed Morsi, wasn’t a lackey of the military but instead an Islamist who had long opposed Egypt’s military dictatorship. Nonetheless, knowing that refusing to permit Morsi to assume office might have adverse consequences, the military permitted Morsi to take office.
Perhaps as part of a quid pro quo, Morsi ended up making the biggest mistake of his life. Morsi agreed that as part of Egypt’s new constitution the military would continue to be the foundation of Egypt’s governmental system.
It was a mistake whose consequences our Founding Fathers could have easily foreseen, for they knew that standing armies can be a grave threat not only in the hands of a ruler against the citizenry but also against a ruler himself. As Egyptians have learned, when a standing army has all the planes, guns, bullets, troops, and tanks, there isn’t much that a democratically elected president who is ousted in a military coup can do about it. This also applies to his disarmed supporters.
What about the role of the U.S. government in all this? After all, the U.S. government has long portrayed itself as the world’s great spreader of democracy. Wasn’t the spreading of democracy one of the many alternative justifications for invading Iraq after the WMD justification disintegrated? Isn’t that what every American student is taught in school — that one of the principal aims of U.S. foreign policy is to spread democracy?
The Egyptian coup — and the American reaction to it — served to pierce those myths. The coup brings to light the discomforting truth that the U.S. government has been — and continues to be — one of the biggest and most powerful enablers of dictatorship and tyranny in the world.
This article was originally published in the October 2013 edition of Future of Freedom.