Events in Egypt are exhilarating. Beginning on January 25, the Egyptian people took to the streets throughout the country to demand that President Hosni Mubarak step-down after nearly 30 years of rule. Egyptians could be on the verge of getting the democracy that protesters are calling for.
Events in Egypt are frightening. Before the drama concludes, many Egyptians will lie dead. As of this posting, it is believed that over 100 Egyptians have already perished in their quest for liberty. I am also deeply concerned because Egyptians may find that, while they are able to unseat President Mubarak, they may simply be replacing one tyrant for another, perhaps an even more ruthless one.
Democracy is about much more than simply the right to vote. For democracy to take root anywhere, there must be the rule of law, democratic institutions, guaranteed rights, and robust citizen action. Power and responsibility must be shared throughout society and not simply held with an iron fist by the central government.
The people of Iran successfully overthrew the rule of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979. Unfortunately, only seven months later, any hope of the Shah being replaced by an enlightened democracy were dashed when Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini became the nation’s Supreme Leader. While Iranians have the right to vote, the Islamic Republic of Iran is certainly not a democracy. And, sadly, the rule of the Ayatollahs has been at least as brutal as the rule of the Shah. While many in Iran were horrified when the revolution was usurped by the Ayatollahs, they were seemingly powerless to alter the outcome of the revolution.
In Brazil, the military has ruled for a major portion of the nation’s history since it declared independence in 1822. Brief democratic periods ended with military overthrows. In 1964, the democratic government was again overthrown by the military. It was easy for the military to retake the government since the elected government had not defused power throughout society. Fortunately for Brazilians, General Ernesto Geisel became President in 1974 and began the process of gradual re-democratization culminating in free elections in 1985. Today, Brazil enjoys a robust, successful democracy.
Perhaps the greatest change in Brazilian society in recent years has been cultural. Since the return of democracy in 1985, citizens have had greater opportunities to participate in civic life as the government loosened its grip and the expectations of government evolved. Rather than frowning upon n0n-governmental organizations and being jealous of their resources and power, the elected government now sees the nonprofit sector as an important partner in the building of civil society. The result has been dramatic growth in the number of nonprofit organizations and nonreligious charitable giving. This realignment of civic responsibility has resulted in improved lives for Brazilians and a stable, democratic government.
Back to Egypt. No one knows how the current revolution will end. We hope for the best. Will Egypt be another Iran or Brazil? If the people take civic responsibility and defend the rights they seem poised to win, there is hope. Egypt already enjoys a growing nonprofit sector. This nonprofit community can play an important role in helping to create a new civil, democratic society in Egypt. Let us hope that will be the outcome.
For more information about the role of the nonprofit sector in Brazil, you can download the 2005 Advancing Philanthropy magazine article “Brazil: Two Countries Becoming One” by visiting http://mlinnovations.com/in_print.
For a heartwarming video about volunteerism in Egypt, visit here.
That’s what Michael Rosen Says… What do you say?