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How Publius Might Counsel Egypt

By Elvin Lim


As the situation continues to unfold in Egypt, and as the White House continues to walk a fine line between support for democracy and support for a new regime which may not be as pro-American as Hosni Mubarak‘s was, Publius, the author of the Federalist Papers may lend us some wisdom.

It may surprise some people, but Publius was no fan of democracy. “Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention,” Publius wrote in Number 10. The mob cannot rule, though the mob may delegate power to those who can. And that was the genius of 1787 – a full decade after the American revolution, it bears repeating. Revolutions are negative acts where old worlds are shattered; founding, on the other hand, is a positive act, where a new world is created. Egypt has had her fair share of revolutions, and it is high time for a founding that will make a future revolution unnecessary.

But who should the supporters at Tahrir Square anoint to be the leader of a new Egypt? Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm, Publius warned us. The irony of this weekend’s hagiographic celebration of Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday is that the Framers of the US Constitution had hoped to create a system so that we did not have to wait for virtuous men any more, as the history of a capricious world had only done before. Egypt will become a republic when she no longer awaits a Nasser or a Sadat or a Mubarak. Even ElBaradei should not be mistaken for a messiah.

How would Publius have handled the Muslim Brotherhood? Certainly not by banning it, as Hosni Mubarak did. Instead, Publius would have proposed that Egypt bring as many political and religious groups as possible to the negotiating table, and let ambition counteract ambition. “A religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the Confederacy,” Publius wrote, “but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it must secure the national councils against any danger from that source.” If the Muslim Brotherhood supports suppression, then the solution to it is not more suppression, but to engulf it with groups who support liberty.

Finally, Publius’ greatest innovation arguably laid in the fact that he proposed an entirely new constitution, not a mere amendment to the Articles of Confederation, as was the charge of the Continental Congress in 1787. Vice-president Omar Suleiman is apparently now overseeing a committee to oversee amendments to the Constitution, focusing in particular on provisions that would allow the Opposition to run for the Egyptian presidency. This is not a good idea because the Egyptian constitution needs more than piecemeal change. In particular, even the Opposition has been co-opted into believing that Egypt’s problems could be solved by having the right person assume control of the presidency. But the problem lies not just in the manner by which the president is selected, but in the size of the office. Publius stated it well in Number 51, “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” For too long, Egypt and the authoritarian regimes of the world have focussed on the first task of government to the exclusion of the second.

Difficult as it is to topple a regime, it is much more challenging to build a new one. Trying days are ahead of the Egyptian people, and things can easily go awry, as they have for the French revolution, the Russian revolution, the Iranian revolution, etc. But these are days also when Egypt can be remade as American was reborn. The ideals of We the Egyptian People may not be exactly the same as We the American People, but I would be surprised if Egyptians were not also looking for domestic tranquility, common defense, the general welfare, and the blessings of liberty.

Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com and his column on politics appears here each week.

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