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As I watch events unfold in Egypt, I can’t help but think of Uganda. At the surface, the parallels between Presidents Mubarak and Museveni are plain to see. Both are war heroes that brought stability to much of their country. Both forged strong ties with the West and leveraged this support to consolidate their own power domestically. Both have remained in power for 25+ years. And, for some reason, both made the decision to circle their wagons around their own survival rather than prepare their country for peaceful democratic transition.

It is puzzling to me why so many leaders decide not to take the high road. I am less familiar with the Egyptian case, but I know that President Museveni could still cement a positive legacy for himself in the eyes of mankind by stepping down and putting all his energy into leading his country through a peaceful and democratic transition. But, instead, he insists on forcing his countrymen to choose between his corrupt stability or the uncertainty of populist revolt. Why not ride off into the sunset and become a Cincinnatus or Washington? He could live well; books would be written about him; he’d probably win a Nobel Peace Prize.

Of course, the reason for Mubarak and Museveni’s calculation probably lies in an under-appreciation for what is being asked of them. In the United States, we look fondly upon George Washington’s virtuous decision to step down from power. But, we often fail to appreciate that this decision was made without the fear that a democratic transition would result in fundamental social change in the country. Slavery and marginalization of native peoples ensured that any transition of power would occur within a limited pluralism. In other words, there was no risk that the country would go from Mubarak to the Muslim Brotherhood or from Ankole to Acholi. Thus, by bracketing the voices of a large swath of the populace, there was less at stake for the United States in building the institution of democratic transition.

I wonder, if African slaves and native peoples had the vote in Washington’s time, would things have been the same? Would Washington really have stepped down so honorably if a free and fair election risked bringing to power an entirely different social group prepared to take the country in a drastically different direction? An even more interesting question is, would the elites around Washington – Addams, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, etc. – have allowed Washington to step down? Or would they, like the elites around Mubarak and Museveni, have encouraged him to hold on to power and cultivate aid from donor countries to decrease dependency on local voice? Perhaps some of them would have worried privately that a Native American president might replace private property rights with communal tenure, or an African American president would implement a land-reform agenda to break-up enormous plantations. These founders, in turn, might have to flee back to Britain, or in exile to France or Spain. Of course, we will never know the answers to these questions, but it is interesting to consider them.

The American democratic experiment has been conducted gradually, incorporating new variables over time. We created democratic institutions while controlling for slavery; we industrialized while controlling for harsh labor practices and gender inequity; we promoted global democracy while propping up dictators from time to time.

The United States is a force for good and the world’s most successful democracy. But, the road to this point was long and full of litter.

The truth about the American experience ought not give the autocrats of the world an excuse for their spinelessness. But it ought to give us pause. As we ask nation-builders across the world to democratize in one, two, or even three generations, we should make it clear that we aren’t asking them to catch up to or emulate us, but to do that which we weren’t able to do ourselves.

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Remembering old George on the week of his birth with a  quote from his Farewell Address:

“The common & continual mischiefs of the spirit of Party are sufficient to make it the interest and the duty of a wise People to discourage and restrain it…It serves always to distract the Public Councils and enfeeble the Public Administration. It agitates the Community with ill founded Jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another…The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissension, which in different ages & countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism…But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism.”

Wisdom, it seems, never becomes out-dated.

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