Why Egypt has coups and we don't

One needs to recall that America was acutely and almost exactly divided, which in many other places might have led the losing politician (here, Al Gore) to appeal to popular and inflammable sentiment above the process that had handed presidential office to his opponent. (After all, there were enough voting improprieties and infelicities to put the count in doubt—not to mention the emphatic political divisions within the Supreme Court, riven 5-4 in the matter.) But not only did that populist appeal not happen, few in America expected it to happen. The dignified acceptance of the result by Mr. Gore rested on his (and everyone else’s) pre-existing faith in the process, the faith that America is solidly enough poised on its foundations that constitutional continuity matters more than the identity of the president. It was a matter of valuing—and saving—the Constitution for the future.

At the time of Bush v. Gore, one could not help but be impressed by the endless (and sometimes tedious) public legal debate: and it really was rather impressive, a display of another facet of American civilization. Crisis becomes less incendiary when it becomes legalistic and technical. Unlike in Egypt, the losing side accepted defeat, however bitterly. The democratic winner (President Bush) was placed in office by an institution (the Supreme Court) that sought to resolve a political crisis. American political life returned to normal and the Democrats took up their role as the party of opposition. In Egypt, by contrast, the democratic winner (President Morsi) was ousted from office by an institution (the Egyptian army) in order, ostensibly, to resolve a political crisis. And Egyptian political life has taken, thereafter, a cataclysmic turn for the worse. There is, now, scarcely any prospect of democracy’s restoration.