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Diane Francis Headshot

What the Trayvon Martin Trial and Egypt's Protests Have in Common

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Millions swarmed Egyptian streets this week, and the television coverage was as dramatic as it had been during the 2011 Arab Spring.

For most of the week, however, CNN remained preoccupied with the murder trial involving the shooting in 2012 of a Florida teenager, Trayvon Martin. At first, this appeared to be American parochialism, but it wasn't.

That trial was the result of an intervention in the Florida legal system following massive street and media protests. The local district attorney was bypassed in order to put an assailant on trial. As such, this was a smaller American version of what Egyptians have done. Through their mass street gatherings, they have peacefully bypassed, and overthrown, their President.

Differences in the scale are obvious, but both are versions of the same historical struggle which is to uphold the principle of pluralism in society.

The Trayvon Martin incident was simply racist. The victim was an unarmed African-American and his shooter was a white-hispanic guy, initially exonerated then released by a friendly white police department. The injustice led to a firestorm of controversy and eventually the appointment of an independent special prosecutor from the federal government. Enough evidence existed to lay charges of second-degree murder.

If there had been no protests, the accused would have never faced trial, a form of discrimination that has occurred for hundreds of years in the United States. Even though civil rights have dramatically improved there, the Trayvon Martin situation underscores the need for constant vigilance, lest racism once again contaminate public institutions.

Likewise, if there had been no gigantic and spontaneous protests in Egypt, the army would not have backed the removal of President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood party. They had won 51 per cent of the popular vote in last year's election, but this was because the roster of candidates had been unfairly restricted and because they lied to the electorate about their intentions.

Morsi downplayed his religiosity and bigotry, buried his agenda of imposing sharia law, hid his belief in the unequal treatment of women and his disdain for opponents. Through these means, Morsi became the first elected Islamist leader in history: He simply pretended he wasn't an Islamist leader.

After a brief honeymoon period, Morsi and his group abrogated promises and offended the rights of most Egyptians. He appointed no senior representatives in his government from the rest of society. He began firing generals to increase his grip on power and he focused on his religion and ignored worldly needs such as economic reforms. He also orchestrated campaigns against other religious or political groups.

"[Morsi's government] has allowed discrimination and even violence against the Coptic Christian minority in Egypt. It has tried to shut down its opposition, banning members of Mubarak's old party from all political offices in Egypt for life," wrote Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria this week in his column.

That is why this week's events are not about a military coup d'etat, but about ending an attempted Islamist coup d'etat. Morsi forfeited his office and demonstrated that democracy is not just about elections, but about obtaining, then keeping, the consent of the people by serving the entire society. He alienated Egyptians by picking on minorities, a tactic that has been adopted in the past by tyrants and fascist regimes.

Dissent then intervention in Florida were needed to restore the rule of law and a giant rallies in Egypt were needed to avert a looming theocracy.

While laudable, the outcomes remain uncertain. If Trayvon Martin's assailant is acquitted, African-Americans may still refuse to believe that justice has been served. If the military or new leaders renege on creating fairer elections or exclude Morsi's followers from participation, Egyptians may have much to fear.

But estimates are that secular democrats represent two-thirds of Egypt's population. If so, they will prevail and have already bolstered their civil society since the 2011 revolution by forming independent trade unions, media outlets, youth clubs, political advocacy organizations and the like. This is why the protests were easily organized and gargantuan. Now after two years of hard work, democrats and the media have more power than ever.

This week, a sham democracy in Egypt was revealed, with votes rigged by vested interests. And this week, a trial in Florida revealed how the civil rights movement is still required to keep that society on track.

Egypt and the U.S. may be totally different countries at variant stages in their development, but their battle is identical. Vigilance, dissent and a belief in pluralism are essential so that the people, through their federal government or military, can intervene for all the right reasons.