With Responses From
Jan 21, 2014
3 Min read time
The only reason we are talking about a definitive failure of the democratic transition in Egypt is the July 3 coup. If the military had not taken over, with the backing of the judiciary and other Mubarak-era institutions, the prospect of transition would still be alive. After all, what was happening in Egypt before the coup was not unusual: democratic transitions always take years, are constantly on the verge of failure, and are often shepherded by an authority with the power to suspend the process. The question is thus not why the democratic transition failed, but why Egyptians failed to formulate a long-term coalition capable of waging a political war against Mubarak’s ancien régime.
What was needed was an agreement between the Muslim Brotherhood and other pro-revolutionary forces to confine their mutual competition to the political arena and not be goaded into a winner-take-all game of mutual destruction, which the military could use to justify a coup. Such an agreement was not entirely implausible. One sign that a pragmatic and hopeful politics was emerging came in June 2012, when millions of non-Brotherhood Egyptians voted for Morsi over Shafiq. Yet many of those same Morsi supporters turned up in Tahrir again between June 30 and July 3, 2013, waving their green laser pointers when General al Sisi removed the president they had voted for. What happened?
Explaining the revolution's failure requires the political psychology of civil war.
Explanations vary. Many blame the intransigence, arrogance, and over-confidence of the Brotherhood. Others point to bad faith or miscalculation on the part of the non-Islamist coalition. Fadel blames the unrealistic radical vanguard of anti-Mubarak revolutionaries. I have no doubt that many of the more idealistic segments of those who engaged in direct political action between 2011 and 2013 harbored visions for a political and social order that had little chance of being realized. And like Fadel, I have little patience for the “Brotherhood stole the revolution” mantra.
But how much blame can reasonably be placed on what turned out to be the weakest party in the transition? The radical democrats of the youth movement lacked the power and influence even of those non-Islamist “minimalists” or “reformists” he identifies as the other two segments of the 2011 coalition. Those elected officials who resigned from the 2012 Constituent Assembly and formed the National Salvation Front in the wake of Morsi’s detested constitutional declaration surely do not represent the face of ideological puritanism and radical democratic idealism.
The real barrier to incremental change was the shared failure of the Brotherhood and the Front to resolve their mutual mistrust. This failure, in turn, led vast numbers of Egyptians, including the non-Islamist political elites who participated in elections and the Constituent Assembly, to decide that a political system dominated by the Brotherhood was more threatening to them than a return to military rule.
Explaining this decision requires the tools not of political theory but of political psychology. Fadel and I agree that Egypt is exhibit A for the difficulty of establishing stable constitutional politics in conditions of radical moral and political pluralism. But the Rawlsian distinction between a modus vivendi and an overlapping consensus accounts for only part of this situation because citizens do not see one another merely as bearers of abstract doctrines. One cannot explain the mix of hatred, fear, and contempt many Egyptians feel for the Brotherhood solely on the basis of radical democratic idealism, the rejection of Brotherhood ideology, or the behavior of the Brotherhood itself. Indeed, the degree of mistrust directed toward the Brotherhood by those who felt—and still feel after five months of Sisi-ism—that it was better to side with the military than to insist on a democratic resolution shows that Egyptian politics has been plagued as much by the in-group/out-group psychology of civil war as by a failure of political theory to guide political behavior.
Such extreme factionalism is not uncommon in countries attempting democratic transition. The tragedy of the Egyptian transition is the way in which the psychology and politics of factionalism so easily led to restoration of the Mubarak-era regime, which has always been the true enemy of the democratic transition and the true target of the January 25 revolution.
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