With Responses From
Jan 21, 2014
4 Min read time
One word that does not appear in Mohammad Fadel’s essay is “class.”
For many of those Fadel describes as “liberal and radical critics of the Muslim Brotherhood” the problem is not simply that the Brotherhood comprises Islamists or, as some believe, terrorists, but that its members are uneducated, primitive, and poor. In the aftermath of the Revolution, there were liberal and secular partisans who sought radical change, but there were also those who wanted that change to leave the gulf between rich and poor untouched, to preserve the social hierarchies that maintain their own privilege.
The problem with Morsi was not that his decree was “as an intolerable assault on democracy” or that radicals suspected “that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were attempting to create a new kind of authoritarian state.” The problem with Morsi was that he was a democrat. In his “Seventeen Pledges,” Morsi identified the people as “the legitimate source of power” and affirmed his accountability to them. He explicitly included religious minorities among the people. “Egypt is for all Egyptians,” he wrote. “All of us are equal in terms of rights.”
Revolution requires courage. So does living with one's enemies.
The Brotherhood’s history of service among the poor indicated a commitment to diminishing economic inequality. The democratic election of the Brotherhood opened the possibility that the new democracy would begin to dismantle status hierarchies. When wealth and privilege are at stake, many liberals become authoritarian.
That authoritarianism often disguises itself as a commitment to the rule of law. Fadel is both frank and effective in acknowledging the limits of the legal system that survived the fall of Mubarak. The social system remained as well. Economic and social inequality produced a set of divisions and interests that are both simpler and more complex than the “three broad groups” Fadel identifies. More complex because the Brotherhood and its allies were divided by different views on the role of religion in the state, by their willingness to make alliances outside the organization, and even generationally. The young Egyptians who wanted to “fundamentally restructure state and society” included women in the hijab as well as young technocrats and secular liberals. Simpler, because of the great division: that between rich and poor.
Economic privilege was not all that was at stake. Egypt is divided between rich and poor, but also between those who seek a pious state and those who seek a secular one, those who imagine piety as quiet and domestic and those who imagine it as rigid and evangelical. There are those who want technocrats not only to lead but also to govern. There are those who take the market as a god. Liberals and democrats, neoliberals and technocrats, the pious and the fanatic envision and work toward different Egypts.
It is not only, as Fadel writes, that “all citizens must accept compromise with political adversaries.” Democracy requires more of them. Democrats learn to live with their enemies. In elections and in the courts, in books and newspapers, and in the streets, democrats fight not only for different policies, but for different ideals. They must face those who want a nation in which their ideals, hopes, and passions are defeated or diminished. They must do it not once, but again and again.
Not long after the January 25 Revolution, a friend—young, secular, perhaps liberal—who was among those in Tahrir Square told me that he used to fear the Brotherhood. “Now,” he said, “I know I can work with them.” That knowledge eventually left him, and he came to welcome military intervention. But in that first moment of the Revolution, Egyptians learned things about themselves that may not be wholly forgotten: that they had the courage to live with their enemies and that different ideals can lead to a common good.
It is too soon, I think, to pronounce the Egyptian Revolution over. While I agree that the “security state appears to have re-established political control,” that may change. The Revolution is a banked fire, from which other revolutions can be kindled. There are pressures for incremental reforms. In the long work of creating liberal democracy, Fadel’s pragmatism, candor, and theoretical acuity will be invaluable.
Politics, Weber wrote, is no easy task. It is “a strong and slow boring of hard boards.” The courage that enabled Egyptians to stand against the military state, when scholars and perhaps they themselves thought defeat was certain, is still there to be drawn upon. That courage is necessary not only for revolutions, but also for living with one’s enemies.
With our own great inequalities, American liberals cannot justly claim that ours is more than what Rawls called “a decent hierarchical society.” We, along with the Egyptians, must confront our fears and end radical economic inequality if we are to be a liberal and democratic people.
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