Forum Final Response
January 8, 2014
With Responses From
Jan 8, 2014
5 Min read time
I am grateful for the thoughtful responses to my essay. I will focus my reply on disagreements, which fall into two categories.
First, Nathan Brown, Andrew March, and Ellis Goldberg suggest that political theory is not an especially useful lens for analyzing the collapse of Egypt's democratic transition. Brown sees the failure as largely attributable to an inability to reach compromise on new rules for the political game. On this view, a greater willingness to bargain would lead to greater chances of success. Because the major players were not bargaining, failure was probable, perhaps inevitable. The implication is that political theory is less relevant to understanding Egypt’s failed transition than are ideas about group bargaining that we find in game theory.
March suggests that “the in-group/out-group psychology of civil war” provides a better explanation for the visceral opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood from its non-Islamist opposition than does “a failure of political theory to guide political behavior.”
Goldberg rejects the relevance of both conservative (Burke) and liberal (Rawls) political theory to Egypt’s democratic transition, and, more radically, to democratic transition in general. Although he does not articulate his own theory of transitions, he suggests that the outcome largely depends on the contingencies of each situation, including, perhaps decisively, individual or group leadership.
Instead of embracing the challenge of democracy, Egypt's liberals gambled with the military.
None of these objections undermines my general claim: the failure of the Egyptian transition was also a failure of political theory. Failure, like success, has many causes. My principal point is that if we stood on the ground in Egypt on February 11, 2011, political theory would have helped us to understand the stark problems that faced Egyptians in navigating a transition to democracy. And given this realization, we would have advised all Egyptians with genuine democratic commitments to temper their demands in light of the country’s objective economic and ideological conditions.
Accordingly, in crafting a strategy for a democratic transition, we would have taken for granted the high risk of a suboptimal bargaining structure, the psychological pathologies just beneath the surface of the body politic, and the limits of Egypt’s politicians. Political theory would have helped liberal forces to understand that prolonged instability would almost inevitably play into the hands of the military and their allies in the ancien régime. Most importantly, insights from normative political theory—Islamic and liberal—could have, and indeed should have, provided the moral glue that was necessary to hold together what would have been, in the best of circumstances, an extremely tenuous democratic transition. Only a genuine moral commitment to the results of procedural democracy, combined with effective protections for the political participation of all citizens, could have solved the bargaining problems Brown raises, the pathologies March correctly identifies, and the risks of suboptimal political leadership that Goldberg emphasizes. I fully accept that even if liberal Egyptian forces had adopted the strategy I advocate, Egypt could very well have found itself just where it is now: under the yoke of the military. Still, democratic success at least would have been possible because the liberal-Islamist coalition would not have been rent asunder, perhaps irretrievably.
The second broad category of disagreement concerns my assessment of Egypt’s liberals. Micheline Ishay argues that the Muslim Brotherhood, and the 2012 constitution it backed, depart so significantly from liberal principles of justice that Egyptian liberals were right to deny it legitimacy. Contrary to my view that Egypt's liberals were too idealistic, she claims that no liberal, Egyptian or otherwise, hard-headed or utopian, could have supported the 2012 constitution regardless of Egypt’s practical circumstances. Akbar Ganji takes the opposite view of Egyptian liberals, claiming they are less liberal than I suggest. Non-Islamist opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood, he argues, are in fact secular fundamentalists. He suggests that the Muslim Brotherhood could not have reached a modus vivendi with political forces determined, even fanatic, in their opposition to public manifestations of religion.
Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Ishay’s claim about the 2012 constitution is correct. Why, on this assumption, would liberals pursue a strategy of egalitarian reform under the auspices of a military-backed state in alliance with the state-backed religious establishment? Why not pursue it in an electoral democracy whose political branches are accountable to the people, where the people, not the religious establishment, are the source of law? It would seem that pursuit of gender egalitarianism would be more successful in the long term in a system of strong popular government than it would be in a regime underwritten by an explicit alliance between the security forces, the official religious establishment (both Muslim and Christian), and the Salafis, especially if she is right that the Egyptian population is more substantively liberal than I suggest.
Ganji is right that many of those opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood are secular fundamentalists. But the problem in Egypt is not secular fundamentalism as such. After all, the liberals allied with religious authoritarian state institutions before and after the revolution, during the coup itself, and in the subsequent constitutional amendment process.
Finally, I agree with Anne Norton that much of opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood can be explained by the deep sense of entitlement that characterizes Egypt’s upper classes and their refusal to countenance real power-sharing with the rude masses. The puzzle, however, is how bona fide liberals could have so drastically failed to appreciate the potentially catastrophic consequences of their strategy. The principled ex post refusal of some liberals to participate in the coup certainly redounds to their individual credit, but it also calls into question their capacity for sound political judgment when it really mattered. That group of Egyptians is the focus of my sharpest criticism.
I wish I could share Norton’s relatively optimistic belief that the civic capital gained from the January 25 Revolution could yet be recovered. But Egyptian liberals have shown no willingness to reconsider their post–February 11 strategy, nor have they offered a constitutional compromise that could be accepted by Islamist political forces. Instead they have, with a few exceptions, promoted a strategy of constitutional exclusion. Instead of embracing the opportunities and challenges of electoral democracy, Egyptian liberals gambled with the military. That choice has already resulted in the deaths of more than a thousand of their countrymen, and this toll may continue to climb. To make matters worse, many prominent members of Egypt’s liberal establishment actively participated in, and presumably approved of, the bloody events of August 14.
It would take a heroic, perhaps superhuman, act of forgiveness and reconciliation for these parties to renew their pre–January 25 alliance. Given the failure of the Muslim Brotherhood and the liberals to come to agreement when the stakes were much lower, it is hard to see how they can overcome the events of the last six months.
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