We are a public forum committed to collective reasoning and the imagination of a more just world. Join today to help us keep the discussion of ideas free and open to everyone, and enjoy member benefits like our quarterly books.
After Egypt’s revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood emerged as the most organized political party and the one most likely to resist the army’s push to regain absolute control. In order to get rid of the Brotherhood, Egyptian liberals entered into an implicit accord with the army. They calculated that, with support from the United States and the European Union, power would be transferred to them once the coup overthrew President Morsi. But the army did not deliver on its promises and instead returned Egypt to the Mubarak era, minus him and his children. The resignation of Mohamed ElBaradei, who had been appointed vice president in the aftermath of the coup, symbolized the liberals’ naiveté. When the Brotherhood was ousted from power, there was no obstacle to the army’s total control. In fact, the latest draft constitution solidifies the military’s authority.
I largely agree with Mohammad Fadel’s account of recent events in Egypt, but the opponents of political Islam he calls “liberals”—as defined by Rawls—I would instead describe as “secular fundamentalists.” I believe their mistake was not simply tactical: Egypt’s secular fundamentalists preferred the army to the Islamists. Indeed secularism as an ideology—not to be mistaken for secularization, the process whereby the religious and states realms are institutionally and normatively differentiated—views religious forces as its main enemy. Eliminating those forces is more important than democracy itself. The secularism of some Egyptian liberals resembles that of Turkey’s Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and France’s aggressive laïcité. It is less reminiscent of what we see in the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The opponents of political Islam are not liberals, but rather secular fundamentalists.
Secular fundamentalism is in some respects incompatible with democracy. It can act as a temporary umbrella for contradictory political forces that consider political Islam their common enemy, but it does not necessarily represent the demands or interests of broad social groups (workers, teachers, capitalists, and so on). Thus it is crucial that political activists and democrats in Egypt, and more broadly in the Islamic world, clarify the relationship between secular fundamentalism, democracy, and pluralism.
According to Rawls, modern democracies are characterized by “the fact of reasonable pluralism”—the fact that citizens hold conflicting but reasonable religious and philosophical conceptions, some secular, some founded on religious texts. This pluralism of reasonable conceptions can be destroyed “only by the oppressive use of state power.” Based on reasonable pluralism, Rawls developed the notion of overlapping consensus as a way of understanding and deepening the roots of democratic systems. The idea is that citizens who affirm justice, democracy, and human rights “start from within their own comprehensive view and draw on the religious, philosophical, and moral grounds it provides.” But they are able to reach an overarching consensus in the public sphere, despite the fact that their fundamental religious and philosophical convictions are at odds. Democratization, then, is not about the victory of one comprehensive religious or philosophical outlook. It is about building a common ground for a plurality of views.
One cannot precondition acceptance of democracy on a particular outcome, such as the victory of secularists over Islamists. As the bloody civil war in Algeria demonstrated, when eliminated from the democratic process, Islamists may decide that they have no choice but to take up arms. In Egypt millions share the values of the Brotherhood and consider the party their political representative. If this fact is not acknowledged within the political process, then either the army will continue to dominate, or there will be open conflict. The victory of the secularists will not produce an Egyptian democracy.
In transitioning countries such as Egypt, a democratic state will not develop overnight. But loyalty to the democratic process, even in a political and economic system that is not completely legitimate—not a “decent society,” as Rawls put it—is preferable to the rule of generals. Secularists would do well to become more like true liberals: to spread democratic ideas, organize constituents around their vision, and transform themselves into a force that balances society and the leviathan state. Accepting pluralism is an important part of this process.
Akbar Ganji is one of Iran’s leading political dissidents and has received over a dozen human rights awards for his efforts. Imprisoned in Iran until 2006, he is author of one book in English, The Road to Democracy in Iran, which lays out a strategy for a nonviolent transition to democracy in Iran.
The promise of democracy lies in its potential to cultivate political virtue over time. But Egypt’s liberals, unnerved by the policies of the legitimate Muslim Brotherhood government, refused to wait.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox
In her new book, Danish poet Olga Ravn writes with open love, pity, and compassion for her strange yet familiar creations.
Draconian individual punishment distracts from systemic change and reinforces the cruelest and most racist system of incarceration on the planet.
Our well-being depends on a better understanding of how the logic of labor has twisted our relationship with pleasure.
We must reject the legal liberalism that attempts to cordon off constitutional questions from democratic politics.
The United States ranked first on health security; then came COVID-19. In place of technocratic hubris, we need robust new forms of democratic humility.
To generate local, inclusive prosperity, cities must think beyond tech accelerators and science parks and instead embrace a wider range of innovation strategies.