Egypt has not, in the wake of the revolutionary upsurge of January 25, 2011, become a democracy. Mohammad Fadel argues that the cause lies, in large measure, in the failure of Egypt’s revolutionary youth to understand the limited nature of the transition in which the country was engaged. He is not the first to argue that a flawed government protecting established rights is better than the vain search for revolutionary perfection. I am not unsympathetic to this argument, although I would place its source in the work of Edmund Burke rather than John Rawls.
Even then, much as I admire the intelligent criticism in the Reflections on the Revolution in France and in Fadel’s essay, I am not persuaded that Burke, Rawls, or Fadel describes a realistic path toward reform.
Fadel tells us, “A successful and peaceful democratic transition would require a coalition of elements from the old regime, Islamists, and radicals. Each group would have to accommodate the other two.” The new government, in which the Muslim Brotherhood predominated, was able in general to accommodate the armed forces, which had survived the uprising intact. But the leadership never clearly determined its relationship to the other social, economic, and political forces of the old regime. It oscillated between policies of alienation and conciliation. As Fadel points out, the Supreme Constitutional Court overturned an attempted purge, the law that would have barred old-regime elements, such as General Shafiq, from the presidency.
The new regime failed to determine its relationship with the forces of the old.
Morsi’s constitutional declaration not only lost him the revolutionary youth, who were already politically marginal, but also antagonized every element of the judiciary. He sacked Prosecutor General Abdel Meguid Mahmoud, angering old-regime jurists, whom Fadel calls “minimalists.” And these were joined by members of Morsi’s own government, such as Minister of Justice Ahmed Mekki. In a single gesture, President Morsi offended and frightened reformists, minimalists, and opponents. He transformed a transient electoral opposition into a motivated political coalition.
As Fadel points out, Morsi’s rivals could have waited for new elections rather than mounting a petition campaign, but the situation cut both ways. Morsi had options with which to reconcile his opponents to continued democratization. He had the constitutional authority to call a referendum on the demand for an early presidential election. Such a decision would, at the very least, have wrong-footed his opposition and made it clear to the Egyptian public that this president was, unlike his predecessor, really listening.
Fadel concludes by connecting the theoretical failure of the liberal and radical critics to what he calls “their extra-legal strategies—protests, boycotts, and, finally, military intervention.” The 2012 constitution, however, specifically protected the right of Egyptians to assemble in public and to petition the government in their own names. The rebel movement may have been misguided in some ways. It may have been impolitic. And President Morsi’s decision to respond to it as a provocation rather than a proposal certainly gave the armed forces a rationale for renewed intervention. But assembly and petition cannot be labeled extra-legal unless we accept that the draconian anti-protest laws first proposed by the Morsi government and instituted even more harshly by its successor are acceptable curbs on rights nominally guaranteed in a constitution. Democratic constitutions exist to protect rights that citizens may use imperfectly. To suggest that such protected action by citizens was in fact extra-legal and therefore of a piece with the coup—the independent decision by the armed forces to put an end to Egypt’s democratic experiment—is unwarranted and unwise.
I have no wish to minimize the importance of the issue Fadel raises. If I find his insight about Rawls inappropriate for understanding how the coup occurred, I share his concerns about dogmatism and intolerance. The relatively small protest of January 25 swelled into the massive demonstrations that toppled the Mubarak regime thanks in part to popular indignation about the use of excessive violence by the government against unarmed citizens. Today there is little indignation over the use of much greater force, and in many circles far removed from liberal or radical youth, there is vocal support for the real or anticipated use of violence by the government. No one who cares for the future of Egypt can view this with equanimity.