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Mohammad Fadel accuses Egypt’s liberals and socialists of making unrealistic demands on the Muslim Brotherhood, setting in motion events that destroyed “conditions for democracy.”
I take issue with Fadel’s argument on three grounds: his misleading characterization of the Brotherhood as reformers and the liberals as radicals; his dubious claim that the Brotherhood’s 2012 constitution can be construed as a Rawlsian steppingstone to a “just, well-ordered society”; and his inattentiveness to the broader context of Brotherhood mistakes.
First, Fadel strains credibility when he attributes to the Brotherhood only a reformist desire to construct state institutions and when he contrasts the Brotherhood’s limited goals with liberals’ radical “attempt to fundamentally restructure state and society.” In fact, both groups sought fundamental change, with the Brotherhood committed to creating an Islamic state and the liberals seeking a democracy that guarantees universal rights.
The Brotherhood should have know its constitution invited rebellion.
Second, even though Fadel concedes that the 2012 constitution was deficient on individual rights, he suggests it was compatible with a democratic process because “so many Egyptians disagree with the liberal position on these matters.” But how does Fadel know the extent of Egyptian opposition when only 20.6 percent voted in favor of the constitution, and when only 32.9 percent of the electorate turned out to vote? Furthermore, how can this constitution be considered a step toward either formal or substantive democracy given that Article 2 declares Islam the religion of the state and principles of Sharia the main source of legislation? Article 4 also states that Al-Azhar, the Islamic university in Cairo, is to be consulted in matters pertaining to Islamic law. A liberal might find consolation in the tentativeness of the word “consult,” but the overall context is darker: if Islam is the official religion, Sharia is the main source of law, and Al-Azhar is the unquestioned interpreter of Sharia, “consult” is just a euphemism for “decide.”
The incompatibility of Sharia with democratic governance is clearest in the context of women’s rights. Sharia applies mainly to matters of the family, blatantly discriminating against women in the areas of marriage, divorce, child law, and inheritance. To better assess whether the Brotherhood’s constitution helped to “promote a pluralistic and inclusive political system,” Fadel might have looked to Rawls’s “veil of ignorance,” according to which one must devise laws without knowing whether one will be born rich or poor, male or female, and so on. Who among the all-male rulers of the Brotherhood would have sought to impose Sharia in full awareness that they could have been born women? Constitutions should set high human rights standards to guard against self-serving politicians because, in the absence of a democratic tradition, they provide a blueprint for society’s future.
Third, the Brotherhood’s failures should be understood within their broader social, political, and economic context. Once the Brotherhood took control, the onus of reform fell on it rather than on the relatively weak liberals. The consensus required was not with liberals but with the Egyptian military. The Brotherhood squandered the military’s initial willingness to stand aside after Morsi’s election. Recall that General al Sisi, who eventually led the coup, at first cooperated with Morsi even though the new president had rejected his calls for steps toward national reconciliation. Morsi also alienated the IMF, which was trying to lend Egypt $4.8 billion, and failed to outline a realistic plan for stopping the economic free fall.
Fadel accuses the liberals of being cynical about formal democracy out of fear that the Brotherhood would impose Sharia. But if it was so obvious that the military would never institutionalize political Islam, the Brotherhood should have anticipated that their constitution’s inflammatory language—among other provocations—would invite rebellion and ensure liberal support for a military takeover. In short, the Brotherhood failed to build a coalition capable of governing.
Fadel is right to worry about the long-term impact of the military takeover. But history offers many examples of political stalemates in which strongmen seized power just long enough to restore the possibility of democratic consensus. The cases of Napolean III, Otto von Bismarck, and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk all suggest that authoritarian rule can coincide with—or even be responsible for—internal stability and institution building that establishes the preconditions for democracy. Notwithstanding the discouraging aftermath of the coup, Egypt’s liberals can be mindful of these precedents as they continue their long struggle to build democratic institutions consistent with universal human rights.
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.
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