Mohammad Fadel tells a powerful, depressing, and all too accurate story. In one way, though, I think he may be too cheery. He writes, “The real choice in Egypt was not between an Islamic state and a civil state.” I fully agree that this was not the dichotomy Egyptians faced. But when he goes on to describe the choice instead as one between “a state based on some conception of the public good—religious or non-religious—and one based on pure domination,” I agree only halfway. Yes, a state based on domination was the default option. But the alternative that slipped through the hands of the various civilian forces was not a state based on a single, agreed-upon notion of the public good. Rather, it was a political system capable of mediating and managing a society in which people differ deeply on the nature of the public good.
In this sense, what happened in Egypt was not a failure of political theory but a failure of politics. Egyptian political activists did not need John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice so much as they needed Getting to Yes or How to Win Friends and Influence People.
Egyptian activists did not need theory as much as Getting to Yes.
One of Egypt’s major problems is that so many political forces—both inside and outside the state—cling to images of themselves as guardians of the public good. That is true even of the security services and the military—the very sources of domination Fadel decries. It is also true of liberals, the Muslim Brotherhood, the judiciary, the religious establishment, the salafis, and the revolutionary youth. The Egyptian political system does not allow them to deliberate or haggle over their differences—a situation the events of the last three years have exacerbated.
Immediately after the departure of Mubarak in February 2011, there may have been the possibility of a Rawlsian moment—a warm afterglow of optimism and pride in which consensus could have emerged over the construction of a more liberal and democratic system. But no process was put in place to develop such a consensus. Instead, all political forces deferred to the military, which claimed ultimate authority and hastily assembled a problematic transition plan. Just as the plan went into effect, various political forces began to view it not as a way to reach agreement but instead as a way to advance their own partisan and short-term interests. Non-Islamists scrambled to impose “supra-constitutional principles” on the process, afraid any democratic mechanisms would sideline their voices. Islamists—including salafis who months earlier acknowledged only God as the ultimate authority—rallied around a secular-sounding slogan: “No principles above the constitution.”
If there is a fragment of political theory that can illuminate Egypt’s plight, it is Thomas Hobbes’s cynical observation that “in matter of government, when nothing else is turned up, clubs are trumps.” The army, to bend the metaphor slightly, held all the cards, and the other political forces sought to curry its favor rather than work out their differences. In contrast, there could have been structures that gave all key players a veto, so that no transition could take place until such a compromise was hammered out.
The dissolution of the parliament in June 2012 and the collapse of bargains over the composition of the Constituent Assembly throughout the same year were, in one sense, symptoms of Egyptians’ inability to find ways to deal with their fundamental differences. But they also reinforced those differences. The election of Morsi as president did offer an alternative to the military’s position and the possibility that votes could trump clubs, but the civilians’ inability to come to an understanding of the rules of the political game undermined such a development. In the year of the Morsi presidency, Brotherhood leaders explained frankly that there was neither hope of nor benefit in reaching an understanding with their civilian political adversaries. And the civilian opposition sold its democratic soul in order to provoke a military intervention against their Isalmist rivals. They got their wish.
Egypt is now governed by a coalition of state actors, all of whom believe their institutional interests coincide with the public interest. Egypt’s generals feel they have had the country’s security and fate placed in their hands. Egypt’s security and intelligence services feel they finally have been freed to protect the state from its numerous internal enemies. Egypt’s judiciary can stand for Egyptian law; Egypt’s religious establishment can speak for eternal truths. The only voice missing is that of the Egyptian people. And it is missing not because it failed to speak with a single voice—no people should ever be expected to do so for long—but because Egyptians did not discover the ability to speak with each other in time.