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The Challenge of Pluralism

Accommodations are hardly unusual in societies emerging from a long period of authoritarian rule. Consider Chile, where General Augusto Pinochet was granted immunity in the aftermath of his bloody regime. All over Latin America, citizens accepted a substantial continuing role for free market economics, even though it had been a commonplace feature of dictatorships in the region.3 Successful democratic transition inevitably requires some degree of compromise with old ways.

The challenge Egyptians faced throughout the transition was to build an inclusive polity in the face of their deep divisions. They could resolve these divisions either by suppressing disagreements through a forceful exercise of state power, or by competing at the ballot box. The first strategy requires massive state violence in the short term and almost always leads to suspension of formal democracy, without any guarantee of a return to democracy in the medium or long term.4 The second strategy involves less force, establishes at least the formal elements of democratic rule, and preserves the possibility of additional democratic gains in the future, even if it requires concessions to undemocratic or illiberal political groups in the present and is marked occasionally by episodes of political violence.5

Both liberal and Islamic political theories endorse the second option. Traditional Islamic political theory prioritizes social peace in circumstances where achieving a more ideal polity would require widespread violence. Preserving social peace is also a crucial moral value of such political thinkers as Thomas Hobbes and John Rawls.6 These theories applied in Egypt: a formally democratic regime that allowed for fair and nonviolent competition over political office was the only means of including all three of Egypt’s political forces, and thus the most likely way to preserve social peace. Any attempt to suppress one of the three groups, on the other hand, would contradict this fundamental moral precept and would launch the country into civil war, or else result in the imposition of emergency law. Both outcomes would preclude meaningful politics.

From a Rawlsian perspective, Egypt’s divisions meant that social peace could only be achieved through a constitution that established a temporary agreement among the parties. Such a constitution could do no more than guarantee formally democratic procedures of governance. It could not satisfy the requirements of justice, since it would be grounded in a particular balance of social power rather than an overlapping consensus on a shared conception of justice. Nevertheless, such a constitution, in Rawls’s view, is usually a necessary step toward the establishment of a just, well-ordered society.7

The fourteenth-century Arab Muslim political thinker Ibn Khaldun’s tripartite typology of regimes—natural, rational, and Islamic—is consistent, in broad terms, with Rawls’s analysis.8 Natural states are based on relations of domination between the ruler and the ruled, restrained only by the limitations of the ruler’s actual power. Rational and Islamic states, by contrast, impose moral restraints on the exercise of political power. According to Ibn Khaldun, rational and Islamic regimes transcend the relations of the domination characteristic of natural regimes and establish overlapping conceptions of the common secular good. Ibn Khaldun’s rational and Islamic regimes can both foster the convergence in political morality that, like Rawls’s overlapping consensus, characterizes a just constitution. Critically, this convergence or consensus must occur organically. Ibn Khaldun argued that coerced adherence to Islamic law fails to produce virtuous subjects. Likewise, coerced imposition of even a just constitution cannot produce an effective system of justice if large numbers of citizens are incapable of freely adhering to its terms.9

Although procedural democracy by itself did not promise the Egyptian radicals the substantive changes they hoped for in the short term, it did offer the possibility of social peace and an opportunity to generate, over time, a broader consensus on the fundamental questions of how to establish a just and effective state worthy of citizens’ voluntary allegiance. It also offered the foundation of a more liberal political order.

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