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Democratic Faith

Even in a well-ordered, just society, Rawls argued, a polity may in some cases legitimately restrict the liberty of conscience of the intolerant, but only when there is a “reasonable expectation that not doing so will damage the public order which the government should maintain.”15 While Egypt is not a well-ordered society in Rawls’s sense, his principle casts light on how liberals should have reacted to the prospect of a military-led coup against an illiberal elected president and his illiberal political party. Extrapolating from Rawls’s treatment of restrictions on liberty of conscience, we might say that preservation of the constitutional order is the only justification for such an intervention. Furthermore, we could conelude that this claim is only legitimate when it is based on objective evidence, widely accessible, demonstrating that the threat to the lawful public order is not “merely possible or in certain cases even probable, but reasonably certain or imminent.”16

It is hard to conclude that Morsi’s conduct as president, however disappointing, crossed this threshold. Many radical revolutionaries justified their support for Morsi’s removal not on the grounds that his actions represented an imminent threat to the political order, but rather on the grounds that Morsi did not confront the military and the police with sufficient vigor.17 In their eyes he thus betrayed the revolution.

It is not clear, however, that Morsi had the power to transform these instruments of oppression in the year he was in office. The security forces were largely immune to Morsi’s influence. They refused to protect the offices of the Muslim Brotherhood and its political party, the Freedom and Justice Party. Even businesses affiliated, or thought to be affiliated, with the Muslim Brotherhood could not rely on police or military protection. When the presidential palace was attacked during demonstrations in the wake of Morsi’s constitutional decree, the security services were nowhere to be found. For Morsi’s opponents, however, his failure to reform the security services was taken not as a sign of his weakness, but as evidence that he and the Muslim Brotherhood were conspiring with the military and police to destroy the liberal and radical opposition.18

Even less plausible than fears of a secret alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood and the security services was Egyptian liberals’ belief that, in acting against Morsi, the military would promote democracy rather than restore the security state.19 Even if liberals were right about Morsi’s and the Muslim Brotherhood’s intentions, the only rational democratic strategy would have been to insist on parliamentary elections. There were at least three routes to such an outcome. If the opposition were able to win a two-thirds majority in upcoming parliamentary elections—which should have been easy if its claims about the universal unpopularity of the Muslim Brotherhood were true—it could have impeached Morsi. If Morsi were found guilty at trial, he would have been removed from office. Even if unsuccessful in removing Morsi, such a strategy would have strengthened the cause of Egyptian democracy. A less dramatic step would have been to use parliament’s powers to withdraw confidence and appoint a new government. The final lawful option would have been to defeat Morsi or another Muslim Brotherhood candidate in the 2016 presidential elections.

Instead, the opposition, including radical revolutionaries, demanded early presidential elections. But there were no legal grounds for hastening the election schedule. Military intervention, a strategy that discredited political parties as the representatives of the Egyptian people in favor of the military, police, and other state institutions, was left as the only means to oust Morsi. Thus, Egypt’s most ardent democrats, under the banner of “The Revolution Continues,” passed on constitutional options in favor of methods that would only advance authoritarianism.

The idealists who halted the democratic experiment failed to understand what democratic theorists have long recognized: that the very conditions that produce democracy—namely, liberty and equality—also produce factionalism, instability, and violence. If clashes are not mediated through some acceptable institutional arrangement, they are likely to be resolved through despotism. This risk was especially palpable in Egypt, given the dominant role that the military and security services have played since 1952.

Citizens in a democracy must accept compromise with political adversaries, meaning that ideologues of every stripe will be disappointed (indeed, strident Islamists criticized Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood for making too many compromises with secular democrats). The failure to achieve all of one’s political goals is the price of democratic politics. The refusal to accept this price may lead to the kind of political disaster we are now witnessing in Egypt. Democracy, though grounded in the values of equality and liberty, is never born in societies perfectly reflecting these values. If these values are realized, it is through the patient practice of democratic politics, even when its substantive outcomes conflict with one’s political ideals. A successful democracy emerges gradually, inspired by the fierce, even fanatical, faith in the ability of democracy to improve the people’s political virtue over time. Ironically, Egypt’s most radical democrats did not have this faith.

Liberal and radical critics of the Muslim Brotherhood failed to realize that the real choice in Egypt was not between an Islamic state and a civil state, but between a state based on some conception of the public good—religious or nonreligious—and one based on pure domination. In accordance with Ibn Khaldun’s argument about the relationship between the religious conception of the state and the rational one, there should have been plenty of scope for agreement between religious and secular democratic forces. Tragically, liberals underestimated the people’s desire for security and their willingness to submit even to arbitrary and predatory power in order to achieve it. Their extralegal strategies— protests, boycotts, and, finally, military intervention—gravely undermined the prospects that the emerging government would provide this crucial public good, thus opening the door for the return of the security state.

Egypt remains burdened by years of mismanagement and ill-conceived policies that have been destructive for the common good, promoted corruption, and enfeebled the state’s nonsecurity functions. Egypt cannot have a stable democracy if it does not overcome this legacy. Repression of the Muslim Brotherhood— the country’s most organized political group and one that, at least in principle, supports democratic practices—only puts off the day when Egypt can begin these needed reforms. By advocating military intervention in the political process and, in too many cases, backing a coup against the legitimate government, the liberal and radical opposition have for the time being ruined the conditions for democracy. If the military-installed regime fails to establish political stability, which is a real possibility, Egypt faces the prospect of political chaos and even state failure. This is the price of dogmatism in politics.

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