Rawls Visits the Pyramids

Egypt had a true Rawlsian moment where anything was possible. But a springtime of freedom has devolved into a summer of selfish politicians and bareknuckled brawls.

The most striking feature of Egyptian politics that has emerged over the past three months is how polarized it has become. That is disheartening for Egyptians, but it is not necessarily bad news for political reconstruction—as long as the emerging differences are handled wisely.

In the immediate aftermath of Hosni Mubarak’s forced departure from office on February 11, Egyptians experienced a euphoric wave of national unity and pride. The revolution itself was at times a divisive affair, with pitched street battles, torching of public buildings and hysterical bouts of conspiracy-mongering from pro-Mubarak media. But the bitterness quickly passed for most Egyptians; after Mubarak had left it was difficult to find anyone with a kind word to say about him or his legacy.

There was undoubtedly a measure of opportunism involved in this moment of revolutionary enthusiasm, but there was a very profound sense as well that Egyptians had accomplished what nobody—least of all themselves—thought they were capable of. As a legal figure who, by reputation, might have been expected to defend the old regime told me earlier this month, “Everyone is with the revolution.” An army that had kept people guessing about its intentions was suddenly proclaimed to be one with the people. Outbursts of Muslim-Christian tensions seemed one of the few worrying signs, and even those were met with large demonstrations and widespread bumper stickers proclaiming that Egyptian identity trumped all other concerns.

And in the warm but very inchoate atmosphere of the revolution’s triumph, Egyptians began discussing their political future. Did they want a parliamentary system in order to combat the presidential authoritarianism of the past? What systems would provide for the freest and fairest elections?

The country was experiencing what might be called a “Rawlsian moment.” Before his death in 2002, American political philosopher John Rawls had made a name for himself leading a couple generations of scholars in exploring ways to assess and maintain the justice of a political order. His basic approach included an invitation to imagine what sort of system people in a society might construct if they did not know in advance what their position would be in it. Rawls never envisioned this “veil of ignorance” as something that was actually possible; imagining such an abstract deliberation among people writing rules under such circumstances was simply a good way of assessing whether the rules in place were fair or not.

But in February and March, Egyptians seemed actually to be living in a Rawlsian environment. Nobody knew who the relevant political actors would be, what shape their platforms would take, or how strong they would be electorally. Of course, general tendencies could be discerned, but when Egyptians argued about questions of constitutional design, the political scene was so unclear they could put abstract principles above partisan interest.

But on March 19, Egyptians were summoned to the polls to approve a package of constitutional amendments. While the proposals did not clearly favor any party, many revolutionary groups felt that they did not go far enough and risked rushing (and perhaps even aborting) the transition process. Islamist groups concluded just the opposite: that it was a good idea to hasten the process along so that democratic politics could commence and the military could be relieved of its dominant political role.

And in the aftermath of that debate, the prevailing atmosphere in Egypt began to shift rapidly from an expected summer of love to that of a roller derby rink. Earlier this month, when I visited Egypt and spoke to figures from across the political I spectrum, I found Islamist and non-Islamist forces describing each other with increasing distrust and even fear; they now seem focused more on elbowing each other out of the way than linking arms. Differences of opinion among political leaders are necessary to give people democratic choices, but the problem for Egypt is that the suspicions among various leaders are growing so deep that conspiratorial talk of secret pacts, foreign funding of and support for opponents and hidden agendas has become extremely widespread—all this in a context in which the rules of political contestation are not yet written (and indeed must be devised by rival trends that view each other increasingly darkly).

The topic of debate at the moment is whether to proceed with some version the sequence established by the military from the beginning—parliamentary elections, then presidential elections, then an assembly to write a permanent constitution—or to write the constitution first. There are principled arguments to be made on both sides. But those are rarely made. Instead it is self-interest that drives the actors. Non-Islamist leaders are clear, frank and blatantly partisan, even in public: they want to write the constitution first to diminish the role of the Islamists in the process. They are working to mobilize their supporters in the streets in order to prevent their defeat at the polls. Islamist leaders see this as an attempt to rewrite the rules in order to hem them in. And they have therefore parted company with the rest of the revolutionary coalition and are increasingly charting their own course.

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