Egyptian democracy once fleetingly promised to be the most impressive fruit of a balmy Arab spring. The foreign policy realism that formerly underwrote Mubarak’s rule was dismissed as craven and the reservations regarding the immoderation of an ascendant Muslim Brotherhood was debunked as obsolete. But now that the political spring has transformed into an unforgiving winter, the old conventional wisdom is resurgent, and strident optimism has begun to yield to forlorn defeatism.
What happened? How did the toppling of one entrenched despotism birth a new one, even more authoritarian in character? More specifically, how did the newly fashioned Egyptian constitution turn from an aspirational guarantor of democrat rights to a blunt instrument of tyranny?
Despite all the optimism about the democratization of the Middle East and North Africa, it would have been remarkable if the transition out of autocracy was easy, or even moderately successful. Pulverized under the heel of imperial rule for centuries, there is no cultural or traditional foundation for democracy to be properly constructed upon. Democracy requires more than a written agreement and impassioned enthusiasm–it requires certain political virtues and tendencies that support democratic practice. These mores cannot be spontaneously summoned by political voodoo–there are the net result of longstanding habituation, the kind that produces a more or less settled national character.
The genesis of democracy demands more than an evanescent moment of democratic consent, or a swelling of majoritarian consensus. When the US adopted its own constitution, borne out of a chaotic and tempestuous crucible of compromise, the population had more than 150 years of constitutional history behind it. And this history amounts to much more than the exercise of juridical practice–it was a history of imbibing shared principles regarding natural and political liberty, the character of law, the virtue of tolerance and the prudential necessity of legislative concession and what Tocqueville called “enlightened self-interest”. Without this common spirit, the constitution would have been a mere “parchment barrier”, as Madison once said.
A constitution, any legitimate constitution, presupposes prior agreement about the nature of political agreement itself, about the legitimate ends of government and the content of citizenship. The American constitution drew from the theoretical framework provided by the Declaration of Independence, a repository of the ideas that define and therefore limit the reach of government, that restrains the power of law with a sense of the natural liberty of man. Egypt has attempted to duplicate our constitutional achievement without our antecedent experience, without the modern philosophical revolution the Declaration captured for posterity and abiding reference.
And the Declaration itself came from somewhere too, was produced out of the congealment of received tradition, a sustained reflection on that intellectual bequest, and the proclivities of mind both support. It is hard to imagine the Declaration without the political and moral iconoclasm generated by the Reformation and the Enlightenment, introducing sweeping revisions (and inventions) regarding individuality, moral conscience, and the separation of church and state.
The fundamental presupposition of any constitution is that legitimate government is limited government, that the basic source of political authority is centrally preoccupied with the circumscription of its own powers. In turn, this presupposes a distinction between state and society (to use older terminology) between the public and the private (to use more contemporary vernacular), or between what counts as properly political versus trans-political aims. All of these notions, however now secularized, are inheritances from our Christian ancestry that distinguishes the City of God from the City of Man. What the Christian God would allow men to render unto Caesar Allah zealously claims for himself.
All of the central concepts that shape modern liberal constitutionalism are unfamiliar to Egyptian history and uncongenial to Muslim theology. The motto of the Muslim Brotherhood is: “The Koran is our law”. It’s not at all clear their theocratic vision accommodates what we mean by constitutionalism, which, by its self-imposed limitations, acknowledges the liberty of each individual to pursue the good life as their conscience dictates. Without this theoretical framework, and the political tradition it spawned, their constitution is just an empty rhetorical homage to real democracy, the kind of homage vice often publicly pays to virtue. But the ink is hardly dry and tyranny is already upon them.