Egypt, the Coup, and the Problem of Founding

As the world watches Egypt in the wake of last night’s coup—on the anniversary of American independence—most of the immediate analysis has focused on the likely responses of the Muslim Brotherhood to Morsi’s removal, and in turn for the trajectory of Egypt in the post-Mubarak era. As I write this, I hear Shadi Hamid on NPR saying “the Arab Spring has taken a dark turn.” But it is worth remembering that coups, and especially coups like this one, which were surrounded by massive popular mobilizations, raise fundamental questions about founding political orders.

The “problem of founding” is the essential question of politics, one that implicates normative political theory equally with the science of politics. (It is also a topic in which American independence and the founding of the Republic have long been central.) Here is Bonnie Honig on Hannah Arendt on the “problem of politics in modernity”:

Can we conceive of institutions possessed of authority without deriving that authority from some law of laws, from some extrapolitical source? In short, is it possible to have a politics of foundation in a world devoid of traditional (foundational) guarantees of stability, legitimacy, and authority?

This is the problem that Egypt has faced since 2011, and one that it will continue to face. It has two components.

First is the politics of constitution-writing. This essay by Nathan Brown gives an excellent overview of the last constitution. As he writes,

It is thus important to view the new Egyptian constitution as a political document — a product of specific circumstances that will not merely shape a future set of circumstances but also function within them

Constitutions are written by people who understand that they are writing constitutions. The politics of constitution writing therefore inherits the problem of founding. Who gets to write the laws that define the shape of the political order? On what principle do they decide what to write? How are disagreements settled? On what basis does a constitution written by people become legitimate? (Note here Morsi’s repeated insistence of the legitimacy of his government.)

In the Egyptian case these questions will loom large. However nice it sounds, when observers plea for a “true dialog among equals” they obscure that the problem is how to define the parameters of the dialog, or who the equals empowered to speak are. Here is Marc Lynch:

Egypt’s transition has been profoundly handicapped by the absence of any settled, legitimate rules of the game or institutional channels to settle political arguments. The procedural and substantive legitimacy of every step in the transition has been deeply contested

The second instance of the problem of founding is still deeper: the possibility of conceiving a “world devoid of traditional guarantees of authority” in Egypt. If the coup pessimists are right, then the Muslim Brotherhood’s short experience with electoral democracy will not be interpreted well. The lesson learned from the coup experience is that Arendt’s problem of founding in modernity has no solution; that only traditional guarantees of authority—in this case, through Islam—are legitimate. My friend and former classmate Tarek Masoud tweeted the following yesterday:

Tarek’s point might not be exactly that the Muslim Brotherhood on the whole will reject democratic politics. But that is now a possibility, and as Egypt moves on to its next moment of founding, it is one that may come to haunt Egypt’s undemocratic liberals and others who cheered the coup last night.

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