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Beyond Tahrir

Washington Diarist.

Democratization is not an event in the life of a society, it is an era: a protracted turbulence. There is no other way. Dictatorships are more easily established. But if strong nerves are required for the birth of a liberal order, so, too, are open eyes. In the interval between the fall of a tyranny and the rise of a democracy, a lot can go wrong. Every saga of democratization includes adversaries of democracy, whose objection to the tyranny that fell was that it repressed society for the wrong reason. I have been reading Al-Ahram Weekly to improve my understanding of the turbulence in Egypt, particularly of the Islamist forces in the Egyptian storm. There I learn that the Muslim Brotherhood has reconciled with the Salafist parties, and all have signed a “charter of honor” drawn up by a group unironically named the Sharia Law Organization for Rights and Reform. (The al-Wasat Party, which as far as I can tell is a genuinely moderate Islamic party, has not subscribed to the charter.) The charter is full of edifyingly progressive elements. It declares that people have a duty to vote, and that voters should serve as monitors against fraud and brutality; it forbids the buying and selling of votes, and (I am quoting the reporter) it “calls on voters not to give their vote to any candidate who contributed to the corruption of political life under the former regime.” Be still, my American heart. But now for those open eyes. The civic punctiliousness of the true believers turns out to be purely tactical. The reporter begins his piece by explaining that these efforts of the Islamist parties are animated by “their determination to work together to secure the defeat of liberals and secularists.” The behavior of the Muslim Brotherhood in the latest agitation in Tahrir Square confirms such a view. They stood with the liberals and the secularists against the military, but only until their political interests were imperiled: when proposals were made to postpone the upcoming parliamentary elections, in which the Islamists have a lot to gain, the Tahrir spirit suddenly deserted many of them.

AND THAT IS NOT ALL. The League-of-Women-Voters provisions of the “charter of honor” are founded on a series of fatwas. Democratic behavior was enjoined by non-democratic authority. In the short term, and compared with all the non-democratic behavior that has been enjoined by non-democratic authority, this may seem like an advancement, an encouraging ray of enlightenment; but it is important to remember that democracy is proved not by democratic motions but by democratic reasons. A man who votes in an election as his imam or priest or rabbi tells him to vote is doing only a pseudo-democratic deed. Before it is a political method, democracy is a human definition: it insists that the individual is fundamentally autonomous, and capable of independent thinking—the intellectual work that is obligated by a self-governing society. Religious liberalism may be motivated by either religion or liberalism: if the former, it is infirm liberalism; if the latter, it is infirm religion; but whatever the admixture, the dissonance is undeniable. Religious liberalism may also be the preferred means of religious illiberalism. And that illiberalism will be described as freedom: as Isaiah Berlin once warned, “Enough manipulation with the definition of man, and freedom can be made to mean whatever the manipulator wishes.” A fatwa is not an argument, it is the antithesis of an argument. The assent that it demands is not based on persuasion. To compel liberalism is to misunderstand it, and to provide it with unreliable foundations. After all, a free and fair election is never all that God wants. And so I read, also in Al-Ahram Weekly, that “leading members of Islamist and Salafist parties have already issued fatwas telling Muslims not to vote for liberals who they denounce as ‘infidels and unbelievers.’” These edicts treat the ballot as just another opportunity for obedience. The celebration of the rights of the Islamists, of all Egyptians, to express themselves in the post-Mubarak era must at some point give way to a consideration of what they are expressing—and also of what they are not expressing. In an open society people may choose not to be open.

BUT STILL I SEE mainly celebration. “This is February 12!” a protester in Tahrir Square exclaimed to a reporter for The New York Times. “We have finally succeeded in reclaiming our revolution.” And: “‘There are no parties here,’ one young man said to his friend as fighting flared on a side street. ‘No Muslims and no Christians.’” These utterances are evidence only of the liminality of the square, its exemption from the political strains beyond its hallowed confines, where it is not February 12. It was beautiful that Copts guarded Muslims as they knelt in prayer in Tahrir Square, but it was also delusory, since Muslim-Christian relations in Egypt after Mubarak are alarmingly different. Why do demonstrators always confuse the quality of their own experience, their mystical moments of unity, with the condition of their country, with its progress? (This was the case also in Zuccotti Park, whose campers have been ludicrously compared to the valiant souls of Tahrir Square. While they were lovingly making soup for each other, the Republicans were lovelessly pillaging Dodd-Frank. Occupy reality!) Perhaps only solipsists can survive against certain odds. When Egyptian liberals demanded that the military put in place a declaration of basic rights in advance of a possible Islamist victory in the parliamentary elections, and the military tried to exploit the idea to secure their own immunity, the Muslim Brotherhood retorted in a statement to the liberals: “Will you respect the will of the people or will you turn against it?” This is standard-issue Rousseauist demagoguery. The people does not have a will. The people has wills. The wills conflict, because they represent alternative conceptions of individual meaning and social meaning. The contest between the visions ought to be settled peacefully, of course, with the instruments of representative democracy; but this is no time for patsy liberalism. The Islamists do not agree that a codification of rights is a condition of democratic life, and regard it instead as an outcome of democratic life that they wish to avoid. But rights are prior or they are not real. So a hard liberalism is needed now, respectful but suspicious, coldly resolute, undeceived by the bliss of passing solidarity, aware that the party of the open society has too often assisted in its own demise. 

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic. This article appeared in the December 15, 2011, issue of the magazine.