“Constitutions Need Very Broad Support” (on Egypt)

Michael Neumann, Professor of Philosophy (emeritus), writing at his personal blog “Insufficient Respect,” has put together an unusually thoughtful and balanced discussion of the Egyptian situation: “Has Morsi overthrown the rule of law?”  Neumann explains the fundamental constitutional problem in clear terms (without relying on references to controversial German legal philosophers), and also notes in passing the contradictory positions and conduct of the self-styled liberal democratic forces – the proponents of rule of law and consensual decision-making who have responded to Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood with vitriol, maximalist demands, and the torching of political offices. (I have yet to note a condemnation of such acts as the last on my twitter feeds, though they must be out there somewhere, right?)

One fairly common criticism of Morsi was voiced by a commenter at Neumann’s blog, arguing in sum that “Constitutions require very broad support,” and that Morsi’s unilateral actions, though representative of an electoral majority, do not reflect consensualism of the desirable type. This view is similar to the one held by Brookings scholar William Partlett, who also argues (on Twitter, at his blog, and in his academic work) that constitution-making based either on simple democratic majoritarianism or on extraordinary popular mobilizations, rather than on consensual premises, has a poor record.

The argument can be addressed in different ways, but, simply as a theoretical proposition, it is somewhat tautological, since what it says essentially is that to constitute state power, one must be in a position to constitute state power. The integration of the state does depend upon effective consensus, but that consensus can be as simple as the Hobbesian model: In the end, people will (and for Hobbes and most others ought to) choose any actually available sovereign power over social-political disintegration.

The mass democratic order with enumerated powers is one alternative under this framework. It may even be the best one available, even for Egypt, but it must be adjusted for local conditions, which in Egypt appear more favorable to Islamist than primarily Western liberal principles – though even the production of a written constitution articulated in terms of popular sovereignty and inalienable individual rights is arguably a significant uncredited compromise between Islamic and Western concepts.

What also remains unrecognized by proponents of the American and so-called “secular” models cannot be entirely separated from the unique historical origins of those models in Protestant rationalism. It is, quite ironically and even foundationally, a proof of the theological character of modern liberalism that it does not recognize its own theological character: Contemporary internet libertarian liberals typically despise all expressions of faith except of their own, which, according to their stubbornly held, unquestioned dogma, is not a faith at all.

Prior to an achieved reconciliation of the two worldviews – the openly religious Islamist and the more stealthily theological Western liberalist – a consensus based on either one must displace the other. A decision between the two will at some level be coercive, with each side blaming the other for the resort to force. The position advanced by some pro-liberal writers – that Egyptian liberals have been “too nice” – may suggest a dawning awareness of the contradictions in their own position, if not yet of what, to outsiders like Neumann at least, seems to be the simple logic of the situation based on the correlation of forces as they seem to exist – as he explains in a comment:

[T]he left/liberals would be in the strongest ideological position if they let Morsi establish a state and then contested his policies – indeed, if circumstances warrant, his legitimacy. This isn’t an attempt to tell the left/liberals what strategy to adopt, only to remark on what makes most ideological sense.

At this point the left-liberal forces seem to be relying instead on the good conscience of their adversaries, and on the influence of the international community, rather than on any coherent political argument of their own.


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