Whither Egypt?

Will Egypt go the way of the Iran?  Will religious extremists take over the country?  Will the vacuum left over from a dictator’s departure pave the way for religious and ethnic conflict and extremism? What kind of regime will take over now that Mubarak has departed Cairo?

These are all the wrong questions. Whether Egypt can become democratic or not is not a matter of whether it can install a democratic regime. By definition, no “regime” can be democratic. To the extent that a regime is a kind of top-down leadership that permeates the practices of a society, a regime of any kind is hostile to democracy.

Democracies are bottom up. That’s why we can call the lie to supposedly “democratic” countries countries that allow for elections, but are anything but free. It’s not enough to hold an election if there is no space for free and open public discussion and association. Democracies require a civic culture, habits of cooperation and open discussion of matters of common concern.

So the real question is whether Egypt has or can quickly develop a civic society and set of practices that can become democratic. My guess is “yes.” From what I gather  from conversations with secular Arab democracy activists (some of whom have started the Arab Network for the Study of Democracy) there is this potential in the Arab world. Even the Muslim Brotherhood seems to see the need for a civil space to “play in” rather than one to dominate. And with support of perhaps 20 percent of the population, the Brotherhood has little chance to take over a democratic society. But more importantly the other 80 percent also seem eager for creating a strong civil society.

And notice all the women who were on the streets, the women behind the scenes. Does that look like a repressive civil society?

The best comparison is not Iran or Iraq but Turkey, a country that can be both religious and secular, that recognizes the religious roots of the term secular itself: having to do with matters of the world rather than matters of God. Secular does not mean anti-religious; religious and secular are not oppositions nor mutually exclusive. The term “secular” has its roots in Catholicism. So to all those who worry that Egypt might go the way of Iran I say, think again. The people on the street weren’t just changing their leaders, they were changing their country.

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.


  1. While of course secular government (and secularism as a political philosophy) are compatible with private religiousness, in what way does the idea of the “secular” as a positive ideal with the power specifically to limit the influence of the Church over the world stem from Catholicism? The secular/religious distinction in Christianity was a historically hostile marker of two different groups. Christianity initially followed Judaism in not acknowledging the civic gods of Rome and of insisting on their God for everyone.

    It took a long time for the secular to get any autonomy from the power of the Church after Christianity triumphed in Rome.

    And regardless of all this, the questions of how secular autonomy grows or is hindered in specifically Islamic traditions is another totally different issue—regardless of how it works or has worked in Christianity.

  2. The etymology of secular may in fact be of help in thinking about Islam, even though its roots are in Latin Christendom. The term secular began as a religious term to denote human space and time rather than god’s space and time. My point is that “secular” and “religious” are NOT binary oppositions, even if today they are casually treated that way. See Charles Taylor’s Foreword to Secularism, Religion and Multicultural Citizenship. Edited by Geoffrey Brahm Levey and Tariq Modood. You can read the Foreword on Amazon; note especially pp. xvii on.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: