Shortly after the late Omar Suleiman, the Hosni Mubarak era head of Egypt’s military intelligence, had been appointed vice president in a belated attempt to appease Egyptian protesters, he gave an infamous interview to Christiane Amanpour, in which he declared that the Egyptian people were not ready for democracy. While his remarks were rightly dismissed at the time as a self-serving declaration intended to justify why the regime was not moving faster to respond to the demands of the protesters, it certainly invites one to ask why Egyptians have had such a difficult time building a viable democracy. A popular theory, invoked by many Egyptian liberal democrats and supported by the military’s ouster of Egypt’s first democratically elected President, Mohamed Morsi, is that there exists a fundamental incompatibility between Islamist politics and democracy, or at least between the Islamist politics of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and democratic politics. (Ironically, that was precisely one of Suleiman’s claims in that interview—that elections would only empower what he derisively called the “Islamic current.”)

Such theories are difficult to test in any meaningful way, as they often rest in easily stated, but difficult to prove, claims about an organization’s intentions, and untestable predictions about how it would behave if it were, in fact, to achieve power. This fear, however, may be more profitably understood as the generic sort of mistrust that exists in any society that is deeply divided on basic questions of identity and justice. It is why the American political philosopher John Rawls describes governance in such societies as being characterized by a modus vivendi whose stability depends upon the persistence of a contingent balance of power, with each party fearful that if the balance of forces changes, it will be materially harmed, and in extreme cases, even destroyed. Rawls believed it was possible for societies to develop a political system that was underwritten by a shared conception of justice—and thus to practice under an overlapping consensus that would eliminate the potentially existential fears of a modus vivendi. But he was also realistic enough to understand that the creation of an overlapping consensus around a just constitution is not simply a matter of explaining to one’s political opponents the usefulness of the “veil of ignorance,” according to which the best procedure for determining what just institutions are is to ask individuals to describe the political institutions they would demand if they were deprived of any particular knowledge they might have regarding which social groups they belong to and the relative privileges or deprivations they might enjoy or suffer. Rawls’ veil of ignorance is a tool for working out what just institutions should look like—or working out, as a matter of political philosophy, what the content of the rules governing a just society should be.

In the pages of Political Liberalism, Rawls discusses whether the emergence of a well-ordered society, governed by an overlapping consensus on a constitution that approximates the veil of ignorance, is realistic, and he proposes one pathway for how such a political society might, in fact, come into existence. He outlines the pathway of a society that begins with a very thin and (from the perspective of the veil of ignorance) inadequate conception of justice. Such an arrangement only serves to secure a modus vivendi, with the political consensus enshrined in the constitution centered on basic participatory political rights. But repeated interactions among previously warring groups under such a minimalist constitution, in combination with some good luck, could then lead to a gradual expansion of rights, both in breadth (meaning rights expand from merely those required for formal political participation to a richer set of individual rights) and in depth (meaning that those rights are not only respected by the state and its organs, but also by individual citizens, who begin to honor those rights as a matter of their own moral conceptions of personhood.)

Rawls’s theory of democratization has, I suggest, important insights with respect to what it is realistically possible for Egyptians to hope for in moving their society down a path of democratization. One need not engage in ultimately unresolvable debates about the character of the Muslim Brotherhood or, for that matter, any of Egypt’s other political actors—its military and security services; its corrupt and tax-avoiding, capital exporting capitalist class; its liberals—and their capacities for change and evolution. One can hardly challenge the proposition that all major actors in Egypt suffer from substantial democratic deficits, but the real question Egyptian political actors (at least those who are committed to democracy) should be asking is how Egypt’s factions can be transformed so that they choose to pursue policies that reflect the public good rather than purely the good of their own group?

James Madison, in his celebrated paper Federalist No. 10, sketched out a theory of how it might be possible for the deeply divided and self-interested factions that comprise a state to live together peacefully, in one polity that could efficiently pursue the public good and not degenerate into tyranny. Instead of decrying factionalism as an evil that prevents the achievement of a well-governed society, he recognized the existence of factions and factionalism as the inevitable consequence of freedom, and cautioned that the cure for factionalism was the destruction of political freedom, a cure worse than the disease. The inevitability of factions in a body politic composed of free citizens means that factionalism—which can be a real threat to the viability of any democratic polity—must be managed appropriately through mediating institutions sufficiently robust to prevent the possibility that any one faction can dominate the state, while increasing the possibility that deliberative politics among society’s various factions will take place. But this also means that society’s various factions must organize themselves into cohesive actors that can successfully contest elections and thus represent all factions.

This, unfortunately, never took place in Egypt. Non-Islamist political forces, for one reason or another, were never able to develop the kind of broad and cohesive coalitions that could have effectively represented them. After the constitutional crisis of the fall of 2012, moreover, they effectively threw in the towel, and formed the National Salvation Front. Instead of attempting to organize an effective democratic opposition that would faithfully represent Egypt’s socio-political diversity and begin a process of mutual resolution of disputes—either by formulating an alternative platform for Egypt’s future, or by forming a coalition among the myriad opposition political parties to compete effectively against the Freedom and Justice Party in future parliamentary elections—the National Salvation Front’s principal task was to undermine the Morsi government. The National Salvation Front repeatedly announced their refusal to participate in parliamentary elections (which no doubt emboldened the Egyptian Supreme Court to strike down two different versions of the parliamentary electoral law) and instead demanded early presidential elections, despite the dubious legal grounds for such a request. But early presidential elections would not have solved, and cannot solve, the fundamental problem of Egyptian politics: namely, the deeply divided nature of the body politic, whose cleavages can hardly be reduced to a simplistic religious-secularist divide. Such divisions can only begin to be resolved when a broadly representative parliament, possessed of meaningful political power, is elected. To this day, Egypt has failed in this basic task, and Egyptians instead focus on finding a mythical leader who will restore the country’s lost unity.

By accusing the Muslim Brotherhood of rending asunder a fictional national unity, Egyptians opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood opted for a strategy of exclusion—precisely the strategy Madison warned is inconsistent with the very idea of politics in a free society. But is it so bad to exclude a party if the majority concludes it should have no political role? Was Madison wrong in this respect? If Madison was wrong, it would certainly not be as a result of new insights gained from Egypt’s experience, which confirmed the clichéd expectations of most political scientists: that military intervention in the political process would lead not to a better form of democracy, but to a restored authoritarianism. Even if it is true that the Muslim Brotherhood is essentially an anti-democratic movement, it could not have threatened an Egyptian democracy, at least as long as other Egyptian political movements played their role in such a democracy by organizing their supporters into cohesive parties that could effectively compete at the ballot box. Even if it took a couple of rounds of electoral losses before they successfully organized themselves, it would have been worth it to build a genuine democratic coalition.

Given the pragmatism of the Muslim Brotherhood, something admitted even by their detractors (even as they deny any moral relevance to that pragmatism), it was at least plausible that their policies would not have deviated significantly from what the median Egyptian voter would have wanted. In short, so long as there is at least the credible prospect of a politically competitive system, there is no reason to believe that the principles underlying the median voter theorem would not have applied to restrain the Muslim Brotherhood until such time as the non-Islamist opposition could have organized itself more effectively. Ironically, then, it may very well be the case that the biggest problem facing Egyptian democracy is not that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is too committed to its own organization, as many Egyptian commentators have suggested, but rather that other Egyptian groups lack the internal discipline necessary to form an effective nationwide coalition. The absence of internal organizational discipline, and the disastrous consequences of that absence among non-Islamist democratic forces, has been painfully reinforced by the complete impotence of these forces in resisting renewed authoritarianism and xenophobic nationalism, which are at least as anti-democratic, if not more so, than the Muslim Brotherhood.

Success at the ballot box is not mere “ballotocracy,” to be casually dismissed, as many Egyptian liberals have claimed. An inability to form an electoral majority signifies an inability to govern—at least in the absence of overwhelming force. It should not have come as a surprise, therefore, that the June 30 movement resulted in a return of military rule, the triumphant return of the security state, and the death of politics. But if this is so clear, why did Egyptian liberal forces give up so quickly on electoral democracy? It could very well be because they decided democracy—with its uncertain outcomes—was not so crucial to their own factional interests. Many “liberals” in Egypt hail from already well-off sections of society that effectively have no need for good government and its services. Many of them, however, do need the state for one very important reason—access to the vast rents that insider status in the Egyptian state affords them. Whether the Muslim Brotherhood realistically hoped or tried to turn Egypt into an Islamist polity is debatable, but there is little doubt that they sought to open up the government to sectors of Egyptian society that had long been excluded from it. Electoral democracy, whether of a liberal or Islamist flavor, certainly threatens, at least in the medium- to long-term, the current distributive structure of rent-seeking that dominates the Egyptian state.

So while it is certainly true that the Muslim Brotherhood is not a group of liberal democrats, the same can be said of other Egyptian political forces. In comparison to the forces currently in power, the Muslim Brotherhood at least had the virtue of accepting its political opposition, even if, as its critics have alleged, it did so grudgingly and for pragmatic rather than moral reasons. The fact that there is no credible liberal democratic political party does not mean, however, that Omar Suleiman was right. It only means that Egypt has not yet produced such a party. The existence of such a party is not, however, a precondition for a functioning electoral democracy; it is the product of the practice of democracy over multiple rounds and iterations. By aiding, abetting, and giving cover to an increasingly bloody and authoritarian order, under an extremely dubious appeal to “militant democracy,” Egyptian liberals bear at least as much blame as the Muslim Brotherhood, if not more, for Egypt’s current disastrous political predicament. As a result of their short-sighted strategies, Egypt faces at least several years of renewed authoritarianism. Instead of attempting to exclude their competitors from politics, Egyptians need to embrace competitive politics and accept the substantial costs of building a competitive electoral system from the ground up, even if that requires letting your opponents win from time to time.