Noah Feldman


On his book The Arab Winter: A Tragedy

Cover Interview of May 27, 2020

A close-up

To me the heart of the book is my argument (in chapter two) about the two major Egyptian movements that centered on Tahrir Square: The January 25 movement or revolution, referring to the date of the first mass protests against Hosni Mubarak in Tahrir in 2011; and the June 30 movement or revolution, referring to the date of the first mass protests against Mohamed Morsi in 2013. I call them Tahrir 1 and Tahrir 2.

My central argument can be stated simply. If you believe that the Egyptian people acted through the January 25 revolution to replace Mubarak, the dictator, then you should also believe that the Egyptian people acted through the June 30 revolution to replace Morsi, the democratically elected president. The Egyptian people acted as agents of their own political future by calling for the overthrow of the regime. Then the Egyptian people acted as agents of their own political future by overthrowing the regime that had replaced it—effectively inviting the return of the very regime they had overthrown two and a half years before.

Consequently, Egypt’s authoritarian presidential dictatorship was not the product of the people’s will before 2011. But Egypt’s authoritarian presidential dictatorship is today, in the aftermath of the June 30 revolution, the product of the people’s will. The people acted; and they acted mistakenly. They took their fate in their hands—and gave it away.

To be clear, as a normative matter, I myself rejected and still reject the army’s coup as an illegitimate usurpation of the democratic process. But what is at issue is not my view or preference but the political agency of the people who went to Tahrir and facilitated Morsi’s ouster in much the same manner as people had gone to the square to enable the removal of Mubarak. I argue that this exercise of political agency was a historic, generational mistake; but it is nevertheless a legitimate expression of collective political agency.

I recognize the claim is at least counterintuitive, and arguably antidemocratic. Those who were in Tahrir to oppose Morsi in late June and early July 2013 were not a representative sample of the Egyptian people. But neither were the protesters who were there in late January and early February 2011 to oppose Mubarak.

Yet both were historical agents of presidents’ removal. And they were also the political agents of removal—much as I would love to deny it. Normatively, the protesters’ claim to speak on behalf of the people was valid because it expressed a popular repudiation of the results of a series of formally democratic elections. That desire stemmed not merely from former Mubarak regime supporters but also from many activist liberal, secularist Egyptians who had participated in the January 25 movement and had previously seen themselves as favoring democracy.

Those of us who live in democratic countries are accustomed to believing (or being told) that “the people” only speak in the name of democratic-constitutional values and institutions. But, of course, that is quite wrong, both logically and normatively. When the people gather in the streets to exercise their political agency, and succeed in displacing existing government institutions, they can choose any form of government they want. Similarly, the people can repudiate any form of government they do not want—including democracy itself.