Egypt needs a new social covenant

Egyptians need to negotiate with each other for a new social covenant of mutual acceptance and cohesion.

Egyptian media often incites differences rather than provide objective reporting, write Mogahed and Kaplan [AP]

On June 8, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi formally assumed his position as head of state. While many will understandably focus on whether the former general can bring stability to Egypt, a careful look at successful transitions elsewhere reveals that the real determinant of Egypt’s future will be its people.

Before Egyptians can negotiate a new social contract between themselves and their government, they must first develop a new social covenant among themselves.

Any leader of Egypt will preside over a country torn in two. Egyptians were and remain deeply divided over the removal of President Mohamed Morsi on July 3, 2013. A poll taken a month earlier found that of the three-fifths of Egyptians familiar with the “Tamarrod” campaign demanding Morsi hold early elections, half supported and half opposed the petition. A Zogby Poll taken three months after Morsi’s removal similarly revealed a nation split evenly: 44 percent expressed confidence in Morsi and 46 percent expressed confidence in the de-facto leader Sisi.

These divisions only mask deeper fault lines. The country is split between different classes, regions, socio-economic groups, and religious identities. There is little consensus over the future of the country. Local media has done little to calm the storm, often spreading half-truths and sensationalist stories to incite rather than to inform. In this charged climate of mutual enmity and distrust the loudest voices tend to be those of the extremes calling for uncompromising opposition to anyone opposed to their vision of the future and interests.

These divisions threaten political progress, economic recovery and regional peace. Fuelled by mutual demonisation, polarisation opens the door for the use of state force and repression against “the other camp”. Violent extremists exploit this climate to attack public authority and those groups – such as minorities – perceived to be aligned with it, resulting in even more demonisation, violence and division. This vicious cycle leads to all sorts of human rights violations.

The deep societal distrust makes the consensus necessary for a stabilising post-revolution political order impossible, setting the stage for more instability far into the future. It also makes economic recovery harder by scaring away investors and encouraging the migration of Egypt’s most talented people.

Negotiating a new social covenant

The solution to this society-wide crisis is not “national unity” as is often proposed. While superficially appealing, this narrative is frequently associated with squashing dissent or eliminating political opponents in the name of an artificial union of different groups. Instead, the antidote to polarisation is not unanimity but pluralism that builds real social cohesion. This means building a society that has both a real sense of togetherness and acceptance of differences. Everyone is committed to a broad vision of the future and enjoys equal citizenship, no matter their identity or beliefs.

Inside Egypt – Can Abdel Fattah El-Sisi unite Egyptians?

Egypt is missing something more fundamental than a new social contract between the state and its population. It lacks a social covenant that binds society together, allowing it to cooperate to build a better government and country. Forged from negotiations between different groups (and thus more akin to a society-society compact than a state-society compact), social covenants build common identity, common values and a common sense of purpose for the state that people live in.

They define justice and natural rights in defining the origins and makeup of political society. In essence, they are about society building, fashioned with the understanding that a cohesive society is a prerequisite to a successful state.

The differences between a social contract and a social covenant are stark. Social contracts are written agreements entered into on the basis of self-interest for specific purposes. Social covenants, in contrast, are sustained not by the letter of any law or by self-interest. Instead, they depend on fidelity, trust and loyalty. As Jonathan Sacks, a political philosopher turned religious leader, writes:

Social contract creates a state; social covenant creates a society. Social contract is about power and how it is to be handled within a political framework. Social covenant is about how people live together despite their differences. Social contract is about government. Social covenant is about coexistence. Social contract is about laws and their enforcement. Social covenant is about the values we share. Social contract is about the use of potentially coercive force. Social covenant is about moral commitments, the values we share and the ideals that inspire us to work together for the sake of the common good.

Covenants played an important role in the development of England, Scotland, the Netherlands and Switzerland in the 16th and 17th centuries, helping to establish some of the world’s first nations.

In the United States, social covenants played a prominent role in the establishment of early communities (such as the Puritans) and eventually the whole country. The Declaration of Independence, the US founding document, is, in essence, a covenant developing a new relationship between a set of people sharing common values (the Constitution that followed 11 years later is the social contract).

A “social covenant” was also at the heart of the first Muslim political body. Known as the “Covenant of Medina”, this charter uniquely brought together diverse tribes and faith groups in an agreement of coexistence and mutual protection. Balancing cohesion with freedom of conscience, Jewish tribes were said to be both “one community with the believers”, and to “have their religion and the Muslims have theirs”.

The power of social covenants flow less from their conception and implementation than, as Daniel Elazar points out, from:

The way it informs culture, especially political culture, endowing particular peoples with a particular set of political perceptions, expectations and norms and shaping the way in which those perceptions, expectations and norms are given institutional embodiment and behavioral expression.

Rational voices must be amplified

Amid the region’s clamour of conflict there are voices of reason calling for a different path forward. We can find them on social media, in the rare opinion column and in private gatherings making the case for a Middle East for all. These rational voices have no platform, no organisation and no media outlet, but they are perhaps the region’s only hope.

To foster rational debate and respect for opposing views, Arab societies must strive to “widen the centre”, rather than trying to bring together the fringes, by amplifying voices of reason over those of reprisal, by raising voices of inclusion over those of incitement. This requires platforms for rational debate, responsible media outlets and above all, moral courage from political, business and religious leaders who will choose principle over pandering to populist sentiments.  

Egypt has experienced unrelenting political turmoil since the January 25 Revolution. But a thousand more revolutions will not bring about democracy without the necessary social and cultural evolution required for democracy to take root.

Dalia Mogahed, an expert on Muslim societies, is Chairman and CEO of Mogahed Consulting ( and former director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies.

Seth Kaplan, an expert on fragile states, transitions, and governance, is a professorial lecturer in the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and the managing editor of the Fragile States Forum (