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Constitutions Are the Answer!: Hannah Arendt and the Egyptian Revolution

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Arendt on Freedom, Liberation, and Revolution

Part of the book series: Philosophers in Depth ((PID))


This chapter uses Hannah Arendt’s political theory to understand the dynamics of the Egyptian revolution of 2011. The argument of the chapter is that Egypt fell victim to the problem of modern revolutions which Arendt highlighted in her book On Revolution. Rather than seeking to create greater public freedom, Arendt argues that revolutions are quickly captured by an emotive and ultimately destructive search for the ‘constituent power’ of the people. The chapter argues that Egypt’s failure to build institutions that reflected its own political, legal and cultural contexts helps explains the collapse of its revolutionary dynamic and the return to authoritarian rule.

Parts of this chapter are drawn from some of my previous publications. These include “Arendt and the Question of Revolution,” in Hannah Arendt: Key Concepts, ed. Patrick Hayden (London: Routledge, 2014), 167–84; “From Revolutions to Constitutions: The Case of Egypt,” International Affairs 89, no. 2 (March 2013): 345–64; and “Violence and International Political Theory,” in The Oxford Handbook of International Political Theory, ed. Chris Brown and Robyn Eckersley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 195–208.

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  1. 1.

    “Egypt Detains Pro-government TV Host Over Police Segment,” ABC News, available at:

  2. 2.

    Declan Walsh, “As Election Nears, Egypt Finds a New Target: Foreign News Media,” The New York Times, 28 February 2018, available at:

  3. 3.

    “We Do Unreasonable Things Here: Torture and National Security in al-Sisi’s Egypt,” Human Rights Watch Report, 5 September 2017, available at:

  4. 4.

    Antoni Abat I Ninet and Mark Tushnet, The Arab Spring: An Essayon Revolutionand Constitutionalism (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishers, 2015); and Jens Hanssen, “Translating Revolution: Hannah Arendt in Arab Political Culture,”, November 2013, available at:

  5. 5.

    Alaa al Aswany, Democracy Is the Answer: Egypt’s Years of Revolution, ed. Sarah Cleave and trans. Russell Harris, Aran Byrne, and Paul Naylor (London: Gingko Library, 2014), 256.

  6. 6.

    This historical summary is based on a number of sources. For one example, which contextualizes the revolution through an analysis of Egypt since the time of Nasser, see Steven A. Cook, The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), esp. 272–307.

  7. 7.

    Martin Loughlin, “The Concept of Constituent Power,” European Journal of Political Theory 13, no. 2 (2014): 219.

  8. 8.

    Martin Loughlin and Neil Walker, eds. The Paradox of Constitutionalism: ConstituentPowerand Constitutional Form (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

  9. 9.

    Tarek El-Bishry, “Egypt’s New Legitimacy,” The Guardian, 21 March 2011, available at:

  10. 10.

    Nathan Brown, “Egypt’s Constitutional Ghosts,” Foreign Affairs (February 2011), reprinted at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:

  11. 11.

    Al Aswany, Democracy Is the Answer, 67.

  12. 12.

    The Muslim Brotherhood is not officially a political party, but a political movement. The Freedom and Justice Party was created by the MB, although the links between them are somewhat unclear. The more extreme al Nour party was created as a vehicle for more conservative Islamist parties. For an overview of the different parties prior to the elections, see the BBC website:

  13. 13.

    Gamal Essam El-Din, “A Stillborn Assembly,” Al-Ahram Weekly, 5–11 April 2012, available at:

  14. 14.

    “Official: The 100 Members of Egypt’s Revamped Constituent Assembly,” Al-Ahram Online, 12 June 2012, available at:

  15. 15.

    For an overview of their activism during this period, along with a wider discussion of the role of the judiciary in the Mubarak era, see Nathalie Bernard-Maugiron, ed. Judges and Political Reform in Egypt (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2008).

  16. 16.

    Bernard Rougier and Stéphane Lacroix, “Introduction,” in Egypt’s Revolutions: Politics, Religion and Social Movements, ed. Rougier and Lacroix and trans. Cynthia Schoch with the participation of John Angell (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 9.

  17. 17.

    The full list of members with affiliations can be found here:

  18. 18.

    Ashraf Khalil, “Egypt’s Committee of 50 Rewrites the Constitution—Again,” Al Jazeera America, 11 November 2013, available at:

  19. 19.

    Fattouh El Chazli, “Egypt’s Constitutional Drafting: A Comparative Review,” The Legal Agenda, 31 December 2013, available at:

  20. 20.

    Zaid al-Ali, “Egypt’s Third Constitution in Three Years: A Critical Analysis,” in Egypt’s Revolutions, ed. Rougier and Lacroix, 123–38.

  21. 21.

    Hannah Arendt, “What Is Freedom?” in Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought (New York: Penguin, 1961), 146.

  22. 22.

    Arendt’s reflections on violence and politics have been employed by two theorists who use Arendt to interpret the revolution. I do not look to this debate here, but there is much to be learned from their reflections on violence and whether or not this is important for defining the Arab Spring as a true revolution; see Antoni Abat I Ninet and Mark Tushnet, The Arab Spring: An Essayon Revolutionand Constitution (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishers, 2015), 4–5.

  23. 23.

    Ibid., 5.

  24. 24.

    Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York: Penguin Books, 1963), 37.

  25. 25.

    Ibid., 42.

  26. 26.

    Ibid., 48–49.

  27. 27.

    Ibid., 58.

  28. 28.

    Al Ali, “Egypt’s Third Constitution in Three Years,” 136.

  29. 29.

    Hannah Arendt, TheHuman Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958); See also, Philip Walsh, “On the Social,” in Hannah Arendt, ed. Hayden, 124–37.

  30. 30.

    Arendt, On Revolution, 78–79.

  31. 31.

    Ibid., 84.

  32. 32.

    Ibid., 71.

  33. 33.

    Ibid., 145.

  34. 34.

    Ibid., 151.

  35. 35.

    Ibid., 157.

  36. 36.

    See her essay, “What Is Authority,” in Between Past and Future, 91–142.

  37. 37.

    See Gilles Kepel, Muslim Extremism in Egypt: The Prophet and the Pharaoh (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1986); and Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002).

  38. 38.

    Al-Azhar University, accessed 15 April 2018,

  39. 39.

    See Noah Feldman, The Rise and Fall of the Islamic State (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008); and Rainer Grote and Tilman J. Röder, eds. Constitutionalism in Islamic Countries: Between Upheaval and Continuity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

  40. 40.

    Nathan Brown and Mariam Ghanem, “The Battle Over al-Azhar,” Carnegie Middle East Center, 31 May 2017, available at:

  41. 41.

    Arendt, On Revolution, 239.

  42. 42.

    Ibid., 273.

  43. 43.

    Joshua Hammer, “How Egypt’s Activists Became Generation Jail,” New York Times, 14 March 2017, available at:

  44. 44.

    Hannah Arendt, Crises of the Republic (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972), 233.


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Correspondence to Anthony F. Lang Jr. .

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Lang, A.F. (2019). Constitutions Are the Answer!: Hannah Arendt and the Egyptian Revolution. In: Hiruta, K. (eds) Arendt on Freedom, Liberation, and Revolution. Philosophers in Depth. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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