John Rawls – The Laws of Peoples: Justice and Human Rights – Reflection on Egypt

28 07 2009


John Rawls – The Laws of Peoples

Justice and Human Rights – Reflection on Egypt

By Rany Ibrahim

Terror attack occurred last night downtown Cairo while writing this paper. In fact, I was standing at the same location four months ago during my last visit to Egypt. It is bringing back again the cycle of secular/ideological violence to the country after few years of relevant stability. I was debating which Rawls approach or stand I should argue and discuss first in this paper; justice as fairness or human rights in his book The Laws of Peoples. Both issues are significant to what I would suggest led to such an incident. I could not find a better relevant statement for Rawls to start my paper from the following one:

“No people has the right to self-determination, or a right to secession, at the expense of subjugating another people. Nor may a people protest their condemnation by the world society when their domestic institutions violate human rights, or limit the rights of minorities living among them. A people’s right to independence and self-determination is no shield from that condemnation, nor even from coercive intervention by other peoples in grave cases.”[1]

While the aim is, in Rawls statements, to specify limits to a regime’s internal autonomy. However, the definition of human rights to “express a special class of urgent rights”[2] is not sufficient nor valid, comparing it to mass murder or genocide is an overstatement allows authoritarian regimes to have moral justification to their own actions and violations that, not necessary so extreme. Rawls in The Laws of People’s suggests that there is decent hierarchical peoples exist, or could exist. He considers that they should be tolerated and accepted by liberal peoples in “good standing,” same concept that adopted by the international community at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, or the Copenhagen Convention defending democratic rights 1990. It was a historical reasoning to the political and social thought towards a realistic and reasonable utopia within the international law. This past argument and the hypothetical international contract brings the debate of stabilized dictatorship (e.g. Egypt, Cuba, China) would be acceptable under this model that unstable democracies (e.g. Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan). When Rawls stated that a society of people is reasonably just, in that its members follow the reasonably just law of peoples in their mutual relations;[3] would that argument considers Iran a reasonable just society (after all, it’s a democratic state)? They may appear to some as decent non-liberal peoples who accept and follow the laws of peoples, similar to Rawls example of the non-liberal Muslim example “Kazanistan.” If so, how can we explain the other side of the argument of non-compliance that justify defend against outlaw states, which brings us back again to Iran example (described by Western liberal states as an outlaw state, one of three “Axis of Evil” along with North Korea and Iraq ).

According to Rawls definition; Egypt is a “burdened society”, which describes those regimes whose historical, social, and economic circumstances make their becoming well-ordered difficult or impossible. For example, in Egypt, as Galal Amin suggested in his book Whatever Happened to the Egyptians? That people lost their sense of loyalty and that their belonging to their homeland has been weakened by losing faith in their way of life, all occurring over decades of shifting, reorientation in national strategies and leaderships from side to side: extreme right to extreme left, anti-West to pro-West, Marxist to Liberalist.  He also claims that Egypt is still going through what he calls a “Social –crisis”; a result of this economic liberalization which accelerated the social mobility rate. The Nasser Arab socialist changes in the Egyptian society (referring to President Gamal Abd Al-Nasser Arab Socialists/Marxists era 1956-1970), which increased the volume of the lower middle class, and did not manage to control the frustration of unfulfilled ambitions and role of boundaries as Amin described.[4] Nasser considered the Egyptian pre-revolution society as divided into either exploiting or exploited group. The social mobility frustration was one of the notable reasons of fanaticism that drove new recruits to religious militant groups that affected the Egyptian society throughout the following decades. It provided them with an escape from the reality of failing to create wealth, an escape from poverty. Citizens acting according to their appropriate sense of justice, taking matters in their own hand, which I would argue can open the door to an important question: although Rawls stresses and defines the concept of “Peoples” not “Nations” for several reasons he stated in his book, it is still not clear to me what his definition of people is. What about the notion of peoples among peoples verses citizens within nations? Within a fragmented societies “Peoples” can be anything, small group or large group, based on color, ethnic, religion, location, ideology, strata, wealth, and so forth.



Amin, G., Whatever Happened to the Egyptians? Changes in Egyptian Society from 1950 to the Present (American University Press, 2000)

J. Rawls, The Laws of Peoples, Harvard University Press, London, 1999

[1] J. Rawls, The Laws of Peoples, Harvard University Press, London, 1999 – p38

[2] Ibid: p79

[3] J. Rawls, The Laws of Peoples, Harvard University Press, London, 1999 – p5

[4] Amin, G., Whatever Happened to the Egyptians? Changes in Egyptian Society from 1950 to the Present (American University Press, 2000)




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