Social Justice and the Arab Revolutions The Complexities of the Concept and Policies

Wael Gamal

:In partnership with others within the book

Social Justice: Concept and Policies after the Arab Revolutions

Publishers: Arab Forum for Alternatives and Rosa Luxemburg Foundation

Cairo Conference Papers

18-19 May, 2014

To download the full version of the book

عدالة E

“Bread, freedom and social justice” were the main slogans of the Arab revolutions. Although social justice and social and economic demands were raised, they were pushed aside in the political arena, and more attention was given to issues such as the transfer of power arrangements, the constitution first, the elections first, democratic transformation and the religious-secular conflict. However, there is still one important result: these revolutions have brought back the concept of social justice to the world of politics in the Arab world and they have provided the Arab region with a new orientation and opened an international debate on the grounds of the intellectual and political weakness of the neo-liberal project.[1]

Now, the issue of social justice has regained its importance. It is imposing itself again and again on the agenda of the post January 2011 rulers in every big labour strike, social protest movement or campaigns concerning issues of income and wealth distribution. However, ambiguity, openness to different interpretations, and projects with contradictory interests still dominate. Thus, this requires attempts to explore and understand the dilemmas that are related to the definition of social justice as a necessary prelude for any attempt to frame it.

  1. Complexities of the Definition

The definition of social justice is like the issue itself – surrounded with lots of disagreements. Some believe that the pursuit of social justice is a trap and an illusion. They believe that other values should lead us such as individual freedom.[2] However, those who accept it as a goal do not have a clear understanding of its meaning. In some cases, it seems nothing more than a meaningless term used to add a spark on a certain policy or a suggestion that a speaker wants us to support. People may be committed to social justice in the abstract, but in spite of this, many bitterly disagree about what can be done regarding a concrete social problem such as unemployment.[3] This actual reality makes any definition or theory on justice a normative criterion.

In his book, The Idea of Justice,[4]AmartyaSen, an Indian thinker, who belongs to the Egalitarian Liberals School, gives the example of three children and a flute to say that there is more than one logic for justice that makes possible multiple reasons and paths for it. “They all claim neutrality, however they differ or compete with each other.”   In the story three children —Anne, Bob, and Carla—quarrel over a flute. Anne says it’s hers because she’s the only one who knows how to play it (the other two children do not deny this). Bob counters that he’s the poorest and has no toys, so the flute would at least give him something to play with (the other two children acknowledge this). In the third scenario, Carla reminds Anne and Bob that she built the darn thing, and no sooner did she finish it than the other two started trying to take it away (this too is acknowledged by the other two children).

If one listens to the three children and if he knows their different ways of thinking, one would be confused about whom to give the flute. Theorists who believe in utilitarianism, those who call for equal social and economic rights, or those who are outspoken about individual freedom would say that there is a direct and just solution in front of us here and no difficulty in finding it. However, it is almost certain that each of them will see the very different solutions as completely correct.[5] Things become more difficult if we assume a condition where individuals confront the society and assess its orientation based on their position in the society and their relations with other groups: that is from their own conflicting class and social interests.[6]

This reality makes the identification and definition of social justice as a stable concept a complex issue. However, despite that, many researchers and thinkers do not see that this is impossible.

In his book, Principles of Social Justice, David Miller says that although he acknowledges this dilemma, he believes that this idea could be given a certain meaning. Miller draws a link between a stable theory and definition of social justice and “broad popular convictions about it.” He builds his theory on the principles of social justice with empirical research on its meaning regarding the movement of people and within the existing political debate. However, he acknowledges that this has its disadvantages and these may appear in contradictions and problems in information.   Thus, Miller builds his definition of social justice on the principles of justice which people actually believe in. Thus, the multiple components of the definition necessarily change and become important as long as they are connected to their context on the ground. In this context,the definition of social justice is based on the way social groups, who struggle for it, look at it.Its determinants in the Egyptian case for example, which are subject to change with time and context, are the minimum and maximum wage, reclaiming state-owned companies sold through corrupt methods, the right to self-management of the means of production, provision of efficient and cheap health services to everybody and so on. Miller considers that justice is related to the distribution of the good (benefits) and the bad (burdens) across the society and the method by which resources are allocated to people through the society’s institutions.

In contrast with this pluralist view, there is the egalitarian liberal school, led by John Rawls, the founder of this school that imposed itself and its presence during the last thirty years. Egalitarian liberals believe that it is even possible to reach a comprehensive and unified theory regarding social justice. Similar to Miller, egalitarian liberals are primarily concerned about distributive justice, that is, how social cooperation benefits and burdens can be distributed. However, they base it on fixed values ​​ as the name of the school, Freedom and Equality, suggests. In this, Rawls puts the weight on the development of the social contract theory: how major social institutions distribute fundamental rights and duties and determine the distribution of the benefits of social cooperation. Rawls applies his theory, which he calls Justice as Fairness to the “basic structure,” or social, economic, and political institutions of the society. The theory provides a normative ideal by which we are to judge the political constitution of society and the principal economic and social arrangements.”[7]

Rawls builds social justice based on two key principles: 1. Each person has an equal claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic rights and liberties. 2. Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: (a) They are to be attached to positions and offices open to all under conditions of equal opportunity; and (b), they are to be to the greatest benefit to the least advantaged members of society, which he calls the “difference principle”.

AmartyaSen, one of the students of Rawls, takes the definition from an example of how institutions should be and how people should adjust their behaviour to go with it – which is the main criticism against the theory of Rawls – to reality and people’s lives. From here, Sen says that the theory of justice should not only start from the focus on a just society, and the shape of the required institutions, but primarily from comparisons based on realities to monitor progress and decline in justice and on top of these indicators unfair inequalities.

  1. Inequality and Lifting Injustice: Policies

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

The first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

AmartyaSen confirms that the starting point of social justice lies in the diagnosis of injustice and analysing it in preparation for lifting it. ” The realization of grievances that cannot be lifted lead us to think not only about justice and injustice, but it is also the core of the justice theory,” as he says in his book ,The Idea of Justice. Sen adds that “a theory of justice that can serve as the basis of practical reasoning must include ways of judging how to reduce injustice and advance justice, rather than aiming only at the characterization of perfectly just societies.”

It is interesting to note that the rise of egalitarian liberals30 years ago, was directly associated with the dominance of neo-liberalism in the global economy, and what it brought with it over these years of increased economic and social inequalities even in developed societies and economies.

An Oxfam report, issued in January 2013, under the title, The Cost of Inequality: How Wealth and Income Extremes Hurt us All monitors the rapidly growing inequality in opportunities available to people on the planet and their fortunes in terms of income and wealth. The report mentions the tough reality that the “net income in 2012 of the richest 100 billionaires would be enough to end extreme poverty four times over in the world.” It calls on the leaders of the world to deal with the crisis in a way to reverse the rapid increase in inequality seen in the majority of countries in the last twenty years, taking inequality back to 1990 levels. The report states that “globally the incomes of the top 1% have increased 60% in twenty years” and that the “the financial crisis has deepened and accelerated this situation.[8] This inequality has reflected itself in tens of other forms, including the ability to access essential public services and adequate jobs.

This unfair impact of the global financial crisis, which erupted in 2007 – 2008, and became a global economic crisis, led many analysts to draw similarities between it and the great recession of the 1930’s.and This moved it into the ranks of a political crisis related to democracy, when the majority carried the burdens of the crisis twice; once to save big companies and once by the restoration of austerity policies when public budgets endured the burden with taxpayers’ money while the rich and the managers of financial institutions, who caused the crisis, accelerated the pace of their accumulation of wealth. David Harvey, the British economic and geographic thinker, considers the neo-liberal project as essentially a political project; the liberalization of the markets, privatization, the withdrawal of the state from economic activity and the emphasis on foreign and domestic private investment are a political process that will rearrange power and authority in society. This falls within the objectives of the project and is not just a display of economic policies in the technical sense.[9]

In this context, the Arab uprisings and revolts broke out. The issue of social justice was put aside and pushed to the back of the list of priorities in the post revolution phase on the grounds that many interpretations of these revolutions were based on pure political freedoms, the generation gap, the impact of technological development as a means of social communication, or simply as an Arab specificity which takes it out of the global context, ignoring the impact of economic, social, political and protest of the accelerated Arab attempt to join the global neo-liberal project, as reflected in its clearest form in Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and even Syria. In contrast, the impact of the Arab revolutions inspired movements of social, political and economic nature, one of which was the “Occupy” movement as well as others. It is as if the masses made the link between economy and politics, which most of the international press and academic analysts refused to recognize by seeing in the Arab revolutions an inspired extension of the escalating protests against the grievances of the neo-liberal policies over the past decades globally and on the Arab level.

For this reason, revision and review, which were imposed by the global financial crisis even on global financial institutions, remained weak and marginal. Globally, reviews revealed themselves in their clearest pictures in the reviews of the IMF and the World Bank and were reflected in the adoption of the principle of inclusive growth. It is a concept based on the provision of equal opportunities for players and participants in the economic process during the process of economic growth in the GDP, in that the two institutions say that increases the opportunities for permanent and continued growth itself, and not only the equitable distribution of dividends.   Many other responses appeared in addition to those of the international institutions and the egalitarian liberals, among them are the Neo-Keynesians, who defend the idea of the full withdrawal of the state from the economic process.

In the Arab world, academic revisions, or at the level of government policies, on social injustice and inequality were the weakest. These revisions emerged timidly in the presidential candidates’ programs in the first round of Egypt’s presidential elections in 2012. The irony was that the two candidates who advanced to the final competition expressed less ambitious programs of reconsidering the neo-liberal policies in pursuit of social justice.

It should also be noted that a stream with a weak voice, which does not enjoy a majority, has emerged and this stream builds its perceptions on the need to make revisions in order to learn the lessons of the Arab revolutions and to ensure political stability in the future. This stream is based on the understanding of the huge disparity in favour of a few businessmen, and it attempts to address this issue by reforms related to the tax system, increases in salaries and a certain level of redistribution of wealth. This stream has sometimes emerged from within the business society as is the case of Egypt,[10] and in other times from among intellectuals associated with the ruling regime, as in the case of Saudi Arabia.[11]

But social movements and protest, and perhaps some new parties, which have been formed by members of protest movements, were those who mainly carried the duty of social justice in the last three years. Labour strikes and professionals in Egypt have played the role of suggesting alternative policies in multiple instances (although they haven’t been successful in many cases, in imposing them on the ground) as has happened in the case of the doctors’ strikes, the longest and biggest in the history of Egypt. Doctors have presented specific demands to change government policies not only with respect to their wages and fees but also with regard to the service and its regional distribution, the protection of hospitals, the health budget, the health insurance law and so on. On the other hand, workers’ self-management experiences were vital in suggesting alternative policies to the imposed neo-liberal ones by the dominant coalitions of interests and monopolies. The state took it upon itself to fight these alternatives and to reject any retreat even if it came as a result of judicial rulings. HishamKandil, the Prime Minister during Mohamed Morsi’s era, is still in prison because he refused to implement a court ruling to renationalize some companies. However, those who followed him continued to implement the same policies of refusing to renationalize companies or giving them to workers to manage.

Facing demands for social justice, the issue of the weakness of wealth and production is raised as one of the justifications for the continuation of the current situation. Budget deficits, weak production, productivity problems and declining economic growth are always presented as barriers to social justice, which according to this perspective, means deepening the problem by the distribution of poverty ;the cake must first become bigger before it can be equally distributed. However, this idea became questionable when the global crisis gave it a direct blow on two levels: first, the increase in the size of the cake did not lead to the reduction of inequality. Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in their important book,”The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, have proven that the more inequality in a society, no matter how rich it is, the more mental illness, child mortality, lower life expectancy, obesity, deterioration of the educational performance of children, suicide, prisoners and higher percentages of these prisoners compared to population as well as decline in social mobility and even in the ability of people to trust each other. The two authors support these results with a tremendous amount of statistics based on reliable sources, such as the United Nations.

Organizations, such as the United Nations Trade and Development Program have started to move to the contrary position. Increasing the minimum wage, as a social justice measure, could be the only and most efficient solution to increase the efficiency of production, its sustainability and its fairness.

Although the quest to reduce disparities and to confront inequalities is an inherent component of any path to social justice, equality is not everything, as we saw in Rawls’ theory, which finds in some of the inequalities that favour the weak and the poor, equity and justice. Slogans such as “equal opportunities” and “individual responsibility” were sometimes used to reduce the chances of achieving social justice as can be seen in in the enormous inequality in the contemporary society. [12]Thus, social justice is something more than this.

In this context comes the issue of overlap between what is political and what is economic in the issue of social justice. The link between the political and economic nature of social justice is not limited to radicals in their view of capitalism as David Harvey, but it also extends to the egalitarian liberals, such as AmartyaSen, who gave one of his books the title, Development as Freedom. Moreover, many American reformers have expressed concerns regarding the impact of the decline in justice on the continuation of the democratic system, which has become, according to some of them, a democracy for the 1%. The issue of democratic reform in the Arab world seems unsolvable without social justice which gives the majority more of the political balance of power. The opposite is also true: the politically powerful social forces do not seem ready to make concessions with regard to social justice without pressure that shakes their political control.

  1. Social Justice: To Bake our Cake and Eat it

The Normative Criterion and Practical Steps: Reform or Revolution?

To what extent can social justice be achieved in the context of reform? Does reform require a radical revolution to break completely with the dominant economic and social system?

As shown in the way AmartyaSen dealt with the criticisms against Rawls – he presents ideal institutions in contrast to the reality and behaviour of individuals who should change in the direction of these ideal institutions – there is always a normative and practical contradiction related to social justice. The egalitarian liberals have made a significant contribution in providing a theory of social justice that attempts to deal with this dilemma through concepts such as equality in accessing opportunities, or equality in capacity and the responsibility of institutions to develop a reality that refuses a lack of justice. This has strongly contributed philosophically and theoretically to confronting ideas that suggest inequality is a product and that it is the individual’s responsibility to care for their future, and thus this justifies socially unjust structures. However, there are fundamental criticisms directed against egalitarian liberals because individual freedom, in the liberal economic sense, is the theoretical basis of their ideas, and therefore this creates a continuous contradiction between the difficulty of reform under continued capitalism with its mechanisms and instruments, while the theory normatively is against capitalism as a system.[13]

Braiehaus and Wright, supporters of liberal egalitarianism, admit that the theory is against capitalism from the normative criterion, however, they do not see in this a contradiction in its practical acceptance of reform under capitalism: many believe the full realization of the egalitarianism principles is incompatible with capitalism, and thus they are against capitalism in normative terms, but at the same time they believe that capitalism is the most viable moral order.[14]

In contrast, Alex Callinicos, who considers that social justice will not be achieved unless with a radical revolution of the capitalist system itself, which caused, in its evolution, the current situation. He believes that there is nothing which prevents the achievement of consistency between what is normative, standard and value-based and what is practical, especially with the increasing every day difficulty in achieving reform. Callinicos says: I do not see why we cannot get the two. I think that one can get the cake and eat it, at least in this case.[15]

[1] For more on this idea see how the Arab revolutions were continuity rather than discontinuity with a global context, which escalated with the global financial crisis in 2007 – 2008: Wael Jamal, “The Arab Spring and the concepts of development and economic and social rights,” published in the “Arab Dignity: Post-liberal visions” book, Cairo, the Arab Forum for Alternatives 2013.

[2] David Miller, Principles of Social Justice, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, Harvard University Press, 1999.


[4]AmartyaSen, The Idea of Justice, translated by MazenJandali, Beirut, al-Dar al-Arabiya lilUloum, publishers 2010.


[6] John Rawls, Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical.

[7] Colin Farrely, Contemporary Political Theory, A Reader, London, Sage Publications, 2004.

[8] The cost of inequality: how wealth and income extremes hurt us all, Oxfam, 18 January 2013.

[9] David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, London, Oxford University Press, 2007.

[10] See the articles of Hassan Heikal in al-Masry al- Youm

[11] Jamal Khashoggi, Your Highness, give us some of Abu Dhar socialism, al-Hayat Newspaper, April 12, 2014.

Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett،The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, London, Penguin Books, 2010

[12] Matthew Robinson, What is Social Justice?

[13] Alex Callinicos, Equality Themes for the 21st Century Series, London, Polity, 2001.

[14]Brighouse, Harry, and Erik Olin Wright, “Review of Equality by Alex Callinicos”, Historical Materialism 2002.

[15] Alex Callinicos, Having Our Cake and Eating It, Historical Materialism, Volume 9, 2001


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