Egypt and the Contradictions of Liberalism
Viola Siepelunga 24 April 2017

How did many Egyptian liberals – who, two years earlier stood side by side with Islamists against Hosni Mubarak in Tahrir square, and one year earlier voted for Mohammed Morsi – come to side with a return to military dictatorship? Egypt and the Contradictions of Liberalism (edited by Dalia Fahmy and Daanish Faruqi) brings together many of the best scholars on Egyptian politics to answer this very question.

Examining the political behavior of Egyptian liberals during the transition period and following the 2013 coup, this original work underlines how liberal values have been disowned by secular forces that, united against the Islamists, have adopted ambiguous behaviors that are not necessarily in line with core values of Arab liberal thinking, like freedom (huriyyah) and equality (musawab). This dates back to the period of nation building under Muhammad Ali Pasha (1851), who fostered the rise of a new class of Arabic-speaking intellectuals and entrepreneurs.

In order to understand the most recent contradictions, the book begins by examining the structural elements of the regime that have prevented Egypt from fully becoming a liberal country.

First of all, the structural illiberalism of Egyptian party politics, most recently evidenced by the fecklessness of the new spate of liberal and leftist parties that emerged following 2011 as robust opposition blocs to counter the praetorian state. Strong and robust political parties are key tools for ensuring state political developments, granting a structure to political participation. Even if after the ouster of Mubarak it appeared that such an environment of robust party politics was finally on its way to being established, a healthy system of party politics in today’s Egypt is not merely absent, but has been rendered constitutionally impossible. Thus, rather than the parliament being a site of contestation, it has degenerated into a site for an authoritarian regime to manipulate in order to consolidate its rule. In this context, political contestation is impossible.

Similarly, Egypt has to face the structural illiberalism of the Egyptian judiciary and its role in circumventing revolutionary changes to governance following the revolution. Even if the post revolution judiciary views itself as the guardian of social order and political stability against proclaimed transgressions of political Islamists and young revolutionaries, the acquittal of human rights abusers, the release of Mubarak-era officials with minimal sentences and the punishment of political dissidents of various ideological affiliations, all confirm that the end result is the deliberation of an institution once considered a bastion of anti-colonial national sovereignty and liberal constitutionalism. The recently proposed amendments to the judicial authorities law by Parliament authorizing President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to appoint heads of judicial bodies only serve to confirm this behavior.

Continuing to analyze innate obstacles to liberalism, the book shifts its attention to civil society, a body that has historically attempted to survive in the contest of the authoritarian state’s effort to monopolize the religious and moral sphere and control public space. NGOs, as well as universities, trade unions and independent political movements are in fact viewed with suspicion. In this context, the media has played a big role.  Due to both a lack of professionalism and of an arena for free speech, the Egyptian media became increasingly more and more polarized (secular vs Islamist), adopting violent language that led to a hegemonic discourse of the Muslim Brotherhood as not simply incompetent, but as a sinister and existential threat to the wholesomeness of Egyptian society. This hysterical caricature provided the necessarily ammunition for public support of the coup and of the violent elimination of the Brotherhood.

Moving from an institutional to an ideological analysis of the liberal project, the book shifts gears by considering the place of religion, and by the extension of secularism, in the liberal imagination. In this regard, the role of the secularized intelligentsia is analyzed. Five years after the revolution, there is little doubt that Egypt’s intelligentsia betrayed the revolution that they claimed to celebrate and support. And there is no doubt that those who betrayed it the most are those who built their entire careers grandstanding and orating about the modern nation-state, the citizenry, civic society, secularism and democracy. But this intelligentsia ended up helping to uproot a nascent revolution that still retained some degree of promise, replacing it with an inveterate condition of dreadful despair and wretchedness. The book lays blame with those members of the liberal intelligentsia, such as Ibrahim Eissa, Alaa Al-Aswany and Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who supported the coup, betrayed the revolution and disowned liberalism. It is no accident that the book, in its last section, includes an essay written by Amr Hamzawy, a secular scholar who has the honor of having been deemed one of the only two liberals in Egypt by Steven Cook of the Council of Foreign Relations. Indeed, he has earned the distinction of perhaps the only prominent liberal in Egypt to condemn the military ouster of Morsi and the subsequent crackdown of civil society, going so far as to call the celebration of the military takeover “fascism under the false pretense of democracy and liberalism.” According to Hamzawy, Egyptian liberals have internalized a series of anti-democratic deceptions that in turn have emboldened them to support the military incursion into the democratic process.

What emerges in the reading of the entire volume is a crisis of orientation, in which leading liberal voices in Egypt have seemingly embraced a very binary of secular progress versus religious reaction, while playing a major role in the divisive politics that have characterized the transitional period. This new crisis has led many secular liberals, facing the alleged threat of Brotherhoodization, to a reactionary embrace of the ancient regime.

In this perspective, even if the book focuses its attention on Egypt, it begs a more universal question: how can liberalism overcome its current crisis? The Egyptian impasse is in fact just one example of a wider crisis of liberalism that is increasingly a more problematic point for western democracies as well. In order to answer this global question, other books have to be written and other reflections have to be made. But Egypt and the Contradictions of Liberalism attempts to conclude with a recipe for solving the impasse the country is currently facing. This is written by Emad El-Din Shahin, one of Egypt’s public intellectuals who was tragically compromised by a political case brought against him in January 2014. Accused of espionage, of leading and offering material support to an illegal organization, and of harming national unity, Shahin – who is currently in academic exile at the Georgetown University – was tried in absentia and was summarily sentenced to death in May 2015. According to his piece, in order to overcome its crisis, Egypt needs a robust liberalism with long term viability. Cultivating it will require that liberals in Egypt reconstitute their project in a way that does sufficient justice to Egyptian social and cultural identity, and in a way that overcomes its elitist and authoritarian proclivities. While Shahin cautions that ignoring these imperatives will ensure that liberals will continue to fail miserably in electoral politics, he ends with the optimistic reminder that resuscitating liberalism in Egypt remains within reach.  And this is a seed of hope for the future of Egyptian democracy because liberals can make the difference. As concluded in an essay by Khaled Abou el Fald, democracy will never find its way unless both the secularized intelligentsia and the Islamists recognize that they are invariable constituent elements to all democratic orders: the place of the military is in the barracks, individual rights are inviolable, the process is sacrosanct and the people are the only true sovereign and masters of their own destiny. Returning liberal, Egyptian liberals should all agree on the pillars of any democratic order.