Egypt’s current political crisis is defined by the struggle between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. The polarization that has torn the country apart since Hosni Mubarak’s fall in 2011 reached its zenith after the dismissal of Mohamed Morsi in July, and now almost all of Egypt’s political forces side with one or other. On the 14th of August, security forces dispersed sit-ins organized by the Brotherhood in Cairo, with the worst level of urban violence since the 2011 revolution.
Only a minority of Egyptians are reluctant to ally with either side, the genuine liberals recently important for their advocacy of equality, civil rights and respect for human rights: politicians such as Mohammed El Baradei, academics like political scientist and human rights activist Amr Hamzawy, and members of such youth movements as the April 6, and of human rights organizations, have tried to make a difference, asserting their presence in public space. They have in turn vehemently opposed the regimes of Mubarak, the administration controlled by the army, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the Morsi administration and the current government. Each minor success has quickly turned into a major defeat. Mubarak was removed, but Mubarakism survived; Morsi was democratically elected, then ousted. One step forward, two steps back.
Liberalism is premised on a rejection of theocracy and autocracy, but in Egypt that premise has been distorted, and diluted by nationalist, populist, leftist and religious sentiments. It remains an alien ideology rooted in western political philosophy, and has failed to permeate Egypt’s largely religious society. The efforts of liberal thinkers in the first half of the 20th century, such as Taha Hussein, Ahmed Lutfi al-Sayyid and Salama Moussa, were mostly confined to intellectuals and their insulated theoretical debates. Moreover, the relationship between contemporary liberal parties and the principles they claim to stand for is tenuous. Liberal politicians, in their attempts to accommodate the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, mitigated the founding tenets of liberal philosophy. They refuse to be labeled “secular” (a term Islamists equate with lack of faith), preferring instead the more ambiguous “civil”, and are defensive, wanting to convince skeptics that liberalism is not antithetical to Islam. (All liberal parties oppose the removal from the constitution of article 2, which stipulates that Islam “is the main source of legislation.”)
Only a few who claim to be liberal have refused to succumb to social pressures and political necessities. They reject religious and military fascism in the same breath and to the same degree. They are now as outraged at self-proclaimed liberal political parties, such as Al-Wafd, the Free Egyptians Party and the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, which claim to speak for liberties and human rights, as they are at the military and the Brotherhood. These parties participated in the huge anti-Morsi protests and then fully backed the roadmap proposed by the military. Their hostility to the Brotherhood and Morsi made them turn a blind eye to the worsening transgressions of the security forces since Morsi’s removal from power.
Their stance is easy to understand, but difficult to justify. The Islamists’ use of religion as an instrument to outbid political rivals deepened the concerns of liberal politicians about the perilous mix of Islam and politics. They see military rule as a lesser evil. At least, it is secular in nature and committed to some form of political pluralism. More importantly, secular parties have lost every electoral contest against Islamists since Mubarak’s overthrow in 2011, so the exclusion of Islamists (particularly the Brotherhood) removes a superior competitor. The secular parties’ support of the military’s moves seems to be driven by self-interest, not defiance against the potential threat of theocracy, or perhaps a mixture of both motivations. Islamist movements are all illiberal in varying degrees but they are big fans of elections, their fastest means to power. It is from this distinction that the common phrase depicting Egypt's post-Mubarak political struggle as one between “liberal undemocrats and illiberal democrats” derives its validity.
Genuine liberals are unable to sympathize with the military, the Islamists or the ostensibly liberal parties who use the military in their existential battle against the Islamists. They are also dismayed by the liberal politicians, journalists and activists who have turned into apologists for the security forces, defending their plans, justifying their offences and, when cornered, refusing to discuss the issue altogether. When I asked Nadia Abou al-Magd, a journalist critical of the coup, about Egyptian liberals who support the military, she retorted: “Liberals? You mean fascists.” She thinks political labels and classifications lose their meaning in the Egyptian context: “I keep asking myself: what is liberalism? What is humanity? What is a nation?”
These liberals face today an extremely unfavorable social environment. The prevailing political culture is exclusionist par excellence. Media smear campaigns, reminiscent of the 1930s fascist propaganda, are ubiquitous. Quiet, objective debates are rare, overshadowed by calls for vengeance and annihilation; tolerance is scarce, and attempts at moderation dismissed. Those few voices that call for conciliation are accused at best of naivety, at worst of treason. As journalist Rania al-Malky put it: “If you’re against the coup, you’re unpatriotic; if you criticize the police for the unnecessary use of lethal force, you’re a terrorist sleeper cell; if you question the official line on who killed who [and] when, why and how, and demand evidence…you’re blinded by bias, unfit to be Egyptian.”
Nobel laureate Mohammed El Baradei resigned as vice president when the Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins in Cairo were dispersed. He said in his resignation letter: “It has become hard for me to keep bearing responsibility for decisions that I did not approve of and warned against their consequences.” He was the only voice of restraint in a government led by hawks, longing for a confrontation. After his resignation, his detractors accused him of absurd offences: he had fled the life-or-death battle against terrorism, he was a Muslim Brother in disguise, or an accomplice in a grand US-engineered scheme to partition Egypt.
The current political order is backed by power but marred by illegitimacy. The lethal use of force against demonstrators, the mass arrests of Muslim Brothers, the shutting down of Islamic satellite channels and the re-enactment of the emergency law are reminiscent of Mubarak’s days. These extra-legal measures and the fragile political track endorsed by the post-Morsi regime can hardly be defended in the name of democracy. The military replaced an elected president, Shura Council (upper house) and a popularly approved constitution by an appointed president and government and a constituent assembly with barely any Islamists.
The public mood is, unfortunately, not conducive to the restoration of the constitutional path and fair application of the law. Sara Labib, a liberal writer, says: “Amid the revolutionary fervor that followed Mubarak’s overthrow... all parties have trampled on the law. But you can’t have revolution and law at the same time.” The continuous questioning of the integrity of legal processes and the defamation of judges has produced a crisis of confidence in the legal system and in the validity of the law. So, overwhelmed by an overdose of hate rhetoric, most Egyptians close their eyes to human rights violations, clinging to pretexts such as “they’re necessary to fight terrorism” and “they’re only temporary measures,” or even claiming the Islamists “deserve it.”
Liberalism cannot grow in a barren terrain, devoid of respect for human rights, the law and democratic values. Former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel-Nasser's attempt to apply socialism from above failed in the 1960s. There were no true socialists, only subordinate state officials and sycophant bureaucrats. Today, many parties and public figures raise the banners of liberalism, use its jargon and preach its values, but only a few can be dubbed genuine liberals. Liberalism from below will only flourish when it is cultivated in the psyche of the nation, and when Egyptians renounce the “military-Muslim Brotherhood” dichotomy and replace it with the “freedom or tyranny” classification.
Nael M. Shama
* This article appeared first in Le Monde Diplomatique (English) on September 1, 2013.