What happened to Egypt’s liberals? Jackson Diehl’s question in the Washington Post is not a new one. In the aftermath of the Egyptian revolution and as Islamists swept every electoral competition, the question was being sincerely posed. Where have all those young champions of freedom that filled Tahrir square and captivated the world disappeared? Today a deep sense of disappointment accompanies the question. The commitment to principles by those once hailed as the founding fathers and mothers of Arab democracy evaporated at the first real test.
Mohamed Morsi’s election was not Egypt’s first experiment with democracy. In the aftermath of the 1919 revolution and after a stormy constitutional process, Egypt’s first democratic parliamentary elections were held in 1924. The elections pitted Egypt’s greatest liberal thinkers and its political elite gathered in the Liberal Constitutionalist Party against a man that five years earlier had been one of their own; Saad Zaghloul and his Wafd Party. The masses chanted “if Saad nominated a stone we would elect it” and they gave the Wafd 90 percent of the seats leaving the liberals to lick their wounds and draw lessons from their humiliating defeat.
It did not take long for the former champions of democracy to argue that Egyptians were not ready for it. How else could they explain how Wafdist candidates from undistinguished backgrounds could defeat the great landlords and thinkers of the land? With no potential for winning a free election on their own, they abandoned their slogans and tied their fortune to that of more powerful players; the King and the British. They committed every sin in their pursuit of destroying the Wafd. They plotted against it when it was in power and suppressed it when it was in opposition.
Not that the Wafd was a model of democratic behavior. Zaghloul’s first government maintained a restrictive press and associations law that it had condemned while in opposition, dismissed many civil servants replacing them with Wafd loyalists, failed to deal with Egypt’s greatest crisis; the British occupation, and when opposition newspapers criticized its actions, their headquarters were mysteriously attacked by the mob. All in all, Zaghloul’s government lasted for nine months before being forced to resign by a military ultimatum, from the British military. Egypt’s imagined Liberal Age (1923-1952) would see this episode repeated time and time again, until the whole system crumbled under the roll of the tanks led by Gamal Abdel Nasser and his fellow conspirators.
Egyptian liberalism was flawed from the start. Egyptian liberals were born, not from an independent bourgeoisie, and from the tension of the individual and the state, but from the very bosom of that state and its bureaucracy. Obsessed with modernization, they always allied themselves with the ruler, hoping that he would turn out to be an autocratic modernizer. Viewing Islam as an obstacle to modernization and drinking from the fountain of French secularism, they aimed to banish it from the public sphere and in the process grew antagonistic to Copts. Their liberalism was inherently illiberal, and what remained of it, was soon swept away as the disillusionment with liberal democracy coincided with the fascist temptation haunting Europe.
A great deal has changed in ninety years. The three military generals that ruled have taken the country left and right and finally settled down on an unexciting middle route, and Egyptian liberalism’s lot has certainly deteriorated from a flawed intellectual like Ahmed Lutfi El Sayed who for all his vices, translated Aristotle into Arabic, to a second rate international bureaucrat like Mohamed El Baradei, but the decline in the country’s fortune is a reflection of its endemic predicament. The liberals of old completely failed to build any ideological or political foundation for their ideas, and over time, those ideas became part of an amorphous amalgam of Nasserism, Socialism and nationalism. Today it is impossible to find any serious discourse in Arabic that stands on anything resembling a moral platform. That ground has been left for Islamism to occupy.
Egypt is caught between democrats who are not liberals (Muslim Brotherhood) and liberals who are not democrats, goes the popular saying. The first half is problematic. The Brotherhood’s understanding of democracy is flawed and had no room not only for minority rights, and press freedom, but to such basic concepts such as separation of powers and the rule of law. But the second half is false. Those supporting a military coup who rejoice at the repression of their political opponents and engage in the worst display of ultra nationalist discourse against the U.S. are hardly liberals. Egypt’s liberals are not flawed democrats. They are illiberal to begin with.
Samuel Tadros is a Research Fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom and the author of Motherland Lost: The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity