Like many who watched or participated in the Egyptian revolution in 2011 I’ve followed the events in that country with pain and disappointment. While there was no reason to believe that the revolutionary transition from autocracy to democracy would be a peaceful, controlled or orderly one, there was hope that the vestigial powers from the Mubarak era would be degraded or sloughed away with time. Judges and generals don’t disappear overnight – but the hope felt justifiable. Particularly since the overwhelming majority of people did not belong to the ruling cadre, and activists of all types seemed to agree on the need for institutional reform.
Military coups, anywhere in the world, should be a cause for distress. In an Arab world governed for decades by exponents of a paternalistic military tradition, a military coup should be regarded as more of the same; in the case of Egypt, a step or two backwards. That historical legacy should have been enough to engender opposition to the coup. But what was especially dismaying was the full-throated support for the coup – issued by the so-called liberals in the country. The dark irony of course is that many of the people who spent the week exclaiming joyfully were protesting the military only a year ago.
The coup has forced some uncomfortable questions about what liberalism in Egypt means exactly. Few protested when the military forced the closure of the Al Jazeera offices in Cairo in the takeover’s immediate aftermath. Nor did they forcefully petition for the release of journalists deemed to be sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood. And when the army massacred 51 civilians at a pro-Morsi demonstration, Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, reacted with an astonishing degree of nonchalance on Twitter:
Mohamed ElBaradei @ElBaradei 8 Jul
Violence begets violence and should be strongly condemned. Independent Investigation a must. Peaceful transition is only way .
The truism that democracy is about more than just elections is so widely observed that it sometimes sounds trite or banal. Months after the Muslim Brotherhood succeeded in gaining legislative and executive power in Egypt through elections, it became clear that the party failed to understand the role of human rights, minority protection and compromise in democratic governance. Indeed, one of the legitimate criticisms of President Morsi’s leadership was that he actively excluded opposition stakeholders from the decision-making process. He failed to understand that democracy is about continuous feedback and that political mandates do not exist as such – and certainly not in the event of a run-off election. Morsi seemed to believe that he had been elected to dictate rather than govern.
Yet, it now appears that some of those who levied the criticisms – mainly liberals – also possessed an incomplete understanding of the rule of law, democratic legitimacy, human rights and compromise.
By siding with the military leadership and actively encouraging the coup, liberals in Egypt have demonstrated that their faction is only a faction – they lack the coherent principles that could have guided their country into a moral and prosperous future. The principles that actually inform liberalism – equality, justice, tolerance and acceptance – never came to bear in their interactions with the Muslim Brotherhood and President Morsi.
It’s unwise to offer prescriptions for fixing Egypt. But at the very least it is worth reminding the liberals that they claimed to represent a set of values – not a particular way of life. Degrees of undress on the beach and access to bars are preferences; the observance of human rights and the insistence that they be upheld are imperatives. Lately some appear to have confused the difference.