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Liberals in Egypt

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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.

Ahmed Moor

Ahmed Moor is a Palestinian-American who was born in the Gaza Strip. He is a PD Soros Fellow, co-editor of After Zionism and co-founder and CEO of Twitter: @ahmedmoor

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16 Responses

  1. piotr on July 11, 2013, 11:08 am

    It is a bit worse.

    As today New York Times reports, the massive opposition to Morsi was engineered using methods that were applied to defeat Mossadegh and Alliende with some local touches. In particular, the “ineptitude” of police and the resulting crime wave, and the gasoline shortages were both forms of sabotage.

    We have two conflicts in Egypt (at least). One is what should be the role of religion in the public life, laws etc. with implications like freedom of expression, status of women. The second is the kleptocratic nature of the economic elite that is categorized by Marxists as “state capitalism”. So-called liberals may be allies or useful idiots of kleptocrats.

  2. American on July 11, 2013, 11:08 am

    liberalism = forcing your own values on a country.
    conservatism = forcing your own values on a country.
    Tired of both of them.

    • ritzl on July 11, 2013, 12:49 pm

      Great point, American. Maybe the Egyptians can turn their struggle into a true top v. bottom struggle, subordinate the exploitable (by the top; heck just broadly recognizing that their rifts ARE exploitable and exploited would be a huge step forward) left v right and secular v theocratic rifts, come together, and make some progress.

      That would be a model for the world, imho. All the ingredients are there, cemented by a common enemy (military rule), the opportunity is still fresh, and the people are still energized.

      • Citizen on July 11, 2013, 4:31 pm

        @ ritzl
        Yep. It’s more difficult in America since the military is not top dog, but a civilian two party electorate, yet merely representative, with a SCOTUS, appointed by Tweedledee-Tweeledum. The real power lies in Big Banks and Big Donors in political campaigns. Are gang of rulers are the least transparent and touchable, and they control our media. Any peasant revolt is always captured by our ultimately bipartisan elite. We live in a plutocracy, with two wings: Soros and Adelson wings. American interests are not even its ultimate aim. This type of powerhouse state has never existed before. It exists as an indentured servant state.

    • piotr on July 11, 2013, 1:34 pm

      I will argue that liberals do not force any values (for starters, which values) but merely allow different people to live differently.

      Sometimes there are symbolic conflicts, like: does the simple parliamentary majority have a right to hang a crucifix in the hall of the parliament. In the situation that I have in mind, some religious members simply put it on the wall, but when some atheists members simply removed it (after a number of years), they were reprimanded, and crucifix returned to its position.

      • American on July 11, 2013, 6:31 pm

        piotr says:
        July 11, 2013 at 1:34 pm

        I will argue that liberals do not force any values (for starters, which values) but merely allow different people to live differently.’>>>>

        oh yes they do….they try to force all kind of liberal programs thru in grade schools that have nothing to do with education, that are about their ‘social views or values.
        Whether they are good or bad I dont care….education should be ‘netural’ and not ‘promote liberal or conserative values.

      • Pamela Olson on July 13, 2013, 5:08 am

        The difference is between liberalism (as you and I define it) and “liberalism” (a deliberately mis-used term that groups unrelated things together in order to confuse and exploit people). See, for example: neoliberalism and liberal interventionism. See also: some “liberal feminists” in the West who exoticize and undermine the people they claim to be trying to help.

        (There is such thing as genuinely liberal intervention, but it’s exceedingly rare; most of the intervention we see has realpolitik/exploitation written all over it, no matter what it’s called.)

  3. ritzl on July 11, 2013, 11:31 am

    …there was hope that the vestigial powers from the Mubarak era would be degraded or sloughed away with time.

    Well said (actually a critical observation). It seemed that the whole way forward for Egyptian democracy was to do exactly this. Make the ‘deep state’ appear, as you say, vestigial and irrelevant through an even deeper commitment to civilian democratic rule, chaotic and distasteful as it may be.

    Anyway, I doubt that this coup is the last chapter in Egyptian democracy. I think people will start to do the math on military coups. The Egyptian sec/left parties/factions did seem to coalesce a bit after their self-defeating fractiousness in the last elections. Maybe this coup will provide more opportunities for ongoing introspection and democratic institution-building along the lines you suggest in your article.

    It’s good more is being made of the fact that this coup is an AND proposition, not an OR proposition. Coup very destructive AND political intuition/progress can be made from it, rather than coup good OR you’re against progress.

    Thanks for the article.

  4. Stephen Shenfield on July 11, 2013, 11:37 am

    I do not see how ElBaradei’s Twitter message can reasonably be interpreted as expressing nonchalance. Especially the words “strongly condemn.” In order not to be viewed as nonchalant, should he have said “extremely strongly condemn” or “passionately and wholeheartedly condemn” — or what?

    Recently I have been reading writings by Egyptian radical democrats (a less misleading term than liberals, I think) — contributors to and also Adel Iskandar’s book “Egypt in Flux: Essays on an Unfinished Revolution,” just published by the American University in Cairo Press. It seems to me that they have a good understanding of the threats to democratic rights and freedoms presented both by the military institution, which insists for instance on the legal immunity of its members for whatever crimes they commit, and by many (not all) Islamists. The alliance of these two forces was a nightmare scenario for radical democrats, so it is understandable that they should view the breakup of that alliance as a hopeful opening.

    This is not to say that the radical democrats should not be criticized. But criticism should take as its starting point a fair and objective presentation of the views expressed by specific people.

  5. Kathleen on July 11, 2013, 11:51 am

    ” 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.”

    Really disturbing. On NPR and other MSM outlet reports seldom hear them use the term “coup” During the reporting on NPR about the issue the reporters will mention the alleged numbers out on the streets who supported the military getting rid of Morsi , supporting a military coup, never hear a mention of specific numbers when it comes to Morsi supporters out on the streets.

    It has been terribly disturbing to hear so called Egyptian “liberals” who support this coup as well as U.S. MSM so called “liberals” who appear to support the Egyptian military coup. One year Morsi had one year and they forcefully removed a democratically elected leader. Absurd

    Example from NPR this morning. Leila Fadai
    With President Morsi out

  6. just on July 11, 2013, 3:37 pm

    I would hate to live in a country with a military leading & controlling.

    It was a military coup. Not terribly consistent with freedom/democracy/peace.

  7. Citizen on July 11, 2013, 4:38 pm

    It appears, generally speaking, people don’t care how a strong government comes about so long as they think it will deliver what they want government to deliver, and to their favored recipients, regardless at what expense of those less favored, for whatever reason. The veneer of poetic justice realized, the next antagonistic growth of it already in the making.

  8. mcohen on July 12, 2013, 4:05 am

    It has got nothing to do with this or that policy.if iron rule is not applied at this critical junction dispair will turn to rage and the law of savage something the moslem world cannot allow to happen.millions of egyptians are living in poverty and their is no way out.relegion the opium of the masses is not enough.the wealthy arab states have provided a sense of security which should have happened years ago instead of relying on american aid
    The rising chinese middle class demand for food resources is outstripping world supply and competition for protein and grain is becoming stronger
    arab countries such as egypt who subsidize grain are finding it harder to compete on the open market and this in turn is leading to revolt
    a firm hand is needed before the situation spials out of control

  9. bilal a on July 12, 2013, 4:42 am

    for affairs mag

    But the notion that a civil society coup can restart democracy is wildly optimistic. Venezuela and the Philippines suggest two likelier scenarios. In Venezuela, waves of strikes followed the proposed nationalization of Venezuela’s national oil company (PDVSA). The military took Chávez hostage for some 48 hours before withdrawing plans to install an interim president and to call new elections, and accepting Chávez’s restoration. Forcing the military’s reversal was its realization that it could not contain Chavismo, the best-organized political force in the country, which had fierce loyalty to its founding leader — a point driven home by violent counter-coup demonstrations that left some 20 people dead. Chávez ruled Venezuela for another decade, until his death, earlier this year, becoming more vengeful and authoritarian as he went. He also turned increasingly anti-American, since he blamed the United States for his ouster. Although the evidence of American participation in the Venezuelan coup is contested, the Bush administration did cheer Chávez’s ousting as “a victory for democracy” before correcting course after most Latin American governments had denounced developments in Venezuela as a coup.

    Not the first time that foreign funded NGOs “civil society’ have teamed up with the government-corporate elite.

  10. Justpassingby on July 12, 2013, 5:33 am

    The author is a “Soros fellow”. Should ring bells…

    Thats the problem with you liberals, you try to create a westernized liberal Egypt when there is no support for it.

  11. Kathleen on July 12, 2013, 9:42 am

    NPR, other MSM outlets in the U.S. still unwilling to call the military coup in Egypt a coup. Fascinating

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