This edited volume traces the fortunes of liberalism in Egypt, not Egyptian liberalism, for almost a century and a half now. It examines the political positions of self-proclaimed liberals in the country and finds them consistently engaged in a feud against the Islamists to the extent that liberals in Egypt enforce the military, a completely illiberal force, principally to attack their political adversaries. Such an illiberal posture testifies to the contrast between rhetoric and liberal practice in Egypt, particularly when the fortunes of members of the Muslims Brotherhood are on the rise.
What triggers the research for this volume is how Egypt’s liberals could firmly stand behind the military coup of July 3, 2013, and further justify the bloodshed of hundreds in Rabaa and El-Nahda squares that followed a few weeks afterwards. For the editors and the contributors alike, the support and the justification are mind-boggling. Regardless of excuses, the book finds that in throwing all their weight and legacy behind the military establishment, Egypt’s liberals become themselves victims. How so? Given their biases against the Islamists, figures like Mohamed El Baradei, Alaa Al-Aswany, Ibrahim Eissa, Dr Saad Eddin Ibrahim, and Mohammed Abol Ghar, among others, grossly exaggerated the Islamists’ threat, mistook their target, and misread the motives behind calls to unseat President Mohamed Morsi. At heart, the military dictatorship was never against the Brotherhood or the Islamists as such, that is, for ideological reasons. General Sisi and members of the deep state were against the democratic experiment itself. The military establishment could neither fathom nor pardon whoever took part in the revolution of January 25, 2011, forcing President Mubarek, another deeply-entrenched military, to abdicate. As soon as General Sisi was done with the persecution of Islamists, he immediately turned his fury against the liberals, some of whom contributed to this volume. Even when all contributions in the book do not explicitly highlight the benefits of the liberal predicament in the country, the evidence each contribution brings specifies that anyone who dared to actively imagine a future for Egypt outside the immanent framework in favour of the military has been targeted. Given their predicament, the liberals have never ceased on this basic reality. That explains why liberals of Egypt keep crying over spilt milk. For it is precisely they who are completely passed over by the new order they helped to bring and sell as a national necessity for Egyptians.
The book contains four sections, counting exactly twelve chapters (the introduction included) and a conclusion. Like with all edited volumes, not all contributions merit the same attention, particularly when attending to the predicament of liberalism in Egypt. That explains why I am examining only those critical contributions that engage with that predicament.
Daanish Faruqi and Dalia F. Fahmy’s introductory chapter leads readers that the insurrection against President Morsi was a popular demand from the outset. Still, they think that liberals should have practised restraint and not fall in for supporting the counterrevolution, military or otherwise. By liberals, the editors trust in self-identification. Still, the book ensures that the liberals it refers to are not armchair intellectuals or fair-weather political activists (p. 4). Rather, most derided liberals have been outspoken individuals for democracy and the rule of law. Some suffered under the pre-2011 ruling establishment by languishing in prisons or being forced to exile. In order to make a case for the problematics of the book, the chapter contrasts such self-proclaimed liberals’ and democrats’ statements before and during the revolution against other statements and positions taken after the rise of the Brotherhood’s candidate to power in June 2012. Indeed, the chapter finds that the liberals’ substitution from initial commitments for civil society, freedom, and democracy has “emboldened the nation’s recidivism into authoritarian rule” (p. 10) despite a long legacy that calls for democratic order, freedom and the rule of law.
Chapter Two: Dalia Fahmy studies the structural illiberalism of Egyptian party politics. For the 2013 coup is now read as an instantiation of “an illiberal political order, enshrined and perpetuated at a systemic level.” (p. 31) As parliament under President Sisi becomes a rubber stamp for formalising the illiberal will of the executive, Fahmy is understandably enraged. That rage translates into the evaporation of decades-long liberal activism. She encourages readers to register the extent of civic and democratic regression. Indeed, the coup of July 2013 has turned “a healthy system of party politics not only absent but has been rendered constitutionally impossible.” (p. 53)
Following the structural approach that Fahmy starts, Hesham Sallam, in Chapter Three, examines how the illiberal practices during Nasser and Sadat’s rule, mostly characterised by pitting Islamists against liberals, have impacted contemporary liberals distrust of Islamists. A healthy polity can be founded—the chapter claims—by uniting the activism of both liberals and Islamists, and this can only be achieved by bypassing the preexisting and decades-long divide. Considering the period from the 1952 coup to 2011, Sallam finds that “the organisational asymmetries” (p. 83) between, on the one hand, the Islamists who clandestinely built their networks given their illegal status and the liberals, on the other, the state granted official status but simultaneously stifled their every move spelt in the long run that the Muslim Brotherhood stands in 2011 at an unparalleled advantage overall political actors including the military. Undoing an unhealthy and deeply polarising political arena can set the state for both Islamists and liberals to stop being pawns for the military, each time played against one another by giving the illusion at one point that it pampers the Islamists (between 2011 and early 2012) at another, the liberals (between late 2012 to 2013 and afterwards) while in fact, it approbates none but the eternalisation of its order.
Mohamed Elmasry, in Chapter Six, addresses the fortunes of civil society through the media. In particular, the chapter traces the illiberal turn of celebrity journalist and novelist Ibrahim Eissa who systematically demonises the Brotherhood through his live shows. Eissa’s example underlines how pretending liberals sold ordinary Egyptians the reductive image that President Morsi and the Brotherhood from which the latter emerged as incompetent and an existential threat to Egyptians: “outright treasonous to Egyptian state and society” (p. 176). Hysterical portrayals, entrenched in myths than in anything else and of the sort propagated by Eissa, led Egyptians to uncritically embrace those hegemonic narratives which paved the way for entrusting the military: finding no qualms with coup nor the massacres and other human rights abuses that followed.
In Chapter Nine, Ahmed Abdel Meguid and Daanish Faruqi find that both liberals and Islamists are more complicit in the climate of mutual distrust than what each is willing to admit. Worse, they both trusted uncritically in statism, the logic which finds only state a means of carrying out the presumed needful work of social engineering. Theoretically clouded, they both sought “a Hobbesian conception of the nature and role of the state as the sole and ultimate interpreter and implementer of the Egyptian social contract” (p. 254). This chapter finds the logic of statism that explains frenzied and depleted mindsets between ‘frenemies’ that naively handed the keys to the military-led counterrevolution. Elevating the state to the point of invisibility at the expense of the individual’s liberty results in illiberalism, pure and simple. And here comes the liberals’ historical alliance with elitist postures as they classically distrusted the populace, viewing common men as little more than mouths to feed and flesh to cloth. The two contributors find that well before Nasser’s coup of 1952, “liberal figures increasingly welcomed the idea of a left-wing reformist dictatorship, or a “just tyrant” (al-musta’bid al-‘adil) to emerge and create the conditions for a liberal civil society, purge the existing political order of its corruption and patronage networks, and then to forcibly inaugurate the modernist reforms they sought” (p. 263) Therefore, liberals’ reaction to Sisi’s coup of 2013 did not constitute a rupture, but rather a continuum, even a historical totality with earlier liberals’ firm and biased approach against ordinary Egyptians. Hence the chapter calls for an invigorating brand of liberal politics that goes beyond the constraints of state and statism because that logic can ruin the chances for a positive change, ushering in an era of post-statism.
Chapters Ten and Eleven can be read together as Emran El-Badawi and Joel Gordon contrast the careers of eminent liberal activists. El-Badawi compares the Egyptian Gaber Asfour and the Syrian Buran Ghalioun. This study finds that liberal activists’ public engagement remains opposed to their theoretical excitations regarding freedom and civil liberties. The contrast evinces severe limitations. How so? Liberal activists remain staunchly statist and vehemently against political Islam. This explains why they could not mobilise the masses (p. 297). For her part, Gordon juxtaposes Egyptian novelist Alaa al-Aswany with the satirist Bassem Youssef. Gordon finds, never falter from a long string of liberal luminaries in contemporary Egyptian history, such as Taha Hussayn and Muhammad Husayn Haykal, as they internalise secular versus religious binary division. Nowhere this internalisation manifests more than in how the counterrevolution of July 2013 capitalised on the presumed threats such as the “Brotherhoodization” of the state. Liberals’ flirtations with fascism during the 1930s (p. 318) come as a solid reminder that liberalism has not evolved much after all. When Bassem says in his final TV show: Egyptians, I apologise for misunderstanding you; you did not need a revolution, did not understand it, and did not deserve it. I will leave you this stagnant water that we tried to clear for your sake… (p. 333). In deriding his audience and people and with such bestiality, Bassem makes the book’s rationale and its zooming on the crisis of liberalism ever more pressing.
The editors deem Amr Hamzawy and Hossam Bahgat, among others, true Egyptian liberals as they vehemently condemned the ousting of the democratically elected President Morsi aside from their consistent opposition to his policies. With this background in mind, we read Hamzawy in Chapter Twelve, who counts five anti-democratic deceptions that the liberals fell into: “…contribut[ing] to the militarisation of Egyptians’ collective imagination, which began with the people’s search for a ‘military saviour'” (p. 338). These ‘liberal-made grand deceptions’ range from sequential (the entrenched belief that transition to democracy must be tenable only when poverty, illiteracy, and unemployment become past) to incremental prerequisites for the success of democracy (traced in slogans such as nothing is more important than…), national necessity, religion station of politics and politicisation of religion, state above all else. The deceptions do not stop as deceptions but degenerate toward emboldening the military to mount its coup, aborting the brief democratic experiment in the country and initiating “a break from history and human values.” (p. 339)
Emad El-Din Shahin brings the volume to its conclusion by recalling robust and renewed faith in liberalism. Towards this end, he reminds readers of the bleakest day for liberals where El Baradei stood with Sisi in the coup announcement on July 3, 2013. Shahin calls for a new brand of liberalism, “grounded in the nuances of particularities of Egyptian society, and construct an indigenous liberal model with its creative frame of reference” (p. 362). He recommends that in order for true liberals to reconstitute their project, they will have first to disavow neoliberal forces from their midst. At a second level, they will have to undo the religious-secular divide. Other than being misleading, the divide gives regressive forces leverage to exploit the dynamic forces of society, liberals, and Islamists.
Methodologically considered, the volume remains at its strongest when it sticks to its own proclaimed long durée approach, tracing the governing dynamic that dictated the work of the long liberal history in Egypt. To embrace this approach, none but Hesham Sallam underscores its utility: “Simply put, history did not begin on January 25, 2011” (p. 63). The statement is almost Hegelian in perspective; it brings that significant evidence has been amassed, and any approach worthy of its own has to interrogate that experience critically. The method serves students of social movements lest crude opportunism and a predisposition for clientelism become explanatory principles.
In Chapter Six, Mohamad ElMasry’s stipulations vis-à-vis the Egyptian press can be confusing for readers. One wonders if it is indeed the lack of professionalism on the part of the Egyptian news outlet that led to the sinister portrayals of the Brotherhood. How does this explanation corroborate/sit with the method of the long durée? The author keeps referring to technicalities such as the Egyptian press system, which stays receptive to this anti-Brotherhood discourse as if such a system or any other has an autonomous existence of its own. Arguments such as lack of sound journalistic training and journalists without journalism degrees translating “a completely servile media apparatus” (p. 179) do not explain how liberals went into bed with the military. The same applies to arguments that chase Morsi’s slips of the tongue or his alleged Brotherhoodization of the country. Elmasry does not broach upon the role of foreign influence and Gulf Sheikhdoms’ mortal fear of the success of the democratic experiment in Egypt. Indeed, the Sheikhdoms pumped their petrodollars behind the restoration of the L’ancien régime.
More troublesome, though and given his Islamist biases, Khaled Abou El Fadl, in Chapter Eight, remains fixated with what he calls the “secularly minded and secularised intelligentsia whose thinking on democracy and constitutionalism is hopelessly opportunistic and muddled.” (pp. 235-6) He does not say how much opportunistic and how much muddled because other contributors find more muddled thinking than pure grab or opportunism. With opportunism, one will be zooming on another category of the Egyptian elite, les arrivistes, but these are neither liberals nor truly influential. The military establishment knows that this category has no symbolic capital. Meanwhile, true liberals like El-Baradei or Aswany, referred to by name in the volume, cannot be dubbed as carpetbaggers or bootlickers. To keep counting them so is a methodological genocide. A purely legalistic approach, concerned solely with legitimacy and social contract as methodological armaments, happens to be the counter-revolutionists’ approach. Despite what looks like an incendiary critique of liberals in Egypt and the depleted human existence in the abstract, Abou El Fadl maintains that the elites are endowed with the power to generate ideas, not that material reality generates ideas and determines their circulation. But he is right to note, though, that “the actual coup was a mere formality” (p. 250) since what he calls the ‘secularised intelligentsia’ already had had power firmly in its hand, and the Brotherhood accepted to engage in a game lost well in advance. Precision is key. The secularised intelligentsia had nothing to do with the coup; it was the military with the global capitalists behind them that planned and carried out the restoration.
In his contribution, Hamzawy rushes to conclude that initially, Egyptians “wanted a true liberal order” (p. 340), and it was the military establishment that thwarted that popular demand. Nothing can be further from the truth since Egyptians massively voted for the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2012. Still, Hamzaway does not reject developmentalism as he criticises the liberals’ trust in linear approaches to modernity and their defence for an authoritarian order under the guise of waiting until the time Egypt scores a level of development conducive to democracy. This future is constantly postponed (p. 341). In outlining the final deception, Hamzawy overlooks how the state with classical national borders is no longer a viable player under the neoliberal global order. Specifically, it is precisely that powerful state that has to be liquidated for commodities to circulate and for capital to keep extracting value.
Emad El-Din Shahin, a professor at the American University of Cairo, was sentenced to death in 2015 on the alleged charges of destabilising the country, refusing domestication and elitism. Despite his credentials as a true liberal, and like other contributors, Shahin keeps fixated on the palliative. When some medicament is not working, the sensible policy is to seek a second opinion and try a new medicine. Perhaps worse than these confusions, the editors and contributors alike still believe in the existence of what is an extinct class, the Egyptian bourgeoisie (p. 365), a class which, after WWI, had universally gone extinct. In recommending disengagement from the authoritarian state, readers are left wondering why future liberals of Egypt would behave any differently? That explains how Egypt and the Contradictions of Liberalism cannot be a critical reconsideration or revision, as the editors want us to understand, but a re-legitimisation. Instead of a project for the future that Egyptians should axiomatically adopt, anyone reading the recommendation, in conclusion, cannot overlook an onerous retrenchment project of liberal democracy. The amount of indisputably historical evidence this volume brings amounts to how that conventional wisdom of a renewed faith in the liberal project has exhausted its utility.
Université d’Adrar (Algeria)