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What’s Wrong With Egypt’s Liberals? For Starters, They’re Not Liberals.

With Egypt’s army clearing protesters by force, scholar Samuel Tadros explains why his country’s modernizers support military rule

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Opponents of deposed Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi hold portraits of Egyptian army chief General Abdel as they demonstrate at a Ittihadiya main street in Cairo, late on July 26, 2013. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images)
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Egyptian liberalism is at odds with itself. If some observers mistakenly predicted that the Twitter-friendly liberals who thronged Tahrir Square two and a half years ago would become the new face of Egypt, almost no one could have guessed that those same liberals would soon find themselves demonstrating in favor of military rule. Now American journalists, analysts, and Middle East experts all want to know what happened to a political movement whose ostensible goal was to overthrow an authoritarian leader in order to usher in a golden age of Egyptian democracy. “Five years ago, [Egypt’s young liberals] were the most promising movement in an Arab world dominated by strongmen like Mubarak,” Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post wrote last month. “Now the vast majority of them are cheering another general, coup leader Abdel Fatah al-Sissi.”

Middle East experts, some of the same ones who in the wake of the Jan. 25, 2011, uprising promoted the liberal beliefs of Egyptian liberals and the “normalization of politics” in the post-Mubarak era are distressed, too. “The calls for revenge against the [Muslim Brotherhood] by some liberals makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck,” wrote Steven Cook, an Egypt expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

On Capitol Hill, bafflement about Egyptian liberal behavior can be found on both sides of the aisle. Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham are just back from a trip to Cairo, where they spoke hard truths to the Egyptians—calling Sissi’s unconstitutional removal and arrest of Egypt’s first elected President Mohamed Morsi by its right name—a military coup. In response, Egypt’s interim president called McCain “moronic,” while a prominent judge demanded McCain’s arrest, on the charges of “trying to destroy Egypt.”

Seen through modern Western eyes, none of this makes sense. Just because the anti-Morsi camp allegedly put millions of people into the streets to demand the elected president’s ouster doesn’t make the army’s action “democratic.” But for some observers in the Middle East, the strange bedfellows that Egyptian liberals seem to prefer are not so shocking: The coup is merely the latest inflection of a longer historical arc that unites authoritarians and liberals in a profound ambivalence about Western values and the West itself. “I’m not at all surprised this was the work of what we’ve come to call the liberals,” said Samuel Tadros, author of the newly published Motherland Lost: The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity, an account of modern Egyptian history after Napoleon’s 1798 invasion, and one of the most in-depth English-language histories of Egypt’s age-old Christian minority population. “The West is a model to be followed, but it was also a source of feelings of inferiority. The liberals don’t want to be like it, but they want to catch up to the West to be like it. They dress like Westerners, they look like Westerners, but they also reject the West.”

Tadros, a professorial lecturer in Egyptian politics at Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies and a research fellow at Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, told me in a recent interview that they were never liberals in the first place, or at least not as the term is usually understood in Western political communities. “In Egypt, liberalism didn’t start as it did in Europe with the emergence of an independent bourgeoisie that sought to limit the powers of the state and other entrenched institutions like the church and the aristocracy. In Egypt, there was no crisis pitting the individual against the state because liberalism was born with the rise of the civil-servant class in the mid 19th century. Since civil servants are a part of the state, this liberalism is not at all interested in limiting the role of the state.”

Tadros’ book corrects both the mainstream journalistic conceit regarding Arab liberalism as well as the accepted scholarly narrative. “Motherland Lost has a startling insight into the nature of Egyptian—and more broadly Arab—liberalism,” Fouad Ajami wrote me in an email. One of the United States’ pre-eminent scholars of the Middle East, and its shrewdest observer, Ajami is co-chair of the Hoover Institution’s working group on Islamism, which published Tadros’ book. “The bourgeoisie in Egypt emerged out of the bosom of the state and remained dependent on state power and patronage,” Ajami explained. “Thus it remained brittle, unable to check state power and tyranny.”

In particular, as Ajami notes, Tadros challenges Albert Hourani’s Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, a canonical account that established figures like novelist Taha Hussein, historian Ali abd el-Raziq, and intellectual Ahmed Lutfi el-Sayed as the standard-bearers of the golden age of Egyptian liberalism, from 1923 to 1952—free-thinkers who lit the path that Arabs needed to walk to join modernity. The question that remains is why in the last century have so few picked up the mantle of these great men.

“Hourani gave that liberalism power and autonomy it did not posses,” Ajami explained. “Tadros’ brilliant revisionism throws a floodlight on the disabilities of liberalism in Egyptian and Arab settings.” Or as Tadros himself put it: “I wanted to challenge the narratives about how Egyptian liberals view themselves. They see Nasser as a devil who ruined them, but they never ask where Nasser came from.”

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What’s Wrong With Egypt’s Liberals? For Starters, They’re Not Liberals.

With Egypt’s army clearing protesters by force, scholar Samuel Tadros explains why his country’s modernizers support military rule