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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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Growing up in Egypt, Tadros as a young man also embraced illiberal currents in the name of modernity. “I was reading Michel Aflaq at the age of 13. I was a Baathist,” the 34-year-old Cairo native told me, referring to the Arab nationalist doctrine once professed by authoritarian regimes in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar’s Syria. “As a Coptic Christian,” said Tadros, “I couldn’t very well be an Islamist, and Baathism was an appealing identity, with this idea of a great nation unifying and making important contributions to history. At the age of 13 or 14, it’s natural for kid to fall into that sort of thing.”

When the planes hit the World Trade Center on 9/11, Tadros celebrated the attacks. “I was with friends, and we were all very excited. The great power had been brought to its knees,” Tadros recalled. “When I got home, my mother looked at me and asked me how could I be happy with all those people killed? Something in her words broke through my ideological wall. I asked myself how I had reached such a low stage. I sent an email to the university provost apologizing for my feelings. I explained that while I was still against U.S. policies, I felt I had to apologize for my feelings a couple of days earlier. That was the first moment it started to break. With the Iraq invasion in March 2003 I was still leading the protests against the war, but by the end of 2003 I had changed entirely.”

Tadros, who moved to Washington in 2009 to get his master’s degree at Georgetown, partly credits his friendship with journalist and activist Amr Bargisi for his political transformation. “Having a companion and intellectual soul mate helped a lot,” said Tadros. He and Bargisi co-wrote several articles denouncing anti-Semitism in Egypt, calling out politicians and activists reputed to be liberals for their vicious attacks on Jews. Tadros and Bargisi also both became senior partners in the Egyptian Union of Liberal Youth, an NGO promoting liberal values in Egypt—a task that most Egyptian liberals, what Tadros calls the modernizers, have typically eschewed.

“Bernard Lewis asks the right question, ‘What went wrong?’ ” said Tadros, referring to Lewis’ best-selling post-9/11 opus of the same name. “And the second part of the question is, How to catch up with the West?” Because the civil-servant class owed its advancement—education, employment, rise in salaries—to the state, it came to see the state as the agent of change, he explains. And not surprisingly the liberals came to worship the institution that embodied state power in its purest form, the ruler. “It is the job of the ruler to impose modernity on a reluctant population,” said Tadros.

Arab liberals understand themselves as members of an elite class that shares little in common with the unwashed masses. If the ruler can’t modernize the masses, at least he must protect the advantages that the state lavished on the liberals. This dynamic explains why Egypt’s current crop of liberals has turned from Mubarak’s regime to a democracy that empowered the Brotherhood and back to the military regime that they hope will protect them from the Brotherhood.

It also calls into question whether liberals are still meaningful actors in Egypt, now that a strongman is again in charge. “Their future is problematic,” Tadros said. “The coalition against the Muslim Brotherhood consists of too many elements to be able to rule. Sissi understands he can’t return to the old formula of the army, the traditional ruling families, and the business class because it fell apart with Mubarak, so what can he bring in to make it work? The three options are the Salafis, a Nasserist-type nationalism—or someone who ostensibly represents the liberals, like Mohamed ElBaradei. But ElBaradei gets Sissi nothing in terms of being able to hold Egypt together.”

“They’ll continue to be a tool that the rulers will use at certain moments when they need to showcase a nice face to the West. But they are not the core of the ruling class now, or anytime in near future,” Tadros says, adding, “Liberalism can’t work without true liberals.” And at present, Egypt doesn’t have any.

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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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