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After the Fall

Boosters insisted the Egyptian revolution would yield a liberal democracy. Islamists’ electoral success vindicates the pessimists.

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A burned truck in Tahrir Square, Feb. 12, 2011. (Pedro Ugarte/AFP/Getty Images)

When the Egyptian revolution came, we stayed home.

We are young, liberal Egyptian activists who have dedicated our lives to bettering our country. But from the moment in January the crowds took over Tahrir Square calling for President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, we urged observers, particularly Western idealists already hailing the triumph of the new Egypt, to be cautious. We reminded them of Edmund Burke’s truism: Bringing down a tyrant is far, far easier than forming a free government.

It would be difficult to form such a government, we reasoned, in a society where the elite, with near unanimity, had just explained a series shark attacks in the Sinai as part of a Mossad-coordinated ploy to damage tourism. A free government must be based on universal rights, not least the right to freedom of conscience for all its citizens, and yet a Pew poll from December 2010 showed that 84 percent of the sampled Egyptian Muslims endorsed the death penalty as the appropriate punishment for Muslim apostates. For an entire country to change in one month, we argued throughout February, you need nothing short of magic.

Pessimists, naysayers, wet blankets, Mubarak cronies, apologists for the regime—we were called all these names, despite the fact that we’ve spent our adult lives within the opposition. Here was a new generation armed with iPhones and Twitter accounts that would ensure the success of liberal democracy in the region’s largest state, the enthusiasts promised. When Mubarak finally bowed to the pressure of the protesters in the streets, commentators wrote fairy-tale endings to the Egypt story, rushing off to cover the next blossoming flower of the Arab Spring. In the months that followed, no matter how far the Egyptian economy plummeted, how badly the security situation on the border with Israel deteriorated, or how many were killed in criminal, sectarian, or political violence, the narrative was maintained: Though painful, these were the necessary labor pangs of democracy.

Last week, the moment of truth finally came—or so we hope—with the results of the first phase of parliamentary elections. The Islamist parties won big: 40 percent of the electorate voted for the Muslim Brotherhood, and another 25 percent went for the Salafists, hard-line Islamists. Though forced by law to nominate at least one woman on their party lists, the Salafists had the photos of their female candidates replaced by a pictures of flowers in campaign ads, because they believe a woman’s face should not be shown publicly. The closest runner-up was the self-styled “liberal” Egyptian Bloc, which got 15 percent of the vote only because it secured the support of the Coptic minority. (The bloc’s founder is a famous Christian businessman.) The Islamist parties will likely win even bigger in the next two phases of the election, scheduled to take place in the coming few weeks, because these votes will be held almost entirely in the countryside, where political Islam dominates. (The first phase also included urban districts, where non-Islamists perform better.)

***

For us, nothing is more painful than being correct. Our vindication comes at the price of our country’s potential collapse into Islamist totalitarianism, or, even worse, total chaos. We desperately need a combination of sobriety, urgency, and prudence to prevent that from happening.

We must begin by deconstructing the Tahrir mythology. Namely: The Mubarak regime was pure evil; that it was brought down by “liberal” nonviolent activists; and that the Islamists had nothing to do with the revolution and emerged—suddenly—only to hijack it.

The Mubarak regime was no liberal democracy, but it also wasn’t the Gulag. It was an aging authoritarian regime that had opted for a path of economic reform when Ahmed Nazif took over as prime minister in 2004, but miserably failed to cope with the changes economic reform had on the political level. Moderately freer markets meant more media, which meant that while the political repression and corruption of the regime were less heinous than in the past, they were getting more exposure than ever. This, along with Mubarak’s senility and nepotism, created an ever-increasing sense of outrage among Egypt’s growing middle class.

While living standards were improving substantially, Egyptians not only had higher expectations of the government, but they also were falling prey to an obsessed belief that corruption is the root of all evil. Corruption has always been present in the modern Egyptian state, as anyone who has read Tawfik El Hakim’s 1932 novel The Diary of a Prosecutor Among Peasants knows. But with the help of many of the country’s journalists, this obsession was translated into outright hostility to free-market policies. Terms like “businessman” or “privatization” became almost libelous. This marked the rise of a Jacobin discourse on “social justice” (adala Igtima’iya), creating a lot of buzz around labor movements and Occupy Wall Street-type leftist groups. It escaped Western observers that in a country with the lowest price of bread in the world—the result of enormous government subsidies—the loudest chant in Tahrir Square was “Bread, Freedom, Social Justice.”

The early Tahrir Square crowd was comprised of leftists and various other groups that were in it for different reasons. Consider, for example, the fanatic soccer fans known as the Ultras. Known for engaging in fights with security forces after every Egyptian soccer game, the Ultras would not waste a chance to get back at the police in a much less controlled environment than the Stadium. At Tahrir, they had a major role in attacking the police and destroying the police stations. In the revolution’s aftermath, the Ultras led the mob in the rampage of the Israeli Embassy.

Other than the fact that a few dozen human-rights activists were present in Tahrir, there was nothing remotely liberal about the uprising. But that didn’t stop Western journalists from applying the term: Every Egyptian male without a beard was a John Stuart Mill, every female without a veil a Mary Wollstonecraft. Suddenly, Trotskyites were liberals, and hooligans nonviolent protesters.

The idea that there were no Islamists involved in the revolution is pure nonsense. The Muslim Brotherhood officially declared its decision to join the protests on Jan. 23, and its members were instrumental in the success of the revolution in the subsequent days and weeks. What’s more, over the past decade Islamist groups, particularly the Salafists, have been taking advantage of Egypt’s increasing media and Internet freedom to further influence the political discussion. Wondering where the all these Salafists came from? Go to YouTube, type in any possible Arabic term, from financial investment to marriage counseling, and see the sheer number of results that show a Salafist leader preaching, most often in a clip from the religious satellite channel. The message is always the same: A return to a purer form of Islam guarantees salvation in this life and the next.

These two tendencies—the Jacobin and the Islamist—are not mutually exclusive in Egypt. The average Egyptian easily bought into both arguments, believing that the reason for all their ills was the Mubarak regime’s economic program, and that the only solution was a return to the golden age of Islam. Though institutionally immunized against Islamism through a strict system of surveillance, the military completely internalized the popular anti-capitalist discourse, hence its ultimate decision to offer its services to the revolutionaries, abandoning Mubarak in his time of need.

Into that mix comes anti-Semitism. Egyptian anti-Semitism is not simply a form of bigotry: It is the glue binding the otherwise incoherent ideological blend, the common denominator among disparate parties. The Zionist conspiracy theory was not merely a diversion applied by the Mubarak regime, as some suggest. It is a well-established social belief in Egypt, even among self-proclaimed liberals. Consider, for example, Yehya El-Gamal, a leading expert on constitutional law and chairman of the Democratic Front Party who was appointed deputy prime minister after the revolution. Though a staunch opponent of the Islamists, El-Gamal told Al-Ahram, the leading state-owned newspaper, that “Israel and the U.S. are behind flaming the sectarian conflict in Egypt” in the wake of the deadly clashes between Coptic demonstrators and military forces last October.

***

These facts, though hard to swallow, were clear well before the revolution. This is why, when we joined the Egyptian Union of Liberal Youth in 2009, we decided to focus our energy on a long-term program to build a genuine liberal movement from scratch. We realized early on that activism without serious, concrete ideas capable of winning the hearts and minds of our fellow Egyptians would be meaningless. Thus, we designed a platform of legal, economic, and social programs tackling all aspects of life in Egypt, from taxes to anti-Semitism. Our plan comprises research, lobbying, campaigning, and an effort to translate the great books of Western classical liberalism into Arabic. If Egypt was going to have any hope of becoming a liberal democracy, we had to face—and battle—the destructive totalitarian ideals that have taken hold of Egyptian society.

To begin a serious discussion on what can be done in our country, Egyptians must acknowledge that the Tahrir uprising was no liberal revolution. Western observers must realize that this is not a stark morality play, but political decision-making between alternatives that are all bad. As the government borders on bankruptcy and the security situation deteriorates (the natural-gas pipe line to Israel and Jordan was bombed nine times since February), the first priority should be defending the very existence of the Egyptian state, now solely represented by the military. This is certainly an awkward position for advocates of limited government, as we are. But if the military falls, nothing will stand between the Egyptians and absolute anarchy.

Western policy-makers and Egyptians who care about the country’s future should not push too hard for a total face-off between the military and the Islamists, which may develop into a civil war, nor should they seek to weaken the military to the extent that it is totally subdued by the Islamists. Finally, as the Islamists try to transform the legal and economic infrastructure of the country to their benefit, true liberals must be prepared to tackle them on every move, with detailed and convincing programs, not merely rhetorical speeches and empty polemics on talk shows. Islamism offers a coherent worldview; if liberalism cannot rise up to the same level, it will always be doomed to fail.

The gravest danger is for us to fall prey to complacency and believe that an Islamist government will either moderate or fail to deliver, and that the Egyptians will vote for someone else in the next elections. The very possibility of next elections is dependent on our capacity to avoid the total anarchy scenario. And the Islamists are not going to moderate. No matter how pragmatic the Muslim Brotherhood is, they will face a constant challenge by Salafists from the right to adhere a strict standard of religious purity. If the Islamists, now hugely popular, do fail to deliver, genuine liberals must be at the ready to offer voters a clear alternative. The Mubarak regime was remarkably successful in steering the economy in its latter years, but its inability to justify its existence politically led to its demise. There is no reason why the exact opposite—a failing economy but successful politics—cannot come to the service of the Islamists.

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How ironic it is that the rise of fundamentalism in Israel keeps pace with that in the Muslim countries.

I think that what is happening in Egypt is a great example of how the Western media is completely wrong about its analysis of what is going on in the Middle East. It should cause a large amount of soul searching among the various “experts”, but I’m sure that it won’t break them of their theory that everyone all over the world has the same motivations and aspirations as a typical upper middle class American.

Bill Pearlman says:

Jules, you should ask Lara Logan about Egyptian hospitality.

dusan kahan says:

Yes, Jules, and don’t forget those Mossad sharks!;)

Elliot says:

Well written – thanks

Sharks? Son you’ve been in front of a screen watching too many silly movies.

I met Mr. Tadros in 2007, while demonstrating against Mubarak in D.C. If I recall correctly, he minimized the import of the Muslim Brotherhood then, and Salafis weren’t even in our minds; we were both under the spell of Natan Sharansky’s The Case for Democracy.

Yet the democracy of a fanatic mob is no guarantee of liberty; you need an open political culture that protects and honors minorities and minority opinions, and Egyptians don’t appear ready for that. The lesson has been a bitter one for those of us who had higher hopes for Egypt, though admittedly there was no way to know for certain the principles Egyptians’ would choose to express until this election. It seems unlikely that liberty will be preserved in a state dominated by the MB and Salafis. It is very unlikely that a new constitution can be both crafted by elected Islamists and ensure the ability of the people to change their minds by kicking the Islamists out if they tire of them. even if this happens, I doubt its terms will be honored; rather, mob rule in the streets will enforce the Islamist rule that has been the dream of the MB since before WWII.

Egypt is in danger of becoming yet another country where Muslims believe if they follow their rituals and traditions exactly then their individual choices will automatically be ethically and unquestionably correct – a sure path to moral and civic corruption. The people willingly yoke the chain that weighs them down. Same old, same old.

Mr. Tadros realizes now what I’ve held for some years now: “[Anti-Semitism] is the glue binding the otherwise incoherent ideological blend, the common denominator among disparate parties.” Too many Egyptians blinded themselves here: if you want to pursue a just and liberal Egypt you have to attack anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist attitudes. The reason is that Israel’s existence and conduct is just and a worthy example to the world, and a society wearing blinders to avoid this also cannot see the path to the just and proper conduct they desire in their hearts for their own society. (That was also the root of the Pilgrims’ success at self-government in America and why Oliver Cromwell allowed the Jews to return to England.)

Had the liberals chosen to attack anti-Semitism as well as or instead of Mubarak their attitudes could have permeated society and the outcome of an election may have been very different, though Mubarak would not have fallen so soon.

Too late now. The best that the libs can hope for is that when the MB and Salafists fail the people – and they will – some sort of democratic process will allow the people to kick them out in favor of liberals who will then face the challenge of delivering services to a starved and desperate people.

Raymond in DC says:

That even the sexual assault on Lara Logan failed to spark a rethink of what was happening tells me some people will stick with their meme no matter what.

In the end it turns out Israel was right to be skeptical and Tom Friedman was (as usual) wrong. Not that he’ll admit it.

for Zlota says:

If the commentators would have actually watched the footage that accompanied the story they might have seen a conflict with their analysis.

On the first or second night of coverage of the Tahrir Square protests, a major news channel ran a piece of footage over and over– jubilant young people with their faces brightly painted– didn’t they notice the face painted with a red swastika? They ran it all night.

But, the commentators never mentioned it. I have been troubled by it ever since.

for Zlota says:

I mean the news commentators at the networks covering the story at the time, not the commentators who wrote this article.

Jerry Blaz says:

I have the “luxury” of being an observer of the Tahrir square demonstrations from a distance. More than a physical distance is the cultural distance of people like me who can stand on the shoulders of a European Renaissance, an enlightenment and the 18th century philosophers who brought a full-blown “secular” perspective to the political scene. While we still fight against the stultifying effects of dogma in the West, at least we can place our religious understandings in a personal niche.

The Muslims had no “Reformation” and no “100 Years War” that put an end to the unquestioning dogmatism of religious authoritarianism. As I watched the scenes unfolding in Egypt as in other authoritarian states based on military juntas in the Arab Mughrab and beyond, I realized that a Western-style democracy emerging from it was more of a hope than a natural alternative. What I did know was that the Brotherhood was an organized group whose charitable activities had created a large number of supporters, and it was the best organized group in contrast to the various elements in Tahrir.

Right now as I write these lines, the Brotherhood sits in the catbird seat, and we have to see if they go with the Salafists or the liberal elements. If it is with the former, it will be a black day for Egypt and for its neighbors. We can still hope it will go with the more liberal elements, but we are still waiting for the equivalent of an Islamic enlightenment that will “privatize” the religious element in society as it did in the West.

4Subsidiarity says:

Without the long, slow development of mediating structures such as voluntary organizations and NGO’s that serve vital social functions between family/clan and government, the idea of limited government is very difficult to achieve.

As a longtime resident of the Middle East and an informal student of Middle Eastern history, I was surprised at the naivete of
Western commentators like Nicholas Kristof
as well as some policy analysts at the beginning of the Arab uprisings. But neither I nor most observers expected the Salafis to get 25% of the vote. After this happened, I did expect Kristof, Roger Cohen and the others would admit their mistakes. But they seem to be stuck in some kind of fantasy land. So, please folks – read thoughtful, informed analyses
by Egyptians like Tadros and Bargisi, or scholars and journalists who speak Arabic and know the region.

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After the Fall

Boosters insisted the Egyptian revolution would yield a liberal democracy. Islamists’ electoral success vindicates the pessimists.

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