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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

Lee Smith
August 14, 2013
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)
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)

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.”

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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Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.