Egypt and the Contradictions of Liberalism: Illiberal Intelligentsia and the Future of Egyptian Democracy

Dalia Fahmy and Daanish Faruqi.

Book review: Posted on Jadalyya on October 20, 2017.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Daanish Faruqi (DF): As preface, it’s somewhat difficult to speak about personal motivations for pursuing a distinctly collaborative project; each of our contributors all came into this work with different visions in mind, so I think it best that I answer this question with the explicit caveat that I speak here on no one’s behalf but my own.

My motivations in working on this book were borne by my own experiences in Egypt, where my professional involvement with the Middle East first began; even as my active engagements have moved elsewhere in the region, on a deeply personal level, all roads ultimately lead back to Cairo. Unable to speak a word of Arabic upon my arrival, I first earned my stripes as a researcher at the Cairo-based Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, which then gave rise to moonlighting as a journalist, and to a series of itinerant research stints throughout the Middle East. And through that experience as a human rights researcher at a prominent Egyptian think tank, I became acquainted with the mainstays of oppositional politics in Egypt, and with major Egyptian liberal activists and intellectuals. Some were my mentors, and in turn, I wound up defending several of them in writing in my role as a journalist. Figures under consideration were scions of liberal activism under the Mubarak years, and many had spent considerable time in Mubarak’s prisons in support of progressive reform.

It was unsurprising, then, that many of these figures were involved in some capacity in the uprising of 2011 that toppled the Mubarak regime. But it came as a remarkable surprise that many— though certainly not all—of these same old mentors and associates among the Egyptian liberal intelligentsia and activist community took active part in the counterrevolutionary events in 2013— up to and including acquiescence in the face of the infamous massacre of some 1,000 Brotherhood-affiliated protestors in Cairo’s Rab’aa square in August 2013, and the crackdown on Egyptian civil society more broadly ever since. Put another way, a key (but not exclusive) contingent of contemporary Egyptian liberals in the revolutionary upheaval between 2011 and 2013 ultimately adopted outright illiberal proclivities to support and give rise to the counterrevolution, in the process betraying not only the values of democracy and freedom enshrined in the 2011 revolution, but of the commitments to civil society and human rights that had defined their careers for decades.

Seeing so many of my old mentors and colleagues make an apparent about-face in this respect left me clamoring to make sense of why they would so abruptly shift gears—at least from my perspective. That led to my critically investigating the historical genealogies of liberalism in Egypt, at which point a hitherto anecdotal observation about my former associates in the Egyptian liberal intelligentsia gave rise to a bona fide scholarly intervention. It was at that point that Dr. Dalia Fahmy and I engaged one another as collaborative partners, and together we realized that this is a task that requires a joint effort utilizing a multitude of disciplinary perspectives. From there we assembled our remarkable team of contributors.

Dalia F. Fahmy (DFF): The events leading up to the 25 January revolution and its power as a transformative moment in the North Africa and the Levant demonstrated the strength of people from all walks of life: Muslim and Copt, Liberal and conservative, secular and Islamist, poor and wealthy, educated and illiterate, coming together calling for freedom, dignity, good governance, and democracy. Present in this transformative moment were both the masses and the intellectual and popular elite. But as the uncertainty of the post-revolutionary transition took shape, and as decidedly nondemocratic forces began to further consolidate power, the elite—the intelligentsia—those that hold the most power, independent of the state apparatus—grew increasingly silent. This cadre’s silence and complicity with what became a repressive military regime runs counter to democratic transition theory. Which begged the question, why was the elite silent? What caused them to turn on the population they stood alongside in Tahrir Square?

Our impetus to put this project together came full circle in the aftermath of the horrific massacre of protestors gathered in Rab‘aa Square in 2013, which gave rise to a narrative of a bifurcated Egyptian society, in which undesirables needed to be outright eliminated to cleanse the Egyptian nation. The role of the intelligentsia in promoting that exclusionary narrative remains a key motivating factor in pursuing this project; their complicity ultimately gave rise to anti-democratic values undermining the democratic process they purport to uphold, and to the dismantling of the very civil society on which years of their work was based.

J:  What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

DFF and DF: Broadly speaking, this book addresses the contradictions of the liberal project in Egypt, as a means of making better sense of the about-face of so many prominent Egyptian liberals following the events of July 2013. It does so in an interdisciplinary format, such that we, with our collaborative partners, wound up casting a wide net in the literatures we engaged. As a work dealing with Egypt following the Arab Spring, it draws deeply on insights from political science and Middle East studies, but intervenes just as heavily on debates in law, history, Islamic studies, and philosophy. The latter two fields prove especially crucial in disentangling the nuances of liberal political philosophy, its domestication in the Egyptian context, and the antagonistic relationship Egyptian liberalism as a philosophical project has historically had with Islamism—an antagonism that plainly came full circle following the 2013 ouster of Morsi.

That said, we pay equal attention to the institutional dimensions of Egyptian liberalism as to its ideological ones. Our opening section deals with the question of liberalism and the Egyptian state, addressing the structural constraints on a viable liberal politics in contemporary Egypt—from the fecklessness of Egyptian party politics; to the historical enmity between socialist-leaning leftist elements and Islamists, thereby making pact-making and cooperation between the two near impossible following the events of 2011 and 2013; to the deliberalization of the Egyptian judiciary. In the second section we address liberalism and Egyptian civil society, from the perspective of the Egyptian NGO community, the Egyptian media, and the Egyptian student movement, and the constraints on each in fully supporting a liberal alternative.

From there we move in the third section to evaluate the place of religion, and by extension of secularism, in the liberal imagination. In so doing, we make the case that the liberal project in Egypt, for all its claims to be diametrically opposed to the Islamist worldview, is paradoxically tied to the hip of its Muslim Brotherhood arch-nemesis. More specifically, we argue that both projects are philosophically predicated on a deeply powerful and all-encompassing central state apparatus, which each in turn relies on to forcibly cultivate the preconditions for, respectively, liberal citizenship and a model Islamic society. That ideological commitment to statism, we conclude, is precisely what gave rise to the chauvinism of the Muslim Brotherhood while in office, as well as the intransigence of Egyptian liberals in giving rise to the military-led counterrevolution in 2013. And therein lies the fundamental contradiction of Egyptian liberalism: despite having adopted a philosophical worldview predicated on the sanctity of individual autonomy and a constraint on sovereign power, Egyptian liberalism has from its inception been a project inextricably reliant on a dictatorial state apparatus to do its bidding.

In our fourth and final section we focus on Egyptian liberals in comparative perspective, offering intimate portraits of key figures like Gaber ‘Asfour, ‘Alaa al-Aswany, Bassem Youssef, and others, as case studies into the failure of the liberal project to stand by its professed values in the aftermath of the 2013 military coup. We conclude the book with a unique reflection by Emad El-Din Shahin, who while taking ample stock of the critiques of Egyptian liberalism articulated throughout the book, nonetheless concludes that Egypt needs a robust liberal alternative with long-term viability. Cultivating that viability, though, will require that liberals in Egypt reconstitute their project in a way that does sufficient justice to Egyptian social and cultural identity, and that overcomes its elitist and authoritarian proclivities. While Shahin cautions that ignoring these imperatives will ensure that liberals will continue to fail miserably in electoral politics, he ends with the optimistic reminder that resuscitating liberalism in Egypt remains within reach.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

DFF: Much of my work traces the development of Islamist political thought and the role Islamists play in the democratization process. Much of the relevant literature presupposes that Islamists are anti-democratic and it is their inclusion in the democratic process that leads to their “learning” and “moderation” by secular and democratic élites. Yet, the revolutionary tides in Egypt in particular force us to question that very assumption. Is the liberal intelligentsia in fact deserving of the mantle of democratic values to be emulated, much less be the stewards of the “moderation” process for the non-democratic Islamists? This project fundamentally challenged that paradigm. We discovered that the liberal intelligentsia was in many ways illiberal, and arguably it was the Islamist opposition that at times appeared to take democratic constitutional process and inclusion more seriously—though at other times seemed to undermine it. Ultimately, the past several years in Egypt have forced a serious rethinking of the role of the intelligentsia more broadly, and its role in the future narrative of the Egyptian “nation” more specifically.

DF: in my case, I would consider this project a recovering of roots, as it were. As I mentioned previously, I began my career in Egypt, so it’s a very special place for me. Yet in the years that followed my stint there, my work decidedly drifted away from Egypt proper; most recently, owing in large part to a year spent in Morocco as a Fulbright scholar, my research has become far more intimately concerned with the Maghrib region. Taking up this project, then, required a healthy dose of humility, in realizing that I don’t know Egypt as intimately as I did during what I refer to as the ‘Cairo years’ of my career. Step one was engaging a bona fide Egypt specialist, in my friend and colleague Dr. Fahmy, to help me work through my own blind spots. Step two was to assiduously return to debates I had inaugurated years ago, and in the process effectively relearn modern Egypt. 

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

DFF and DF: Needless to say, we expect this book to be of great use to scholars working on the Middle East in general, and on Egypt in particular. But we were judiciously careful to present the text in an accessible idiom, such that educated generalists will also find considerable value in its contents. This book should appeal more broadly to audiences interested in the politics of the Middle East, and in the Arab Spring.

In particular, though, we hope this book will prove useful to scholars, activists, and practitioners who deal with the question of liberalism, even outside the Egyptian context. This book will be extremely useful for political theorists and political philosophers dealing with the incestuous relationship between liberalism and empire and coloniality. Moreover, we see this book carrying significant currency to scholars and practitioners dealing with liberalism in a non-Western context in general, and in Muslim-majority societies in particular. The arguments in this book stand to offer equally illuminating lessons for the illiberal proclivities of liberal activists and intellectuals operating with respect to Syria, Pakistan, and other contexts. 

J: What other projects are you working on now?

DF: As an adjunct to this project, dealing as intimately as it does with Arab political thought and intellectual history, I have recently done considerable work on contemporary Arab political philosophy in comparative contexts. More specifically, I am preparing for publication a study on Moroccan philosophical thought and its engagement with Islamic reform through the prism of objectives-based legal theory (maqasid al-shari‘ah). This aside, my primary research in my forthcoming dissertation focuses on politically activist Sufi rebels, with roots in the colonial Maghrib and coming full circle most recently in the Syrian uprising of 2011. And as an addendum to my dissertation research, I am collecting data for a subsequent project investigating the role of leftist and liberal currents in the context of Syria. Thus, while my work in recent years has veered considerably westward, my work on the Maghrib is now bringing me back to the Eastern Arab world, with this intervention on Egypt and now a considerable focus on Syria.

DFF: My forthcoming monograph The Rise and Fall of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Future of Political Islam, traces the endogenous and exogenous variables that led to the rise of the Muslims Brotherhood not just as the strongest opposition part to the state, but as the temporary stewards of post-revolutionary Egypt in 2012, and simultaneously traces the Brotherhood’s meteoric fall from power. It should be out within a year. I argue that the very contingencies that led to the Brotherhood’s rise concomitantly led to their decline. My second project traces the history of what I consider the “Western Construction of the Islamist Threat.” This project has both a foreign policy and democratic policy aspect, whereby the need for an “other” creates a caricature of an impending Islamist threat.

J: What is your next step with this project?

DFF and DF: We will be doing a more formative book launch throughout the fall, presenting the book’s findings at several major universities in North America and the UK. We are very happy with the early reception so far—being featured in the New York Review of Books recently was a real honor—but are very much looking forward to building on it with subsequent talks and workshops dedicated to its core thesis. Moreover, we are looking into expanding the thesis with a subsequent volume that engages key challenges and contradictions in liberal and leftist thought elsewhere in the Middle East.

Excerpt from “Conclusion: Is liberalism contradictory?”

As this is a volume dedicated to exploring illiberal currents among Egyptian liberals, we must at least briefly pause to consider whether this is a phenomenon that has valence beyond Egypt proper. Which is to say, are these contradictory tendencies better ascribed to liberalism as a philosophical and political doctrine more broadly? Indeed, a fair amount of ink has been spilled on the very issue of illiberalism within the liberal paradigm – particularly as it pertains to empire. After all, liberal ideas as they emerged in the West “did not seem particularly liberal to the peoples subjugated by British, French, and American imperialism in the 18th and 19th centuries.” How, then, does one reconcile the fact that key liberal figures like John Stuart Mill, Alexis De Tocqueville, and others, for all their placations of individual freedoms and the liberal rule of law, were also enthusiastic supporters of the imperial projects their nations were spearheading?

Perhaps most famously, Uday Mehta’s thesis proposes that this tension is not a contradiction at all, but that imperialism in fact was a necessary byproduct of liberal assumptions about reason and historical progress – assumptions that could not help but lead to views of non-Western milieus like India – or Egypt, as the case may be – as backward and in need of imperial stewardship to properly liberalize. Others like Pankaj Mishra have gone further, arguing that “contradictions and elisions haunted the rhetoric of liberalism from the beginning,” and that those contradictions go beyond the contours of the imperial project. Referring to the Cold War period, Mishra notes that many of the same Western liberals who promoted a liberal market economy and equal rights as the formula for prosperity nonetheless benefited from long-established histories of economic protectionism and pervasive racism in their own nations. A deeply illiberal anti-communism, Mishra continues, eventually reincarnated itself as neo-liberalism, replete with the economic havoc it wreaked on the Global South. These contradictions are not accidental, Mishra maintains, but are necessarily outcomes of the anachronistic assumptions of the liberal project, “derived from a sanguine 19th century philosophy of history and progress” that has no space for the non-West.

This literature indeed has implications for the liberal project in Egypt. If, in fact, liberalism is doctrinally incapable of dealing with cultural difference, then its putative failure in a non-Western context like Egypt may not be altogether surprising. But to play devil’s advocate, this body of literature has been met with some serious pushback. Works like Jennifer Pitts’s thesis argue that, while mid-nineteenth-century liberal thinkers did indeed support the conquest of non-European peoples, this posturing was actually a departure from the liberal tradition as articulated by the late eighteenth-century thinkers figures such as Mill and Tocqueville saw as their intellectual ancestors. Sankar Muthu goes further by articulating how an array of European political thinkers in the late eighteenth century such as Denis Diderot, Immanuel Kant, and others – themselves prominent figures in the liberal canon – attacked the very foundations of the imperial project as manifestly unjust. Committed to an understanding of human beings as necessarily diverse cultural agents, Muthu maintains, these thinkers cultivated a political project that allowed non-European peoples the autonomy to order and arrange their own societal milieus.

Suffice to say, against the backdrop of two radically competing appraisals, the scholarly literature gives us no clear answer as to where liberalism’s track record ultimately lies. But that should not deter us, because ultimately this volume is not the appropriate forum to make a definitive ontological claim about liberalism as a political philosophy in the first place – at least with finality. Insofar as this is a study of Egypt and the Contradictions of Liberalism, taking liberalism to task tout court would be far too ambitious for the purposes of this exercise. That said, investigating the historiography of European liberalism does allow us to conclude comfortably that the liberal project in its outcomes was beset with contradictions, irrespective of whether or not those contradictions are inherent to the ontological claims of liberal philosophy as such. Even outside the imperial context, within the European metropole these contradictions have continued to beset the revolutionary claims of the liberal project.

After all, liberalism was once a bona fide revolutionary phenomenon, having been central to the revolutions of 1848 throughout Europe, in which liberal bourgeoisie confronted counterrevolutionary efforts by aristocratic supporters of the Restoration. Thus, liberals were key to the preservation of the values embodied in the French Revolution. But when working people sought to radicalize the demands for a democratic republic with a concomitant demand to mitigate the inequities of the market, aristocratic liberals backtracked – paradoxically enough – to support the counterrevolution: “Especially with the rise of a mass-based social democratic labor movement, which sought universal suffrage and thereby threatened private property, liberals realigned themselves with the aristocratic enemies of the original revolution and helped repress the new uprisings. Their own political power was crushed, but the market was saved.” It is in this sense that, despite liberalism’s revolutionary ambitions,“[b]y the second half of the nineteenth century, especially in Europe, liberalism had become the ideology of the bourgeois gentleman.”

Is the experience of Europe in 1848 an ominous sign of things to come in Egypt? Should the capitulation by Egyptian liberals in the aftermath of the events of July 3, 2013 be read as indicative of an abandonment by Egyptian liberalism of its revolutionary ambitions, and its domestication into the ideology of the bourgeois Egyptian gentleman? Not necessarily. Indeed, the European experience was one of a vacillation between revolution and counterrevolution, in which the immediate aftermath of mass revolts said very little about the legacies those upheavals would ultimately leave behind. While the security state under Sisi may appear to have the upper hand in Egypt as of this writing, the story of the Egyptian revolution of 2011 remains a work in progress. Irrespective of the ground lost to the ideals of that initial uprising since the return of military rule in 2013, dissensions in Egyptian society run as deep now as, if not deeper than, before the events of 2011 – as evidenced perhaps most recently by mass protests throughout the nation following the Sisi administration’s decision to grant territorial control of Tiran and Sanafir, strategically important islands off of Egypt’s Red Sea coast, to Saudi Arabia in April of 2016. Remaining faithful to a longue durée approach to history, in which long-term historical structures play a more palpable role in the ebb and flow of history than individual events themselves, we can and should view the Egyptian revolution as an unfinished project that can just as easily culminate in the fulfillment of the ideals of freedom and dignity that sparked the initial protests in January of 2011 as to their abandonment.

Similarly, the story of liberalism in Egypt remains an unfinished project, one that can just as conceivably be elevated into an emancipatory political force as it could be domesticated into a desiccated relic of Egyptian elites. Which is to say, the contradictions of liberalism in Egypt are not necessarily binding, and with sufficient wherewithal from those who carry its banner the liberal project in Egypt can indeed be reconstituted to overcome its present impasse. Whether that will in fact transpire remains to be seen. But as we shall demonstrate in the pages that follow, discerning the ultimate fate of Egyptian liberalism requires taking ample stock in the specific contours of the liberal project in its Egyptian context – historically, institutionally, and culturally. And in so doing, we can credibly end by saying that the fate of the liberal experiment in Egypt will wholly depend on the extent to which Egyptian liberals are willing to articulate their political project in a way that does sufficient justice to the immanent social and cultural realities of Egyptian culture and society. If Egypt and the Contradictions of Liberalism is to offer only one formative lasting critique, it is that the contradictions of the liberal experiment in Egypt can only be overcome by realigning the project to speak to the needs of the Egyptian people in a cultural, social – and yes, religious – idiom that they find congruent.

It would thus be fitting to end this introduction with a bezel of wisdom from the late Pakistani-American intellectual activist Eqbal Ahmad, whose astute analyses of the politics of the Muslim world have proven increasingly timely with each year since his death in 1999. Indeed, in his study of Islam, Secularism, and Liberal Democracy, Nader Hashemi relies on the same sage advice as an interpretative lens to the “Muslim political drama” as it comes to fruition: “As the late Eqbal Ahmad once observed, a primary lesson to be learned from the European experience of political modernization that is relevant to a Muslim context is that ‘no significant political change occurs unless the new form is congruent with the old. It is only when a transplant is congenial to a soil that it works.’” Ultimately, then, if liberalism in Egypt is to overcome its contradictions, the onus is on Egyptian liberals to reconfigure their project such that it becomes congenial to Egyptian soil. We can only hope they will take that necessary initiative.

[Excerpted from Egypt and the Contradictions of Liberalism: Illiberal Intelligentsia and the Future of Egyptian Democracy with author permission (c) 2017.]


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