The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What’s the matter with Egypt’s liberals?

Supporters of army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi carry his portrait and wave the Egyptian flag in Cairo's Tahrir square. (Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images)
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The narrative arc of Egypt's liberal movement, just two years ago a remarkable story of overcoming impossible odds and helping to oust President Hosni Mubarak, has since taken a turn toward tragedy of its most classical form. The hows and whys are complicated, but the movement's setbacks, at times self-inflicted, have been tougher to ignore since the July 3 coup that removed President Mohamed Morsi. Many of them have so enthusiastically embraced military rule – and, at times, violence against Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood supporters – that observers are wondering whether Egypt's liberals can still really be considered liberals.

Just today, The Washington Post's Bill Booth and Sharaf Al-Hourani report from Cairo that Egypt's liberals are pushing for the military government to crack down on the Muslim Brotherhood's sprawling – and child-filled – protest camp in downtown Cairo. The liberals, including the movement's political leaders, "make these calls knowing that a crackdown by the military or police against a committed, cohesive, religiously inspired opponent could lead to bloodshed," Booth and al-Hourani write.

To me, the movement is starting to look less driven by liberalism than by secular nationalism, hardly a force unique to Egypt but one that has a deep history here, including under Mubarak's reign. Many have pointed to parallels with the rise of Egypt's first nationalist military leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, in the 1950s. Vendors in liberal-dominated protest areas of Cairo have been selling posters of the new military ruler, General Abdel Fata el-Sissi, alongside posters of Nasser and his successor Anwar Sadat (but not of Sadat's successor, Mubarak; maybe it's still too soon). The world has something of an ugly history with nationalist movements that celebrate autocratic military rulers and back state violence against fellow citizens, so people are naturally worried.

The Council on Foreign Relations's Steven Cook, a passionate and long-time observer of Egypt, has written a forceful and important entreaty to the Egyptian liberal movement, charting its missed opportunities since February 2011. That initially included, he writes, "revolutionary navel-gazing that distracted the civil/secular/alleged liberal groups from doing the kind of political organizing that was necessary" as well as "an ongoing sacralization of the uprising and its many different leaders, which made it beyond the pale to offer any kind of critical analysis of those eighteen days [in early 2011] or its aftermath."

The "civil/secular/alleged liberal" movement, as Cook calls it, doesn't appear to be behaving much differently this time around than it did in mid-2011, after Mubarak fell. It's not organizing politically, although this is its second opportunity to do so in just three years. But maybe most worrying, as Cook writes, is that some of the groups "have made common cause with remnants of the old regime and the military," which he warns "undermines their claims to be democratic" and makes them "potential pawns in a game that anti-revolutionary forces are playing aimed at restoring some semblance of the old order."

I wrote Steven to ask him what pushed him over the edge, to write his constructive but frank criticisms of Egypt's liberals, and why it's become so controversial within Egypt to even hint at potential criticisms of the movement, most notably by calling the July 3 ouster of Morsi a "coup." Here's his response, which he kindly agreed to let me publish:

The alleged liberals have been making me a bit nutty for a while. Last spring I wrote a post called "Egypt: The Art of Being Feckless" so it's been a theme for a little while.
What pushed me over the edge was the coup, but it goes back to the immediate period after the uprising when these guys either couldn't or wouldn't do the political work necessary. Instead, they kept going out into the streets. Morsi was obviously no democrat. He had made a mockery of the revolutionary promise of Tahrir Square, but so did the liberals — at least the ones who supported him (how could they not know what the [Muslim Brotherhood members] were up to?!?!) because they themselves failed. The presidential election had not a single candidate that represented the revolution or liberal ideas. That is telling. Now these folks have welcomed the army back. These are very bad choices.
Indeed, you couldn't question the revolution. Suddenly, all the people who had wanted a better Egypt were acting like Bolsheviks. Now, they say that the army's intervention is a course correction and that it will be good for democracy. In one sense, they are correct. Morsi and the MB were working hard to institutionalize their power, which was going to make it hard to dislodge them in the future, but the alleged liberals are now back to where they were during the Mubarak period: In a choice between the authoritarianism of the regime (in this case what might shape up to be some semblance of the old order) and the Muslim Brotherhood, the liberals will choose the army. The spokesman for [Salafist political party] al Nour told me in December 2011, "You watch, when the religious do well the liberals will run to the army." He was dead on!
Also, the calls for revenge against the MB by some liberals makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck. Don't get me wrong, I have always been deeply suspicious of the MBs. I thought we couldn't make a real judgement until they actually had an opportunity to govern, but based on everything I read and know about their history, I was not inclined to believe that they would be a force for democracy.
I think Amr Hamzawy and Hossam Bahgat are the only true liberals in Egypt.

The comparison of Egypt's liberals to such ideological movements as Bolshevism is not as unusual as you might think. The New York Times' Cairo bureau chief David Kirkpatrick, speaking on NPR a few weeks ago, compared the post-coup mood in Egypt to that of Europe in the early 20th century when it was reshaped by ultra-nationalism. "It's how I imagine Europe in the first part of the 20th century might have felt during the rise of fascism," he said. "It may not last. It may be just a momentary national hysteria, but at the moment there is a surreal-seeming enthusiasm for the military ... even by people who just a few months ago were calling for the end of military rule."

That doesn't mean that el-Sissi is about to invade the Sudetenland, of course. Plenty of nationalist movements have arisen over the past century without leading to anything so dramatic, but they are rarely anything resembling liberal. But those echoes are a reminder that nationalist movements are driven from the bottom-up as well as the top-down.