The American Interest
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Egyptian Liberals Against the Revolution
Published on December 22, 2011

Sitting in a Pizza Hut just a block from Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Mina Rezkalla can’t stop telling me how much he loves Seinfeld. This is strange not least because Egypt is one of the most anti-Semitic countries in the world and Jerry Seinfeld’s eponymous television series is an exemplar of American Jewish humor. A 2010 Brookings Institution poll found that less than 5 percent of Egyptians “empathize with the Jews who suffered under the Nazis.” Spend some time in Egypt and you’ll hear Israel blamed for practically every problem that affects this country of some eighty million, from the alleged poisoning of a shipment of fenugreek seeds that killed dozens of Germans to the bombings of Christian Coptic churches that have rocked the country over the past several months.

For the thirty years he ruled the country, Hosni Mubarak kept a lid on these anti-Semitic passions, faithfully abiding by the 1978 Camp David Accords signed by his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, and ensuring that the widespread animosity for Israel did not spill over into the practice of foreign policy. But while Mubarak kept a cold peace with the Jewish State in exchange for billions of dollars in American aid, he was more than happy to let state-sponsored anti-Semitism run loose in government-backed newspapers and on state television. With Mubarak gone, many Israelis rightly fear that the “new Egypt” will not be as amenable to their security concerns. A series of polls conducted since Mubarak’s ouster in early February consistently show that a majority of Egyptians want significant changes made to the  treaty; a sizeable number want the accord scrapped altogether. In September, a riot outside the Israeli Embassy in Cairo saw the emergency evacuation of Jerusalem’s Ambassador, the first time such a drastic measure had to be taken since Egypt and Israel established diplomatic relations.

What really makes Rezkalla’s love of Seinfeld so unusual is that he is that rare Egyptian, a true liberal, and thus immune to many of the pernicious ideas that seem to afflict so many of his countrymen. “Inside everyone is George Costanza”, he laughs, referring to Jerry’s neurotic best friend. His love of the show is part of a broader fascination with Jewish culture, and America. Preparing for a visit to Washington for a fellowship, he tells me that the one place he wants to visit more than anywhere else is the headquarters of AIPAC—the American Israel Public Affairs Committee—the pro-Israel lobbying group and the lodestar of nearly every conspiracy about Jewish political power.

Rezkalla is a Christian, part of the Coptic minority that traces its history to before the Muslim conquest of Egypt in the 7th century C.E. The Copts, who account for about 10 percent of Egypt’s population and are thus the largest Christian minority in the Muslim world, have long been subject to discriminatory laws, like onerous prohibitions on the construction and repair of their churches. He sees the plight of the Jews of Israel as similar to that of Arab Christians throughout the Middle East, who have made an exodus from the region that has picked up pace in the past few months. While it’s tempting to attribute Rezkalla’s unusual affinity for Jews to religious association, he is no sectarian. Some of the most influential Arab nationalist intellectuals, (like George Habash, founder of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine), were Christians; part of the reason for their fervency was a desire to downplay their own minority status and forge unity among fellow Arabs on linguistic and ethnic, rather than confessional, bonds.

But Rezkalla—along with a small band of other young Egyptian liberals whom I’ve met—has no time for the discredited ideologies of the past like Arab nationalism. Grouped around a relatively new non-governmental organization, the Egyptian Union of Liberal Youth (EULY), they look to the classical liberal thinkers of Europe and America—to John Locke, not Gamal Abdel Nasser. What the Arabs lack, he tells me, are the ideas necessary for the construction of a decent, prosperous and truly democratic society. “What Reagan did for Eastern Europe, no one did that for the Middle East. Don’t give money”, he implores me when I ask what the West can do to help Egypt. “Give ideas!”

This belief has placed this young set of Egyptian liberals in an uncomfortable position. They are dubious of, if not downright opposed to, the revolution that removed Mubarak from power. And they have reason to be. The Muslim Brotherhood and likeminded Islamist parties won some 60 percent of the vote in the November parliamentary elections. A more extreme Islamist element, the Salafists, is acting with more impunity in its attacks on Christians. According to civil society organizations, more than 12,000 civilians have been detained and sentenced by military tribunals since February, surpassing the total from the entire three-decade history of the Mubarak regime.

When I explain the skepticism of these Egyptian liberals to other secular Egyptians who took part in the protests, I am told that these individuals must have connections to the Mubarak regime, as there could be no other possible explanation for an Egyptian to oppose the revolution. This curt retort, this immediate resort to the ad hominen, this hesitance to entertain any doubt about or second-guess what’s transpired in Egypt since Mubarak left the stage, is indicative of the populist mentality that Rezkalla and other Egyptian liberals fear.

Not long after protests against Mubarak took form in late January, a media narrative developed about the political state of play in Egypt that persists to this day. It presents a story that is as simplistic as it is erroneous. There exist, according to this analysis, roughly three groups in Egyptian politics: the “liberal” protestors, the Islamists and the military. The last of the three has been the easiest to define: The military is the strongest and most respected institution in Egypt, and its agenda—preserving its economic power and privilege in society—is evident in every action it takes. As for the Islamists, their true program has been obscured by a media that throws around the term “moderate” indiscriminately. But it’s the so-called “liberals” whose media portrayal has been most misleading.

“I picked up Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France after the Tunisian uprising and have been re-reading it ever since”, Amr Bargisi, the director of programs of EULY wrote for a symposium on the Arab revolutions published in the Jewish Review of Books earlier this year. In a contribution entitled, “Reflections on the Revolution in Egypt”, Bargisi observed that, “Like the Arab uprisings of today, the French Revolution initially sparked much enthusiasm and little skepticism”, yet, “Burke’s attack on ‘the spirit of innovation,’ the desire to break with all things past and establish an entirely new social and political order, still resonates.”

Most frustrating to Bargisi over the past year has been what he considers the naive and overly optimistic coverage of the international media, which could not help but fall for the hundreds of thousands of young people in Tahrir Square. “What the Western media has been calling the ‘secular opposition’ consists mostly of naive pseudo-activists alongside many opportunists, mediocre thinkers and madmen”, he wrote. I encountered this reality for myself when I attended one of the raucous protests outside the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, two weeks prior to the riotous demonstration that would force the Israeli Ambassador to evacuate. Most astonishing to me was that the vast majority of the protestors were not bearded, outwardly religious Muslim men, but smartly dressed, secular youth. The very people whom the Western media lauded for their courage in standing up to Mubarak were the same ones chanting “Death to the Jews.” In 2009, Bargisi and his EULY colleague Samuel Tadros co-authored an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal entitled, “Why Are Egypt’s ‘Liberals’ Anti-Semitic”, which named and shamed several prominent political figures—some of whom have been the recipients of grants from Western NGOs and all of whom have been the subject of fawning international press coverage—for their public statements and writings. The piece earned the pair the undying enmity of a significant portion of Egypt’s secular political class.

Fundamental to the young liberals’ hesitance to embrace the revolution is their sophisticated understanding of what constitutes a free society. It requires much more than elections. “I view democracy as a tool to achieve a certain outcome and that’s a free society”, Tadros, who is currently residing in Washington as a fellow of the conservative Hudson Institute, tells me. “I do not downgrade a free society to just mean the word ‘democracy,’ which I think is the major problem with how the West views these events. The concept that we associate with freedom and liberty has been downgraded to meaning the holding of free and fair elections.”

Bargisi and his comrades have not rallied around a presidential candidate or political party. Instinctively hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood (which ran under the banner of its newly-created “Freedom and Justice Party”), they are left with the vast array of secular parties that campaign on platforms that all include the code phrase “civil state.” Yet while the secular parties are opposed to the further encroachment of Islam, they are almost all socialist or even communist in their economic outlook, that is, if they even have one. “The reason [the Muslim Brotherhood] succeeds is because, unlike what we think, they have a very clear message”, says Tadros. “We’ve always accused it of not having a program. I’ve read the 93-page program. It is a program. What do the others have?”

The political figure most capable of winning over these Egyptian classical liberals is Naguib Sawiris, a billionaire Egyptian businessman who has founded the free market-oriented Free Egyptians Party. But it will be hard for Sawiris’s party to gain traction given that he is a Christian; his tweeting a cartoon of Mickey Mouse with an Islamic beard caused controversy and calls for boycotts of his telecommunications companies.

“The question of who’s next is totally absent”, says Karim Badr, an economic researcher. The revolutionaries, he tells me, “thought getting rid of Mubarak was the solution. But the regime is the offspring of Egyptian culture and society.” Badr is seriously concerned about the effect that the revolution has had, and will continue to have, on the Egyptian economy. Last December, just a month before the street protests began, the country’s economic growth was forecast at 7 percent. That it managed to weather 4.5 percent growth throughout the global financial crisis is a testament to the fact that Mubarak was undertaking serious economic reforms. (Now, with the tourism industry all but dead and showing scant signs of recovery, the economy is contracting).

This is why, Badr says dismissively, the secular protestors who initiated the revolution were mostly middle class. The vast majority of the country, which remains poor, did not have serious problems with the Mubarak regime as it was steadily enjoying a higher quality of life under it. But the aspirational class, which has access to the Internet and some means of foreign travel, whose social advancement is more visibly thwarted by the corruption and nepotism of a dictatorial regime, and which is not living hand-to-mouth, places a higher value on political rights than do residents of Cairo’s vast slums. Tadros mockingly cites one of the slogans of the Tahrir revolutionaries: “Bread, freedom and social justice.” While he had no disagreement with the call for “freedom”, he found the calls for “bread” particularly revealing. “Egypt is the country with perhaps the lowest price of bread in the world”, he says. “A loaf of bread costs less than 1 cent. That tells you something.”

Bargisi and his cohort will defend Mubarak’s economic performance. But, as liberals, they have no sympathy for his imprisoning of dissidents or attempt to pull off a dynastic succession with his son Gamal. Without political freedom, Mubarak’s economic reforms will only go so far. “Those who argued that economic liberty was possible without political liberty, I find the argument as wrong as people who say that political liberty is possible without economic liberty”, Tadros tells me. Yet the liberals’ objections to the behavior of the Mubarak regime do not amount to a full-scale repudiation of its existence and a desire to wipe the slate clean. “We do not have sufficient foundations for a truly liberal democratic regime, and these can only be laid down through a slow, patient work of building civil institutions in a stable atmosphere”, Bargisi writes.

Egyptians love to blame shadowy and nefarious outsiders for their nation’s failures. Such talk quickly becomes conspiratorial and has long served as perhaps the greatest stumbling block to launching the widespread reforms that the country so desperately needs. Unfortunately, those deemed “liberals” by Western media are hardly immune to this discourse. “Egyptian liberals love to blame Saudi Arabia for their problems. Every Islamist problem in Egypt is blamed on Saudi Arabia”, Tadros tells me, confirming something that I heard many Egyptians liberals say when I asked them about foreign relations in the post-Mubarak era. “Now, historically, if you want to discuss which country corrupted the other, it’s Egypt into Saudi Arabia and not the other way around.” Indeed, for all of the scorn that Saudi Arabia rightly earns as the headquarters of Wahabbism and the birthplace of Osama bin Laden, it is Egypt that gave rise to the Muslim Brotherhood and that can claim credit as the birthplace of Islamism. Similarly, rather than look inwards to the causes of the country’s ever-worsening sectarian tensions, many Egyptian liberals stretch credulity and blame the military, an explanation that suits the Islamists just fine. “When a liberal gives us an article about how the regime is behind all sectarian problems in Egypt”, Tadros says, “I question whether this person is actually a liberal and if they are capable or dealing with the sectarian problem.”

One of the few things that many of the secular and religious Egyptians I met agree on is their admiration of the “Turkish model” (though one suspects that the latter demographic’s praise for Turkey under the moderately-Islamist AK Party is not entirely sincere, in that they think Turkey isn’t Islamist enough). Yet, Badr tells me, “no one’s thinking how the Turks got their model.” Turkey didn’t become the widely lauded Muslim democracy that it is today until the 1990s, when the military’s power to supplant elected governments had been sufficiently weakened. And, in turn, Turkey has become more Islamist, slowly abandoning its Western-orientation in pursuit of a position as leader of the Muslim world.

Counterintuitively, Bargisi believes that the best hope for a liberal Egypt, given the circumstances, is if the Muslim Brotherhood gets the opportunity to steward the country. This is because the job of ruling Egypt right now is unenviable, and that whichever force comes to power is bound to lose popular support. This scenario, then, may provide sufficient time for genuine liberal ideals to take hold and for a true democratic opening to form. Bargisi tells me that there are three conditions, however, for this to happen. The first is that the international community must take a “lukewarm attitude, not too hostile, not too welcoming”, to a Brotherhood-led Egypt. “Too hostile helps the Islamists; too welcoming helps the Islamists”, he says.

Second, is that the West, and the United States in particular, should move away from the realm of “day-to-day” politics—full of rank opportunists and poseurs, in Bargisi’s opinion—and instead “focus on civil society, think tanks, independent movements, political groups.” And for this civil society to flourish, the military must “stand as a guard on democracy” and give up its “chauvinism.” But most important is that those Egyptians opposed to the instantiation of a clerical state need to know as clearly as their Islamist opponents in which direction they want to take the country. “There must be some kind of vision for what the country should look like, and in this complete vagueness, the Islamists will win”, Bargisi tells me. “It’s clear and obvious to me. Or we will revert back to some kind of despotism that looks like Mubarak, only we don’t know if it will have the merits of Mubarak.”

Egypt’s young liberals believe that the reason their ideas have so few adherents is because they have been given precious little opportunity to disseminate them. “They haven’t rejected liberalism”, Tadros says of his countrymen. “They haven’t been given a proper liberal discourse.” While the Arab world may not seem like fertile ground for classical, European-style liberalism, Tadros says that, with time and effort, a sizeable number of Egyptians will come around to recognize the failings of the other ideologies on offer (Islamism, nationalism, and socialism, or some combination of the three), not least due to these governing ideologies’ implicit endorsement of the statism and incompetence of the widely loathed Egyptian bureaucracy. “The Egyptian peasant is limited in what he can grow on his land, because bureaucrats in Cairo think Egypt should be self-sufficient in wheat. I tell the peasant, ‘it’s your land, grow on it what you want.’”

This is a tall order, of course, and the Egyptians of EULY have no illusions that their free-market, individualist, secular creed will catch on soon, if at all. The track record of revolutions is far from pleasant, and given the penchant in Egypt for populism, it’s unclear how much room exists for classical liberalism. And so Bargisi is left ruminating over the same lines of Burke that immediately came to his mind upon his first visit to the Tahrir Square protests: “But what is liberty without wisdom, and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice and madness, without tuition or restraint.”

James Kirchick is a contributing editor for the New Republic and a fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.