The American Interest
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Egypt, for Real
Published on March 29, 2011

A couple of days ago, I was asked a few questions about what chances liberal forces had in Egypt after the referendum. My response was in the negative. The young activists so often described in the Western media as liberal, democratic or secular stand no chance in the next parliamentary elections scheduled for next September.

This judgment is not only based on the existence, or non-existence, of either those forces or their strength, but also on the nature of the elections system in Egypt and the way the districts are drawn. The overrepresentation of the countryside and the two-candidate-district design means that the “liberal” forces only stand a chance in 21 districts out of 222. Even if they win all of those seats, they will hold less than 10 percent of the seats in parliament. Of course, some traditional opposition politicians will win elsewhere, but they will totally rely on their family connections in those districts and will run as traditional patriarchal candidates.

The next question I was asked was, naturally, “So what can they do?” Initially, my response was again in the negative. There are historical and institutional reasons that liberalism has failed in Egypt in the past and will continue to fail in the future. For the past couple of days, however, I have continued to think about that question. Do we really stand no chance, and how can we overcome those overwhelming odds?

Let us begin with the historical crisis.

The Crisis of Egyptian liberalism is a long and sad story. It is the story of intellectuals who emerged—not from an independent middle class like that of the European bourgeoisie—but from the state bureaucracy. Their most-cherished dream was a self-contradictory program of a state-sponsored modernization forced upon the rest of the population. It is a story of a complex love-hate relationship with the West as a representative of modernity; this group neither fully embraced nor ever rejected it, but it always regarded it with a sense of betrayal. It is also a story of a failure to understand modernity—a failure to distinguish between it and the Enlightenment—thus forever dooming them with an inability to deal with religion. The current crisis in Egyptian liberalism is not a new one; it is rather the latest manifestation of a crisis that Nadav Safran dealt with fifty years ago in his book Egypt in Search of Political Community.

Egyptian liberalism’s goal was always a state-sponsored project of modernization. With this goal in mind, Egyptian liberals were always writing and talking to the one actor that could enforce their project: the state, or more precisely, the ruler. If the ruler held all the chips and if he alone could enforce the dream, why bother talking to anyone else? Why bother addressing the Egyptian population? Thus the natural outcome was a tendency to ignore the Egyptian population, and from this tendency arose an elite that was detached from the rest of the population, that was inclined to ignore, ridicule and show them disrespect. When this elite was forced to address the rest of the population, nationalism was the chosen mechanism.

Egypt’s intellectuals could never overcome their love-hate relationship with the West. Since the day that Napoleon landed in Alexandria and introduced modernity to Egypt, the inescapable question was the one voiced by Bernard Lewis: “What went wrong?” The initial answer to his question was an effort to copy the advanced technology of the West. The intellectuals viewed science and technology as a mere collection of findings, showing no acknowledgment of the underlying philosophical spirit. When that project failed, the answer changed to one of unity. Gamal El Din El Afghani struck the initial note with his insistence that the West was a unified entity and that the East had to achieve the same unity if it hoped to compete. Nationalism in the Middle East might have been, as Elie Kedourie had argued, an idea imported from the West, but it was also a way to confront the West. In the process, and following the spirit of the age in the 1930s, it was inevitable that nationalism would lose whatever liberal tone it initially carried and adopt an anti-liberal tone in imitation of the various totalitarian ideologies of the day—initially fascism, then Arab Nationalism, and, lastly and inevitably, Islamism.

The Egyptian liberal project was modeled on France. Student missions were sent to France and ideas were imported back to Egypt bearing “Made in France” labeling. France, then a world power standing against Egypt’s occupier, was the greatest source of inspiration. It should thus come as no surprise that the French understanding of the world shaped that of the Egyptian intellectuals. The French Enlightenment became the benchmark and, as a result, its form of secularism became the model. While the Egyptian intellectuals could never follow Atatürk’s footsteps, their ideas were not that different from his. They could never accept or understand religion or the role it plays in the public sphere. In a nutshell, they read plenty of Voltaire and Rousseau—but nary a line from Burke.

This is the historical crisis, and this is also the current challenge. Egyptian liberalism has never been able to find a coherent voice that addresses the rest of the population. It has further suffered from the various totalitarian ideas that crept into its discourse. It is thus no surprise when you find self-described liberals adopting anti-Semitism or anti-Western slogans in their rhetoric and suggested policies.

While it is impossible to change this historical problem in one day or even one year, there are certain steps that might change liberalism’s chances in the next elections. So without further delay, here is a plan of action for Egyptian liberals:

1. Split

You read that correctly: The various liberal groups need to split, and they need to split ideologically. Let me begin to explain why by asking a simple question: What do a free market liberal academic, a socialist movie director, and a religious group with 300,000 members have in common? (No, this isn’t the beginning of a joke.) In Egypt, they all come together in a political party.

Why would people who have no ideological common ground form a party? The answers are the obsession with unity and a lack of ideology. Egyptian liberals’ response to every historical setback thus far has been, “We need to unite.” This reflex action is precisely problem. When people who share no ideology unite under a common banner, they fail to settle on any coherent program. Try for a second to imagine what the groups described above would have for a party platform: some catchy slogans on freedom and democracy, a bit of social justice, and nothing else. Their very obsession with unity prohibits them from forming coherent programs based on clear ideological views. If liberals are to stand a chance in elections, they need to form parties based on clear ideas, and thus clear programs. People will not elect a party that has nothing to offer but slogans that have no tangible effect on their daily lives. It is an insult to the Egyptian people to suggest otherwise.

2. Choose Where to Run

It is a joke for an emerging party without grassroots organization to attempt to compete in every district in the country. It is a total waste of resources and, quite frankly, nudges such a party into offering one-size-fits-all plans for the whole country that end up suiting no one in particular. The Law of Comparative Advantage is of paramount importance here. Let me cite an example. Suppose a member of a free market political party: Should this person run in Helwan, where the district is mostly made up of labor voters? Of course not. And it would be pure insanity, for example, to run in any of the desert districts, where the vote falls along purely tribal lines.

3. Tailor Your Programs for Your District

The obsession with unity and the accompanying obsession with offering a nationwide program ensure that any platform you come up with will be content-free. People in the various districts might be interested in what your overall plan for Egypt is, but what they mostly care about is how you can address problems in their particular district. Let me again cite an example: Economically, I am a libertarian. I would like to limit the state’s interference in people’s lives and its role in the economy. Almost every expert would tell you that I stand no chance in any district in Egypt. But I am willing to bet that, with my ideas, I could compete or even win in any rural district in Egypt. Let me explain how.

First, as a believer in private property and the withdrawal of the state from the economy, I would demand that the peasants be allowed to build on their agricultural land. The Egyptian elite, in its obsession with keeping the agricultural land in Egypt intact and its concomitant obsession with making Egypt agriculturally self-sufficient, has banned people from building on the agricultural land that they own. My campaign slogan would be, “This land is yours. Build on it.”

Second, no government should tell you what you have to plant in your land, nor should it be allowed to decide that a certain percentage of Egypt’s land is allocated to wheat, or any other specific crop. My slogan, “It’s your land. It’s your decision.”

Third, as a believer in taxing only income and not property, I would demand that the government cancel all forms of fixed taxation on agricultural land.

The possibilities are endless, of course. The important thing to note is that I didn’t give up on my principles; I just tailored them to suit the specific district I hoped to represent.

4. Respect the Egyptian People

For so long intellectuals have dealt with the Egyptian people as ignorant and uneducated. They have cried for many hours over their sad fate at being born into such a country. That has been their weakness. They never respected their countrymen, and in turn their countrymen never respected them, having recognized their slogans for what they are: empty. They need to talk to the Egyptians, offer them coherent ideas, and trust in man’s capacity to understand his own self-interest. Egyptians are not from Mars. Like all other people in the world, they seek their own good. Egyptian liberals’ job is not to educate them from on high; it is to use their ideas to create programs to further Egyptians’ own interests.

5. Reframe the Debate

The need to reframe the debate follows from all of the other points above. Because liberals have been obsessed with unity that lacks any meaningful ideological content, they’ve forgotten that they don’t really share many interests between themselves. They don’t share an economic outlook. They differ on social policies. They also differ on foreign policy. The only thing they have in common is what they are not. They are not Islamists. Note that, perhaps without anyone even noticing, this ends up framing the debate as one between Islamists and the rest. This is a losing debate for the liberals,—ot because Egyptians are ignorant religious people who blindly obey their religious leaders, but because, given the choice between an incoherent political message and a coherent Islamist message, Egyptians will choose the latter.

Drawing battle lines between ideological camps that differ economically is a means of reframing this debate. This forces the Islamists to play in a field in which they don’t have any natural advantage. Imagine for a second that the political battles in each district is driven by a clash of economic ideas: What would an Islamist candidate have to offer? What is his economic policy? He has none; he has never needed to. Now he has to come up with one, which creates the real possibility of a split within the Islamists ranks is possible.

6. Overcome Your Hatred of Islam

Religion and tradition are not evil forces in the world. In contrast to what Egyptian liberals might have learned from French secular books, there is a positive role for religion. In fact, religion and public morality are essential to a truly free society. Egyptian liberals have been blinded to this truth by their inability to distinguish between Islam and Islamism as a modern ideological construction. They need to overcome their hatred of religion and obsession with Atatürk and the French model. There are other models out there. The United States is but one. Egypt’s model might be slightly different, but Egyptian liberals need to find a formula that allows religion to play a role in the public sphere without controlling it.

This is the action plan. Does it ensure victory? No. But it gives Egyptian liberals something they have never had before: a fighting chance. In the long run, to be sure, they face enormous challenges. A society that swims in a huge vacuum of ideas will not turn into a liberal democracy overnight. A liberal democracy is not a ballot box, nor can it be equated solely with the current obsession with free and fair elections. A liberal democracy is a free society, where dissent is tolerated, private property is vigorously defended, the rule of law upheld, religious freedom protected, and individual liberties understood as the real guarantor of freedom. Building a liberal democracy depends on two things: liberal democrats and democratic institutions. Both of these require ideas. Of course, people do not read Jefferson and suddenly become liberal democrats overnight. Nevertheless, it is impossible to build a country without the ideas that have shaped modernity as we know it. Ideas matter, and Egypt’s liberals had better start realizing that.