Egypt now needs political liberalism, since social conditions, public opinion awareness and the complexification of its infrastructure call for it. And yet there is no serious prospect for a new try.
There is more than a grain of truth in this. Nevertheless, like all sharp dichotomies, it rests on some exaggeration. Political liberalism, at its Egyptian birth, provided some great landowners and some new professions (lawyers, for example) with weapons targeting both khedivial autocracy and backwardness.
Egyptian liberals’ attitudes toward British occupation shifted with the times: at some moments, it was preferred to a return of the Ottomans, at others liberals spearheaded the struggle for national liberation.
Egyptian liberals’ achievements are great, especially if you acknowledge the incredible difficulties they faced: the Egyptian “great culture” of the previous century is the fruit of their efforts (together with the leftists). They played a decisive role in women’s liberation.
Much of the modernisation that occurred during the first half of the 20th century can be described as the result of a joint effort between liberals and the monarchy.
Of course, the semi-liberal political system failed to deliver on some key issues: real political independence ending British occupation, a transition from an agricultural and rural economy to an industrial one, the struggle against the triangle of “poverty, illiteracy and illness," and against huge inequalities.
And the liberals were, as usual, divided: some had conservative views on cultural and societal issues, others progressive ones. Some focused on the “aggiornamento” of religious discourse and issues, others opted for full secularism. They also diverged on economic issues.
Both their achievements and their failures provided their foes with arguments and weapons: women's liberation was the destruction of the family; modernisation was Westernisation and a betrayal of authentic values and identity; secularisation or religious reform endangered the faith; endless debates were a major distraction while the British occupation was still there; culture was not needed when 95 percent of the population was illiterate; liberalism was the ideology of the urban privileged and the new middle classes — it had nothing to bring to the rest of the country, and so on.
It could also be argued that modernisation in Egypt was, most of the time, an authoritarian process. Liberals had nothing against modernisation, but of course they disliked authoritarianism. They never really knew how to confront this contradiction and tried many approaches, none of them convincing.
Last but not least, Egyptians developed a strong hate for multiparty politics. It was divisive, petty and ugly. It was the domain of the dirty, of dishonesty, corruption and “deals.” It was the realm of petty tactics, of clientelism, etc. This had an indirect but nevertheless deep impact on liberalism’s fortunes.
The semi-liberal formula died in the beginning of the 1950s. For some 60 years, authoritarian nationalists and Islamists struggled for political and cultural supremacy. These were the times of military officers, technocrats, Islamist intelligentsia and militants, not those of enlightened rural notables, lawyers and intellectuals. The initial achievements of Nasser seemed to prove correct the critics of liberalism: liberals were talkers, not doers. Liberals did not care for the poor. Liberal meant Westernised.
Sadat and Mubarak’s policies inadvertently paved the way for liberalism. Or, to be more accurate, they created the conditions for a liberal revival. More and more Egyptians could no longer rely on the state for providing jobs, education, and healthcare.
The development of a vibrant private sector created classes of Egyptians whose wages were not paid by the state. These could increasingly afford to have views widely different from those of regime officials. With Egypt’s insertion into regional and global markets, it became easier to travel and to get acquainted with other ways of living and ideas (be it Western or Saudi). Later on, the internet “democratised” this process.
The regime’s discourse was losing its appeal. It became less intelligent than Nasser’s. It could not be legitimised by stunning achievements, by grandiose projects. It remained intrusive, oppressive and authoritarian. People wanted to hear different voices, different discourses, and the Mubarak regime obliged.
Sadat had opted for an alliance of sorts with Islamists. He needed them in confronting the leftists and the Nasserists, who were gaining ground in the universities after the disastrous 1967 defeat. He also needed them for his realignment with Saudi Arabia and the United States. They would also deliver the basic services the failing state could no longer provide. Religious discourses, many of them fundamentalist, were disseminated and became increasingly vocal.
Since 2005, signs of lassitude with widespread aggressive bigotry were noticed in Cairo. This was not necessarily a sign of “atheism” or “secularism.” Many believers no longer accepted to be lectured on what to think or what to do and became more and more impatient with those who tried to impose types of behaviour, who kept on implying the average citizen was not a good Muslim. Many of the urban youth started to rebel against all kind of authorities, paternal, political, religious, and so on.
Post-2011 elections proved Cairo was not (or was no longer) an Islamist city. The fall of president Mubarak put Egyptians in front of their responsibilities: they had to participate in the draft of new rules, of a new pact. After years of political indifference, they had to learn, and to learn quickly. Most were eager to hear different views; most were eager to create an Egypt were every Egyptian had a place and a right to participate.
This was a time when millions of Egyptians had a deep sympathy for some, if not all, liberal themes. This was a time propitious for a new start for liberals. However, they seem to have missed the train.
To be continued.