In October 2015, the Economist published a piece titled the Sad State of Egyptian Liberals. It said liberals in this country were in crisis and enumerated the reasons: internal divisions (most of them due to strong egos) lack of money, inexperience, and a terminology that proved alien to most Egyptians. More specifically, a “limited government” was a foreign idea the Egyptians did not understand.
The alien terminology argument is debatable. I would rather say, for instance, that Egyptians (at least the elites and the urban and rural middle classes) understand quite well what constitutes a “limited government,” but they, rightly or wrongly, do not consider this to be a top priority.
Most either want to radically reform the society — and for this a strong, efficient and even absolutist state is necessary — or, they want to promote and protect their interests through a kind of clientelist relation with the State, so they prefer to avoid antagonizing it. Last, but not least, many want security and are afraid of "the people" as a political force.
Most of the other critiques seem much more pertinent.
The liberals are divided, of course, but the egos are only a partial explanation. It seems to me that Egyptian liberals have different origins: first, they are the daughters and sons of old wealthy families, which were, more often than not, affiliated with the Wafd party before 1952. These families may have been side-lined or co-opted by the Nasser and Sadat regimes; they remained faithful to the Wafd political culture, or to that of the liberal era.
This culture holds a Egyptian mixture of conservative, reactionary, liberal and progressive worldviews. The individual views can be very different on gender issues, religion and world affairs, but most are committed to more or less free market economies.
They are united by a common diagnosis: these individual differences are okay, healthy, even necessary… and these families are the “natural” leaders of Egypt: the Nasser regime’s original sin is seen as its denial of this elite’s “right” to govern.
To put it differently, these people are the elite; liberal norms govern intra-elite relations, and to some extent their relations with the people, provided everybody respects the hierarchy. Some of them have a very ugly conception of the last notion.
Most of these liberals simply are not involved in politics. Instead, they focus on private sector careers. The few who have tried to participate in politics have been disheartened, either by the regime or by the unending power play among the parties. However, they read the international newspapers, speak foreign languages and carry sound common sense and a deep understanding of Egyptian politics.
I would even say their understanding of world affairs is fair (notwithstanding a gross overestimation of the power of lobbies). They do not like the post-1952 regimes and their legacies.
The second origin of liberals gave us the daughters and sons of the effendis, the (more or less) westernised, educated middle class who were the top civil servants, the engineers, doctors, merchants, judges and lawyers of both the monarchy and Nasser regime. They share a lot of common features with the first group.
Of course, there is no unanimity in this second group regarding experiences under Nasser and many are not against the state’s intervention in the economy. While they believe some are “more equal” than others, they have a more egalitarian worldview than the first group.
These first two groups form crucial components of the “enlightened public opinion.” Few of them participate in politics, but most of them read, comment, discuss politics, and have a kind of “transmitted knowledge” of political and human affairs.
The third and the fourth groups are more active and much more visible. The third stems from the radicalised left that rooted itself in the universities between 1968 and 1978, before losing the war for control of the campuses to an alliance of Islamists and regime supporters.
This extreme left organised the massive demonstrations of 1968 and 1972. The regime considered them as enemies and they reciprocated – though it may have been the other way around.
This radicalised left’s evolution looks pretty much similar to that of its western counterparts. Some remained committed to the idea and the goal of a revolution, as faithful leftists. Others decided revolution was an impossible goal and tried to re-join the ranks of the state, or of the alliance of state and business.
Others became journalists, or members of the microscopic political parties. Others started looking for other and new kinds of militancy and activism. They converted to liberal culture and to human rights activism.
A real revolution was deemed impossible, so they focused on political and social rights and on gender and minority issues. Their brand of liberalism is very different from the one shared by the first two groups. They were more politically active: indeed, they were a key founder of the Kefaya movement.
We easily forget today their contribution: all of a sudden, they broke taboos and liberated the language, which stopped being the expression of what we should say, becoming a tool for expressing what we wanted to say.
Of course, they can and they should be criticised. In some ways, human rights culture and activism are a betrayal of the social sciences’ legacy, as they tend to believe modifying the law is enough to achieve decisive progress. This culture is not very strong at building political coalitions. It seldom takes into account the context, the realm of possibilities.
Finally, its political memory is seldom an asset or a guide. The Egyptian authorities tried to undermine these activists’ international funding and connections to delegitimise the whole process. It considered them foes who pursued war against the state through other means.
The fourth group is by far the youngest. It entered in politics at some point between 2000 and 2010. They are the daughters and the sons of the first three groups’ members, plus some who are fed up with the authoritarian patterns that structure political, religious and social lives in Egypt.
To be continued