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Egypt’s liberals and the elections

While it is important to understand what advantages Islamists had in the elections, it is also important to understand where liberal and secular forces failed

Bassem Sabry , Saturday 31 Dec 2011
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“Panicked” doesn’t even begin to describe the feelings of many of Egypt’s more liberal and secular citizens. The results of the first and second rounds of the nation’s first apparently free parliamentary elections have been nothing but cause for serious existential introspection for the country’s entire liberal movement. In fact, many outside of Egypt share the same disheartened emotion, whether in the public sphere or governmental circles. To be sure, almost everyone expected an outright Islamist victory and majority in parliament, but few expected such staggering scores, with the Islamists set to easily dominate eventually at least 65-70 per cent of parliament. The one side of the debate that grabbed most of the headlines and airtime centered on why Islamists were doing so well. But the question of why the liberals haven’t done as well is equally important.

First, and perhaps foremost, there’s the question of defining what the ideologies themselves mean to the people. The words “liberalism” and “secularism” themselves have been under heavy assault for decades in Egypt, and much of the Arab world, most particularly so since the end of the January revolution, framed as the antithesis of everything that a tradition-respecting Egyptian should call for. And both liberals and seculars have failed to project an alternative and proper public image and understanding, or create a uniform, clear, realistic and attractive message that could rationally appeal to a wide base of predominantly conservative citizens and voters. In fact, they often appeared to the public just as the opposition to conservative political forces, rather than entities with their own clear and unique project. This failure was both the result of the apparent lack of presence of such a consensual, consistent, coherent and presentable mainstream ideological construct from the start, as well as the difficulty of defining in clear terms the proposed delicate legal and de facto relationships between liberty and tradition in a society like Egypt.

And things were only further complicated following the formation of the nation’s electoral alliances. While at first there were two major coalitions, with one of them (the Democratic Alliance) led by the Muslim Brotherhood yet still inclusive of household liberal names such as Al-Wafd Party (whose head later stated that Al-Wafd was neither a “liberal” nor an “religious” party, but a centrist one, in an effort to appeal to the mainstream), and another more outright liberal bloc lead by the Free Egyptians Party (FEP), by the time the elections actually began to take place the Democratic Aliance had lost many of its mainstream parties, including Al-Wafd, and became more essentially a Brotherhood-based coalition. And with both blocs offering somewhat identical and very broad platforms and economic programmes, including the later-arriving Salafist third bloc, the debate further shifted to reinforce the perception that people were voting over the “identity” of Egypt, rather than a range of public policies, with one bloc appearing to represent the negatively-perceived ethea of secularism and iberalism, and the two others appearing to better represent local traditional values.

Moreover, a look at the Egyptian Bloc’s composing triumvirate of parties reveals the centre-right FEP, the centre-to-centre-left Egyptian Social Democratic Party, and the leftist Tagammu Party, further reinforcing the perception that the only thing that would unite such genetically different entities would be their unity over the preferred “identity” and socio-political ideology for the nation. There’s also a degree of agreement that vocal coptic support of the Egyptian Bloc, and the inextricable association with controversial coptic telecom tycoon Naguib Sawiris as one of the main muscles behind the bloc, both didn’t help allaying the vocal suspicions of many conservative Egyptians over the vision of the bloc and relevant liberal forces for Egypt.

The question of identity also gained greater focus as attention to other, perhaps more pressing, questions was mute. There was little, if any, detailed and limelight-grabbing talk, debate or policy proposals on primarily technocratic issues such as healthcare, agriculture, transport, economic stimulation, or legal reform. Such debates would have helped further healthily engage the voter, widen the room for party differentiation and positioning, and create more a sophisticated campaigning and political environment based on real policy issues. But that was not the case.

Liberal parties have also fallen victim to another growing unflattering association, this time between “liberalism” as an ideology, particularly on the economic side, and the fallen Mubarak regime. The crony capitalist practices, corruption and the perceived rising socio-economic inequality between Egypt’s richer and poorer populations have been connected with both economic liberalism per se as an ideology, and also with Mubarak’s regime. And liberal figures and parties have not appeared to the exhausted public eye to significantly deviate in their economic plans from the basic premises of macroeconomic policy as implemented by the Nazif government of the former regime in the last several years, whether rhetorically or in terms of policy, though still promising to act firmly against corruption and ensure that they will (somehow) attend to the vague-yet-popular principle of “social justice”. This is an ironic deal breaker, given that almost all the major contending parties, including conservatives, have economic platforms that are essentially similar.

The liberals, other than being mostly newly-founded parties or predominantly based in larger cities, suffer as well from either a very recent and weak presence in Egypt’s various governorates and rural areas, as well as having a relatively smaller base of vociferously passionate volunteers. Conversely, the Brotherhood has had an organisational ground network that has been developed steadily over 80 years, including an army of loyal, rigidly-managed and active membership, and that network has been actively providing varying degrees of aid, social assistance and religious education to the members of such communities almost consistently for decades. The Salafists as well have been very active on the ground on both the social and religious levels, and command strong influence and loyalty over their followers through their dedicated media outlets, and were rather more ignored by the former regime than the Brotherhood due to the Salafists’ former doctrinal shunning of political involvement before the revolution. Thus, while liberal groupings will certainly aim to be present in various capacities in such areas in the coming period, the Brotherhood and other Islamists will have two advantages: they were present first and for much longer, and they were present and active long before elections were ever an issue.

It is true that the Egyptian Bloc and other more liberal or “civil” forces (as they are referred to in Egypt) are certainly doing a respectable job for entities that have mostly been founded less than six months ago. Nevertheless, they have a long path ahead towards becoming legitimate and competitive heavyweights in Egyptian politics.

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