A case for political liberalism? (Part One)

Tewfick Aclimandos
Thursday 29 Dec 2016

Political liberalism has a bad name in Egypt and Egyptian liberals are seen, both in Egypt and elsewhere, as irrelevant aliens

People who are liberals would prefer another label: progressives, Wafdists, democrats, anything else. When the daily Nahdet Misr presented itself as a liberal newspaper, many pundits considered this to be a serious marketing mistake.

I’ll try, first of all, to sum up the case against political liberals and liberalism. I’ll try to mention all that I heard or read, whether the argumentation is widespread or not. And I’ll try to discuss some points.

I do not think I’m a liberal. But I believe Egypt now needs a strong dose of political liberalism, and also needs accuracy in describing what is going on.

Political liberalism is deemed un-Egyptian. We are told this ideology is a Western product, which was never successfully transplanted here. It uses a foreign idiom nobody understands, it is the appendage of Westernised elite that does not even bother to be committed to it, its terminology is absurd.

It is the weapon of an educated elite who thinks the regime is marginalising it, and who wants to participate in the decision-making process, but is totally unable to win any kind of election.

These arguments are the fundamentalists’ and the conservatives’ ones. Some of them would add: Egyptian liberals are not real liberals, they never read the relevant books, and they are not even seriously Westernised: they know nothing about Western values (egalitarianism/equality), their superficial Westernisation is a tool for separating themselves from the “people”, a way of claiming elitist status.

At best, they are inconsistent: they are liberals because they are afraid of the theocratic projects, they are in effect seculars who prefer authoritarian secularism to religious democracy, and who are content with a kind of protected status in an authoritarian context, provided their privileges and their way of living are not attacked.

Many conservatives and fundamentalists also think liberalism is the polite word for permissiveness. Liberalism is the program of those who do not want to abide by the religious teachings. Moreover, in a bi-confessional society, each confession wants to see the other becoming more and more liberal, and does not criticise itself.

Progressives or statists or others would tell you: political liberalism assumes there is a consensus on the polity, a consensus on the peaceful internal struggle, and is powerless when you face ideologies endorsing and believing in hatred and in armed violence. It is powerless against evil.

Some would add political liberalism assumes the citizens earn a living, are well educated, and can freely vote for their candidate without fear of retaliation from their boss. In Egypt, this is not the case.

Consider the Egyptian liberals’ attitudes toward the Muslim Brotherhood. If they say there should be a reconciliation, a negotiation, a place for them, they are criticised: they are terribly oblivious to the nature of the threat. If they say there is no place for them, people tell them they are betraying their ideals. In fact, you can find advocates for each of the two propositions. So their critics say they are unable to agree. Liberals think politics is like a nice conversation in a restaurant, between polite people displaying their culture.

Last but not least, who are the liberals? Whoever you pick, be it Sawiris, ElBaradei, Amr Hamzawi, it will be easy to prove that important sectors of public opinion — fundamentalists, nationalists, nasserists, conservatives, leftists, young revolutionaries — are not fond of them.

I do not claim an exhaustive review of all the arguments of the case against Egyptian political liberalism and liberals. It is clear some attacks are relevant and powerful while others are unfair.

It is also obvious Egyptian liberals are attacked for two different types of reasons: the weaknesses of the liberal schools, be it traditional, modern, post-modern, national, post-national, multiculturalist, but also for their failure to be serious and committed liberals.

Let us review these arguments. When you state that liberalism in un-Egyptian, you say many different things. For instance, you say the usual way of doing things in Egypt is authoritarian: the family is authoritarian, the State too, the religious institutions also, etc. Even the political liberal parties, for instance the Wafd, were governed in an illiberal way. Many critics of ElBaradei say he does not listen and he takes his decisions alone.

Egyptians are fond of strongmen and this is not going to change in the near future. The popularity of the stupid but sophisticated doctrine of the “just tyrant” is another case in point.

Ok, fair enough. But this raises many points: when you write a constitution or a law, do you have to accept the usual way of doing things or do you need to look for ways of improving it? Does the legislation need to counter bad habits or to accommodate them? There is no obvious answer: you need to combine realism with idealism.

As important is the following diagnosis: there is massive evidence that the Egyptian youth (and this is a lot of people) and many crucial segments of the population are fed up with current patterns of authority. Authoritarianism secretes the need for liberalism and strengthens the case for it.

There is massive evidence proving at least some liberal themes are gaining in popularity. People want to hear different views, they are fed up with propaganda. Stupid propaganda does not consolidate monism: it endangers it.

I also would add that the total failure of the 11/11 “revolution”, which turned out to be a non-event, is strong proof of the maturity of Egyptian public opinion. It will be more difficult to fool it.

Saying political liberalism is un-Egyptian, you also say it is a Western product, it is an alien idiom, which was unable to transplant itself in Egypt. Even political liberals, we are told, do not understand it and do not abide by it. This needs a serious discussion, scheduled for the next paper of this series.

Suffice to say here, as a starter: neither the late Wafdist leader Mustapha El-Nahas nor the late prominent intellectual Farag Fouda were “Western products”: they spoke a language everybody understood, and their problems and their idiom were local.

To be continued.

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