The case for Egyptian political liberalism (Part Two)

Tewfick Aclimandos
Wednesday 18 Jan 2017

Are liberal or democratic concepts a Western product; do their non-Western proponents understand them?

It is worthy to recall a well known story. During the first third of the 20th century, prominent liberal intellectual Ahmad Lutfi El-Sayyed was running for a parliamentary seat and was a candidate in a rural area where he had strong family ties. His competitor, facing this formidable opponent, tried to discredit him and said he was a democrat, believing in democracy, a new anti-religion doctrine inherently atheist.

During his electoral meetings — a key event in the pre-television era — people asked him: “Are you a democrat?” He kept on replying, “Yes, and I’m proud of it.” He lost the election as people were shocked at a prestigious public figure who acknowledged being an atheist.

This story, real or apocryphal, is often used for different sakes. You either mock the peasantry’s ignorance, or the intelligentsia’s lack of political flair and inability to communicate with the crowd. More often than not, this story is used to tell us these Western concepts are “imported” by a “Westernised elite” that scorns its people. Ordinary people do not understand them and are accustomed to the “Islamic idiom”, which is deemed legitimate (unlike the secular one).

Commentators tend to forget this story occurred at the beginning of the so-called "liberal experience." Yes, in some illiterate rural areas, 90 years ago, democracy may have been a strange and new concept. But this is no longer the case.

Moreover, you should not forget that Ahmad Lutfi El-Sayyed was the son of a wealthy peasant and self-made man; he understood and knew quite well the countryside and rural life. The main argument of his campaign against the Islamic veil was: the veil is an urban custom, not an Islamic one, and in rural Egypt no woman wears the veil.

His pleading for democracy also used a lot of Islamic arguments. For instance, he said autocracy was like erecting a new Allmighty God, a most un-Islamic way of doing things.

I’ll deal with issues related to this point in a subsequent article. I just want to say here that the two accusations — a) liberal or democratic concepts are a Western alien product; and b) they are not even understood by their proponents — are potentially contradictory. These alien concepts were Egyptianised and were an answer to specific Egyptian needs.

In this Egyptianisation process, their meaning evolved and sometimes became different from the original Western one. This does not mean Lutfi El-Sayyed and his heirs did not understand them; it means they used them in a different context with different aims and different results. Nevertheless, these concepts still belong to their origin. It is obvious, of course, many writers use concepts they do not understand, but this is another story.

Last, but not least, it might be argued that some Islamic concepts are at least as obscure for the average Egyptian as Western notions.

I would argue that liberalism is now a homegrown product, adopted by persons and actors who are not necessarily Westernised. They do not master foreign languages, have not travelled abroad before their “conversion;” they do not know the classical books exposing liberalism’s view of the world. Of course in our globalised world they have access, through movies and television, to "liberal society." But I bet this plays a marginal role.

Egyptian political liberalism is not only the mantra of some Westernised elite. Egyptian political liberalism is a reaction to the oppression or to the pressure exerted by the custodians of nationalist and religious orthodoxies, by the civil, religious and parental authorities, by the overwhelming weight of customs telling you the proper thing to say while you keep to yourself what you want to say, how you feel, etc.

This is especially clear in Naguib Mahfouz and Farag Fouda’s cases. The first was a Cairene who never traveled abroad, and the second was a countryside nationalist intellectual who did not like the fundamentalist project. Both were attacked by extremists who tried to kill them.

Egyptian political liberalism is also an Egyptian answer to the creeping and threatening confessional divide, or religious strife. It is also a way, a discourse to protect ways of life threatened by one of the many monist agendas competing for supremacy.

My colleague Viviane Fouad told me last week, with a wry smile, the secular parties were terribly weakened by the disappearance of the Muslim Brotherhood’s project. The secular parties were popular as long as the Muslim Brotherhood was in power, because a lot of people felt threatened by the Islamist agenda. As the threat receded, people ceased to feel the need for “organised and institutionalised secularism."

Can we transpose this to “liberalism”? Yes, secularism and liberalism are different things, but both are exposed to attacks claiming they are anti-religious and Western ideas. But liberalism has a decisive advantage over secularism: it is easily and obviously associated with pluralism and its virtues. The ties between secularism and pluralism are less obvious for the crowd, except when monist forces become too threatening.

Of course, you can formulate the objection: if all this is true, it means that the stronger the monist agenda is, the more it is oppressive, the more you’ll find liberals. And this is not the case. Suffice to compare with other Arab countries. This needs a detailed and thorough discussion I must postpone.

For now, I want to evoke another point. Nasser, in his celebrated “philosophy of the revolution,” had an interesting thought. He said all Egyptians have the same (nationalistic) instincts, so the easy way to gain credit and to achieve unity is to stimulate these instincts, to talk to them, whatever the costs, and this way is at best sterile, as it leads to maximalist and demagogic attitudes. The only way to achieve substantial progress is to talk to reason, to pay tribute to realities, but this is divisive. When you use rational arguments, people never agree, as they do not define “possible” and “impossible” in the same way, while selling a compromise is always difficult.

The sentence, written by a towering nationalist figure, “Egyptians have the same nationalistic instincts,” needs a thorough discussion, which will follow in my next article.

To be continued.

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