A case for Egyptian political liberalism (part three)

Tewfick Aclimandos
Sunday 19 Feb 2017

Why is liberalism unpopular in Egypt?

I mentioned in the previous paper Nasser’s interesting statement in Philosophy of Revolution: if you want a consensus, national unity, then stimulate the passions, talk to the instincts, be maximalist – but of course you will achieve nothing, as this comes at the expense of realism.

But if you want to achieve results, to progress, you should behave according to reason, you should talk to reason, you should be realistic, but this comes at the expense of consensus – people never agree and you are exposed to accusations, as the definition of a satisfactory compromise greatly varies. Some people do not even accept the idea of a compromise.

This deserves some (rational) discussion, as it goes against the liberal mantra and may explain why liberalism is unpopular in Egypt.

Liberalism assumes deliberation is the main political activity, that it enables consensus building through compromise, and warily considers instincts and passions: they are violent, divisive, and dangerous. Moreover, liberalism does not easily accept the premise “everybody has the same instincts”. I should add Nasser’s statement goes against the findings of political psychology, which tell us people tend to understand their country is plural, and tend to consider people of other countries to be homogeneous.

A first explanation could be the “context”. Egypt, albeit independent, endured British occupation, and of course everybody wanted to end this. Moreover, between 1948 and 1977, Egypt was at war with Israel. These were times of national unity.

But things are more complicated. Nationalism tends to consider the people as united by destiny, language, culture… and instincts. Of course intelligent nationalists know things are subtler: Nasser, in the same book, described a typical middle class Egyptian family: the father was a rural notable, the mother from Turkish descent, the sons spoke Arabic and English, and the daughters spoke Arabic and French.

Change and modernisation occurred at a quick pace; the successive generations had widely different mindsets. This situation was deemed necessary… and accidental, it should not last. The target was a modern Egyptian culture. Nasser cleverly exploited all the talents willing to work for him, nevertheless the reins and the key positions were in the hands of those considered to be “real Egyptians” – sharing the same nationalism and goals.

It is not clear to me if Nasser, who was wary of the divisive effects of rational solutions, thought these were divisive because many were unable of rational thinking (a common stereotype in Egypt), or because everyone had his own way of assessing things, or a mix of both.

I should add he was wary of “personal and private interests”, which had an impact on discourse. Anyhow, it is clear he thought discussion on nationalist hot issues and on many others (where, for instance, science was supposed to have a say) cannot bring results, probably because a perfectly rational deliberation is a utopia, and because powerful interests belonged to the old regime and are never rational.

Both traditional liberalism and mainstream Egyptian liberalism assume people are different and do not necessarily have the same instincts; society is pluralistic. Political trends and forces should calmly deliberate to solve their problems and issues.

Liberalism pays tribute to rationality and does not like passions, which are deemed dangerous. Rationality enables consensus building, while passions are inherently violent.

American philosopher Michael Walzer brilliantly proved liberalism should correct these assumptions: first of all, even in democratic regimes, politics is not only about deliberation and rational discussion.

Second, you cannot achieve real, major change without a huge dose of mobilisation and passion. Passion and reason are both needed.

Third, passion can achieve both the best and the worse, and the same goes for reason. In practice, everybody has both. The key distinction should be between good and evil, not reason and passion.

These corrections should strengthen, not weaken, liberal philosophy. Still, political liberalism has many weak points – for instance it assumes people are de facto equal, and therefore it is very poorly armed for confronting huge inequalities – as Nasser correctly saw.

But it also has many strong ideas: arguably, it is one of the best attempts to deal with human pluralism, pluralistic societies, human differences and human dignity.

I don’t consider thoughtful liberalism to have problems with the idea of a difference between good and evil, or with the necessity of confronting foes, but this is a too complex issue for a column. Suffice to say liberals are not always thoughtful.

Let us return to the “instincts” issues. Nasser and the nationalists’ statement is unambiguous. The liberals prefer to say the contrary, though some would admit that some common instincts do exist and are necessary for a serious discussion to succeed.

It should be clear instincts, in Nasser’s mind, had a specific meaning. Instincts are and were related to the sacred, to the sacred causes. On sacred issues passions are aroused and quickly and legitimately become violent, while rational discussion is impossible and rational thinking is difficult.

Do Egyptians share the same instincts? Of course you can easily build a case for “yes” and a case for “no”, and of course it is difficult to know without reliable polls.

It also depends on your definition, on the issues, on the times. Of course here what is relevant is not how things are, but how you think they are, and how you deal with them.

However, it seems possible to say this: the case for the yes was much stronger during the so called liberal era and during the early Nasser years – in other words, during British occupation, when Egyptians were unified against it, and when the society was basically rural, relying on agriculture and suffered from deep inequalities.

Now the case for “no” is much stronger, as nationalism and Islamism clash, as society is much more complex, and as different ways of living coexist with difficulty.

In other words, liberalism was once weakened by the overall Egyptian situation. But now the question is: is it suited for the current situation?

To be continued

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