The case for political liberalism (Part Six)

Tewfick Aclimandos
Sunday 28 May 2017

The Egyptian youth, be it an activist or not, is a big unknown, despite pioneering work by Youssef el Chazli and Chaymaa Hassabo. In other words, Egypt, basically a very young country, is a big unknown

It is unknown for a lot of reasons: one of them electoral sociology and opinions surveys are the most reliable starting point if we want to assess what is happening. We do not have this tool. We have to rely on valuable, interesting, but limited in scope, research on small segments. 

Different segments claim to be representative samples and of course it is difficult to know. The authorities tend to consider the youth as a whole: this has the useful purpose of minimizing the activists’ relevance.

But the result is the youth is considered by many segments of the regime to be a massive threat: immoral, angry, addicted to drugs, with bad manners, potentially violent and suffering, much more than the elders, from the awful rise of the cost of leaving.

Those who have a much more positive view of the youth say “this is a formidable and dynamic force, but a force that needs to be channeled” – I think this is the wrong approach, at least as long as the “channel” is not redefined. We should also point out to a well-thought effort by the regime to create a young elite and to gradually empower it, but this is relatively small and will take time.

What seems to be sure is the following: at least in the big cities, there is at least a growing uneasiness with and, may be, a silent rebellion against all patterns of authorities: fathers’, teachers’, men of religion’s, political leaders’. The youth wants to be heard, not to be lectured. They want to say what they feel, not what they are told to say. They are more and more alienated.

It is not clear for me if they reject current patterns in the name of a better one, of if they are seduced by nihilism and anarchism. It is not clear if they say to the elders “behave according to the moral norms you are teaching”, or if the message is “we are fed up with your norms”. A mixture of both is probably the right answer, but this is a guess.

We do not know how the different segments of the youth consider the main Egyptian institutions and political forces. It is safe to assume at least significant portions are disillusioned with all or most what they see, and this is not going to change quickly.

Of course, anarchism or nihilism are not liberalism. Some of those who are not tempted by those want a kind of conservative political liberalism, be it religious or secular. And others are radicalized, either leftists or Islamists. Many, I guess, are “escapists”. After a short-lived incursion in the public sphere, they now focus on their inner self and narrow circles. The escapist can remain faithful to a political affiliation and preferences, he can also reject all affiliations, not wanting to see any of them prevailing, he can also be indifferent.

One particular brand of “escapism”, exit, is rarely mentioned: a friend pointed out to me tens of thousands of the educated youth are leaving Egypt, and study abroad. Most are either liberals or mild conservatives fed up with the overall political and economic situation, and it is safe enough to assume many will not return.

This superficial, and may be wrong, review is necessary to understand the situation of Egyptian liberals and their dilemmas. Many liberal themes had won, at least for now, the battle of ideas: public opinion want to hear different voices. It is now also skeptical toward radical agendas (the collapse of many Arab states plays a role in this evolution). Nobody really believes miracles are possible, the expectations are much more realistic and modest.

Liberal troops remain relatively tiny, but their importance has significantly grown during the last decade and most are concentrated in the main “theater”, Cairo. The events had rid liberalism from one of its handicaps: the fact that many liberals had opted for working with former president Hosni Moubarak and his son Gamal. Between 2011 and 2012, this was crippling. Passions, since them, have quiet down. The rejection of authoritarian patterns, and the excesses of many authoritarian actors, do not necessarily lead to liberalism, but it surely helps.

This does not mean things are now easy for liberals. At least two of their main leaders opted for the exile, look too “Americanized” for Egyptian tastes, and do what the Egyptians do not like: they lecture the regime and society. They tell the latter it is radically vitiated and it committed a terrible sin when it hugely voted for President El-Sissi.

The Egyptian set of beliefs is (as all political cultures) a complex one. Some liberal dogmas are welcomed, as already said. Others are not. Lecturing unwillingly emphasizes what is not accepted. Many liberal leaders seem to be unaware of the damage done to their cause by the relentless religious propaganda that assimilated liberalism to permissiveness and to license to systematically attack core religious beliefs. They also do not take into account the deep fear of globalisation – and they often look as if they belonged to the globalised elite. This is sometimes an asset, but usually it is crippling.

Another problem is radicalism. I already said radicalism is now unpopular. But things can quickly change, if moderates fail to deliver. Usually, moderation is, rightly or not, associated in people’s mind with “competence”, and if it stops being so, it is in danger. I am afraid Egyptian liberals’ prominent figures combine the drawbacks of moderation and radicality, that is considered to be radical on issues where Egyptians prefer moderation and too moderate on other issues.

But let us conclude with an optimistic conclusion. First of all, all the liberals I know are more intelligent than their leaders, so there is hope. Second, liberalism is not only a discourse, but also a practice – and liberal practices are much needed now. We cannot blame those who prefer the exile, but liberals are badly needed now (and I am not one of them).




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