Back to top

Liberalism without Liberty: An Egyptian Paradox

Millions of people took to the streets and squares of Egypt in the run-up to 30 June 2013. What made this date especially symbolic for Egyptians is that it was the day Muhammad Morsi was sworn in as president last year. A first in the political experience of contemporary Egypt, the election of a civilian to the highest political office, head of state, should have brought with it many dreams to be fulfilled. However, these dreams, fragile to begin with, were seemingly dashed as the country continued to be plagued by political instability and the economy tottered close to the precipice of collapse with their attendant negative effects on everyday life. 

Thus, the millions who were taking to the public spaces of Egypt, especially in Tahrir Square, were motivated by a severe sense of discontent about a plethora of issues. Accusations were rife of the Ikhwanification of the state: Morsi was alleged to have inserted members of the Muslim Brotherhood, despite the fact that he resigned from both the group and its political arm after being elected president, into positions of power to the exclusion of other political trends. 

Demands for Morsi to step down were paradoxically accompanied by calls for the military to step in. A wish duly fulfilled on 3 July. Defence Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's declaration on Egyptian state television suspending the constitution of Egypt was the crest of a wave sweeping Morsi out of power. He was flanked by the robed clergy of both al-Azhar and the Coptic Church, Ahmed alTayyib and Pope Tawadros respectively, including other diverse prominent personalities such as representatives from the army, the Salafi Nour Party, the Tamarod (Rebellion) movement and Muhammad el-Baradei. 

The ousted bespectacled president, currently held by the army and whose whereabouts are unknown, was both a staunch Islamist and a technocrat. More often than not, the technocrat in Morsi tended to dominate over the general policy of the government. Most members of former Prime Minister Hesham Qandil's government, appointed by the overthrown president, were similarly technocrats with Brotherhood members forming a minority of ministers. Economic recovery and political stability were thus premised on the official platform of the nahda (renaissance) in a spirit of pragmatism facing crises from many quarters. 

Constant civil unrest accompanied by a lack of real security, a brash attitude by some of Egypt's key neighbours and the inability of the state to resolve growing problems converged to create an intractable situation for a president who increasingly relied on his own supporters to shore up his rule. Despite the major blunders committed by Morsi in failing to include other political actors, running the Egyptian state was a task mired by complications. Disgruntled striking police within the Ministry of Interior on the one side and an all-powerful Defence Ministry on the other also combined to blunt Morsi's exercise of power as the elected executive. 

Liberalism in Egypt and throughout the Middle East in the second part of the twentieth century has not been an entirely democratic affair. Culture rather than politics was the focal point for its mosaic identity of East and West. Names such as Taha Hussein and Naguib Mahfouz have left their stamp on a rich body of literature: the individual is a thinking and feeling autonomous agent. Unfortunately this philosophical stance has not been found its way into politics leading to the exclusion of Islamist political actors. The track record of liberals in government does not bode well for enthusiasts for democracy in the Middle East. Liberalisation was largely understood in economic terms: the dismantling of state monopolies for the benefit of individuals and companies who had a developed a stake in the opaque nature of the state. Protecting liberal values in the struggle of a face-off with Islamists, read fanatics and terrorists, was one of the principal legitimising credentials brandished by Mubarak during his authoritarian reign. Although democratic procedures were present, regular elections, political parties and a constitution, they were emptied out of any real substance. 

Genuinely free and fair elections, the first in living memory among Egyptians, had to wait until after Mubarak's ousting in the 25 January Revolution. The majority of the electorate cast their votes with the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party and the Nour Party winning 40% and 30% of parliamentary seats respectively. The resultant legislature and its two chambers were dissolved later by the Supreme Constitutional Court largely staffed by Mubarak era appointees on the basis of the unconstitutionality of the electoral law. Fast-forwarding to the summer of 2013, Egyptians had voted seven times in their tens of millions from the elections-first referendum to the referendum that passed a new Egyptian constitution in a wholly unprecedented democratic experiment in the region: perhaps rivalled on a smaller scale in Tunisia. 

Certainly, a significant number of those who were on the other side of the political divide, coalescing around the National Salvation Front, have played less the role of democratic opposition and more of anarchic opponent. Influential liberal voices such as el-Baradei, a former director of the nuclear watchdog IAEA, began to call on the very same forces to intervene that propped up the regime of Hosni Mubarak that he so vehemently opposed: the top military brass. Presumably, one may surmise with some accuracy, el-Baradei decried Mubarak's rule precisely because it was undemocratic and was backed up by force. After being mooted for the post of prime minister, rejected vociferously by the Nour Party that originally supported Morsi's ousting, he now serves as vice-president for foreign affairs for a military-installed president who happens to be one of Egypt's most senior judges from the Supreme Constitutional Court. 

Tentative steps in a democratic transition, after decades of authoritarian rule, face numerous risks in Egypt. The Nile Valley nation has a population of over 80 million who are largely politically and economically disenfranchised. Naturally, differing and contradictory needs and interests will emerge, above all when democracy becomes the watchword on the lips of citizens thereby creating numerous opportunities and limitations for a democracy to take shape. The common thread tying these opportunities and limitations is how are the positions of more than 80 million citizens to be reconciled? One answer may lie in the forging of institutional mechanisms that acknowledge the collective will of the Egyptian people in a series of representative layers. 

Athenian-style democracy, democracy in its purest form according to the Cambridge intellectual historian John Dunn, is out of the question. Anarchy would ensue if an attempt was made instead of fostering a democracy based on the nation-state. Top-down politics and bottom-up activisms need to find a compromise in order to create and cultivate a political culture where all parties concerned respect the rules of the game. There isn't a single model for good government: binaries such as direct-representative, parliamentary-presidential, decentralised-centralised, local-national and state-federal provide 'ideal types' that can be combined and recombined to respond to local contexts. 

Trial and error is an inevitable aspect of the bumpy ride of democratic transitions and the civilian nature of politics requires the building up of political capital - namely trust. Only through concerted bargaining among civilians, elected politicians and active citizens, can the national interest be arrived at. The Egyptian army has, once again, re-emerged as the arbiter of what it considers to be the national interest. Protection of the nation is a robust conviction of the army. This self-image has extended beyond simply safeguarding the borders and territorial integrity of the country: it is also directly concerned with the state of society. At present, however, the attainment of trust is more elusive than ever before.

Constitutionalism as a test is fraught with controversy: most, if not all states, would fail. Rather than adopting a purist conception, allowing indigenous conceptions of the public good, maslahah, would enrich the discussion on assessing the contributions of Islamists to national life in their countries. 

Islamists, including the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, have adapted the notion of constitutionalism into their discourses. A candid piece by Imam Zaid Shakir, a well-known Sufi figure of Zaytuna in the USA, on recent events in Egypt zones in on this most pressing of issues. Although the crucial nature of constitutionalism is clearly illustrated, the piece betrays a fatal weakness of the classical Muslim tradition: the clash between the belief in an omnipotent God and the notion of the accountability of human actions. A fatalism of sorts in the present is sketched out by Imam Shakir motivated by a piety constructed on the writings of past theologians and mystics.

Further, the underdevelopment of political jurisprudence on the part of Muslim jurists can be, in no small part, attributed to the belief 'this is God's will' as apologia for tyranny. Rethinking of the basic premises of theology and mysticism may very well create the conditions for the production of an indigenous contemporary jurisprudence of politics resting on individual liberty that Islamists can draw upon: something liberals in the Middle East have not convincingly done in theory or practice. And the ousting of Morsi, an Islamist president, is nothing short of ultra vires of both the Egyptian constitution and constitutionalism in general. 

The deaths of protestors, their growing number too, are a scathing indictment of the undemocratic nature of the force of arms to effect political change. Bullets cannot be a legitimate replacement of ballots with the embryonic  dawla madaniya (civil state) being aborted inspired by a misguided notion of 'resetting' the push for democracy since March 2011. In response to Morsi's ousting, millions of citizens, not only hailing from the Brotherhood, have also protested to voice their displeasure of the overturning of the democratic electoral process. As a result, a counter-coup movement has been born demanding the reinstatement of Morsi while many Brotherhood leaders either have been arrested or are subject to arrest warrants. 

The massive political investment poured into electioneering seems momentarily not to have paid off dividends for an Islamist movement that eschewed violence as a tool for political change. 

Nonetheless, senior figures from the Brotherhood have continually reiterated their commitment to peaceful protest to preserve their hard-won democratic gains. Reform through the ballot box not revolution by the bullet may better characterise the Brotherhood's gradualist form of politics however inadequate their time in government.

Mohammed Moussa has been awarded his doctorate on renewal in the Islamic tradition at the University of Exeter, Exeter. He is a Muslim Institute Fellow. One of his chief interests, among many, is the Arabo-Islamic heritage as part of a broader and richer experiment called humanity.