North Africa, West Asia

Liberalism without democracy: the case of Egypt

Maged Mandour

The weakness of the urban middle class and their sense of isolation has become a bastion for the support for autocracy. Fear of a social revolution has been the main driver in the alliance between the military and the urban middle class.

Maged Mandour
20 February 2015

At the time when the Egyptian revolt was ignited in January 2011, it seemed to carry with it most of the characteristics of the birth of a new liberal constitutional order. The protests driven by the urban middle class were focused on liberalising the political system, the rights of citizenship and the protection of human rights.  

There were no demands for democratising the economic system, as the sanctity of property was to be respected, and when ideas of massive wealth redistribution began to emerge, they were quickly sidelined. In essence, the demands were for a top down change in the political system. The discourse that followed was based on the assumption of the neutrality of the state, and control over it would be achieved through strictly legal means.

The struggle against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) was limited to the legal realm; mainly a struggle over the constitution or the presidential elections.

Ironically, the same social group has become one of the most ardent supporters of the military coup that removed the Muslim Brotherhood from power, as many of them clearly supported the subsequent massacres as well as human rights abuses under the guise of fighting terrorism, which have been taking place since August 2013. In essence, they have become an anti-revolutionary bulwark.

The question is, why has such a significant shift occurred?

The most obvious explanation for this is that it has something to do with the classist and orientalist view that this social group has of the rest of Egyptian society. The view of the barbaric savage that is the Arab World - originating from the west - is held by those urban groups over and against their own compatriots.

There is no organic link between the urban middle class and the rest of the country. It is as if they live in two different worlds, where the humanity of the rural dweller is abrogated and his rights undermined. Apparently, the middle class sees itself as a ship surrounded by an ocean of illiterate sub-humans.

Few of the more enlightened elements hold the traditional liberal paternalist view, that peasants, workers, and slum dwellers can through education improve their condition. In other words, if we tell them the “truth” they will understand and follow us down the “right” path, and if they choose another path, then it's because they are unenlightened.

Others hold the view that their fellow citizens in the underclass need to be ruled by force, because there is no hope of their “rehabilitation” to join the civilised urban classes.

The electoral triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood seems to have confirmed this fear. The Brotherhood, whose main base of support remains in the rural areas of Egypt (particularly the underdeveloped south), struck fear into the hearts of the urban middle class. It appeared that the underclass was about to take over the political and social lives of the middle classes, threatening their way of life, and most importantly the conception this class holds of itself and Egypt.

The threat was portrayed as existential, in that political power would be moved from the capital to the periphery, allowing the rural petit bourgeoisie to take a leading role in Egyptian political life. As such, the worst fear of the urban middle classes was the ideological threat the Muslim Brotherhood followers posed to them, in that they might lose their position as king makers in the Egyptian polity, a role traditionally reserved for them over decades.

The urban middle classes also found the ideological base of the Brotherhood a threat to their way of life, which in essence served to remind them of the “un-European” and “illiberal” position of Egypt. In other words, the image that the urban class holds of Egypt as a bastion of moderation and a country that is civilised by “western” standards was threatened, confirming the inferiority complex that this class has with regard to itself.

This manifested itself in the critiques of Morsi’s English skills, since perfection in English is used to gauge ones position in Egypt’s social hierarchy. Critiques of the First Lady’s appearance were also common, because she supposedly had to appear as more of a western urban woman rather than a traditional Egyptian. Ironically, the fact that President Sisi does not even speak English seems to have gone unnoticed.   

This provides an ideological justification for repression and undemocratic practises. The fear of the masses has caused the middle class to support the military in its bid to assert its dominance over Egyptian political life. As such, the alliance between the middle class and the lower class, which was the basis of the western European revolutionary model, is not on offer in the case of Egypt.

The weakness of the urban middle class and their sense of isolation has become a bastion for the support for autocracy. Fear of a social revolution has been the main driver in the alliance between the military and the urban middle class. This also helps to explain the limited nature of the demands presented by the protest movements, which aimed at opening up the political system and instating political reforms rather than ushering in massive social change. In essence, the aim was to create a liberal order without the full democratic participation of the masses.

The other rationale for the support for the military is economic. Even though the military has a massive economic empire stifling economic competition, the alternative of a full-scale revolution seems worse from the viewpoint of the middle class, as it would naturally involve a shift in economic resources from the urban centre to the periphery, where the majority of Egyptians live. It would also involve increasing demands by the lower classes for their basic rights.

The idea of the worker or the farmer demanding their rights is terrifying to the middle class, who have become accustomed to exploiting the lower classes as a fact of life. As such, the oppressive nature of the military is more favourable to the chaos that a social revolution could involve. The suppression of the “savages” becomes the ultimate goal, because if the democratic order does not yield these results, it too has to be sacrificed.

Thus, one could argue that the failure of the Egyptian Revolution, in its liberal form, was a foregone conclusion, given the weaknesses of the Egyptian middle class and their fear of the masses. 

The electoral wins of the Muslim Brotherhood and what that represented threw those classes firmly into an alliance with the military out of fear of a widening social crisis, which could have potentially opened the floodgates for the poor and the under classes.   

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