The unbearable lightness of Arab ‘liberals’

The election results gave little say to the revolutionaries, a leaderless group with no structure or any clear, unifying agenda. This camp – which includes leftists, nationalists and remnants of the old regime – rallies under the vague banner of liberalism. 

Fatima El Issawi
21 August 2013

Last spring, in a buzzing coffee shop in Cairo, I listened to the analysis of a journalist from the old Mubarak regime as he described to me the likeliest scenario to bring president Morsi’s rule to an end. At the time, I took this scenario as an expression of wishful thinking. The journalist chose to distance himself from the prominent media discourse, in waiting for a possible comeback. He stressed that, “Morsi will not remain in power for more than a year. The anger of people and their frustration will drive them to the streets in their millions. In this case, the army will have to intervene.”

But how, I asked?

“They will have to find a civilian figure to formally lead this operation, but they might not need it,” he said.

The military coup backed by millions who took to the streets this June calling for an end to the Muslim Brotherhood regime could be a more sophisticated version of the scenario foreshadowed by my interviewee. According to the same scenario, the next phase will witness new elections in which the former candidate and figure from the Mubarak era, Ahmed Shafic, will win the vote. This also implies Shafic would be cleared from current charges against him by the judiciary and with him, former President Hosni Mubarak.

Whether this second phase will materialise or not is not so relevant; the implications of the “popular” coup d’etat in Egypt pose quite enough danger to the symbolism of the Arab Spring which is, in essence, an act of liberation and rebellion against the oppression so often administered by the security apparatus. The bloody crackdown on pro-Muslim Brotherhood protestors sparked little sympathy within a propagandist Egyptian local media and a military-friendly public opinion. Liberals who once went to the streets asking for a civilian democratic regime are equally supportive of these military operations. The military coup in Egypt has opened the door to a new chapter in the battle between the two unique institutions in the Arab world: the Islamists and the army. In this battle, the so-called liberals are barely visible.

We used often to portray the clashes in the Arab uprisings as an arm wrestle between the pro-liberal (secular) and the pro-Islamic camps. In the latest developments in Egypt, this description proves inaccurate. Who is this pro-liberal camp? Has this camp ever really existed beyond the discourse of hatred for the Muslim Brotherhood and radical Islam? Who and what do Arab liberals really want?

The first democratic elections post the Arab revolutions witnessed an easy triumph won by the Islamic parties. In the rush for the ballot boxes, the crucial priority of drafting new constitutions was dismissed. The election results gave little say to the revolutionaries, a leaderless group with no structure or any clear, unifying agenda. This camp – which includes leftists, nationalists and remnants of the old regime – rallies under the vague banner of liberalism. Their electoral failure could have been attributed to their desperate lack of credible leadership and their inability to find a unifying voice. Rather they perceived their loss as a result of a western conspiracy to support Islamists, not to mention the “vicious” media bias of regional Arab and foreign media in favour of the Brotherhood governments, according to the same conspiracy theory.   

In Tunisia as in Egypt, to rule under the conditions of this transition is nothing but a deadly trap. There are acute economic problems, high rates of unemployment, the spread of violence and insecurity, the lack of consensus on crucial matters and, most importantly, the lack of a common vision for the future. How can any political party manage such a thorny process? Further to this, the newcomers to power had little to no experience in governance, as illustrated by their authoritarian double standards in policies. Their high inefficiency was exacerbated by an extremist discourse disseminated by religious national TV stations that had just begun taking up politics as an interest. The appalling radical content propagated by these TV channels, such as the denial of minorities and women’s rights, was enough to erode the Islamic government’s popularity among middle class citizens who are strongly conservative yet who still reject extremism.  Ruling the country was quite an impossible task. The bloated body of civil servants known as the “deep state” was reluctant to cooperate with the Muslim Brotherhood, the longstanding enemy, demonised for decades as the worst threat to the country’s security and future.

The truce between the Islamic new rulers and the military was short lived in Egypt. The rapid fall of this partnership in Egypt should prompt us to ask whether the poor performance of the Muslim Brotherhood government was simply a golden opportunity for the military to assert its popularity and power.

The struggle between the two major institutional forces meant that it was high time for the ‘liberal’ camp to build its street credibility, as opposed to relying on its longstanding elitist role and dodgy links to former regimes. Instead, this camp defined its identity by rejecting the Islamic discourse, labelling the Islamic camp’s supporters as “mice” or “lambs”. Their ability to bring millions to the streets in protest was, once again, not translated into a political structure. The alignment between this camp and the military-backed government going so far as to applaud the violent crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood must seriously question its integrity.

The unbearable lightness of the pseudo-liberal camp and its inability to translate its agenda into political goals means it can never represent a serious alternative nor a third way ahead. The conservative nature of Arab societies leads to a situation where the large majority of people are not able to understand what being liberal really means. It is no coincidence that Mahmood Jibril, the Libyan leader of the liberal coalition, was quick to state, “we are not liberal. We are not secular, we are Muslims” – immediately after the victory of his national coalition in Libya’s first democratic election! In the extremely conservative Libyan society, the ‘liberal’ label could easily be interpreted as anti-Islam. Millions who went to the streets in opposition to the Brotherhood’s rule in Egypt were misidentified as a growing liberal trend. They simply reject the Muslim Brotherhood, perceived as an anti-national and dodgy organization, with a regional agenda at odds with national interests. Those who voiced their support for the powerful General Sisi to back his intervention against “terrorism” were definitely not driven by a liberal quest but by the fear of a supposed “terrorist” threat of Islamists.

“What will be the role of the revolutionaries after Morsi?” I asked the Egyptian journalist at the Cairo coffee shop. His response: “These youth played a very important role in breaking the stagnation under Mubarak. This is their role, it cannot go beyond this.” Unfortunately, I have to agree with my interviewee. For the pseudo-liberal/revolutionary camp it is all about giving a round of applause to those who will accede to power in the name of democracy, and in waiting for… Godot?

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