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Egypt's liberal coup?

Contrary to appearances, the embrace by some Egyptian liberals of anti-democratic practices may not be in contradiction with their liberal principles. This goes to show that the ‘goods’ of liberty and democracy are not identifiably the same or always harmonious, and it is mistaken to think so.

Egyptians in Berlin call for the removal of then-president Morsi. Demotix/ Thorsten Strasas. All rights reserved.

In search of justification 

On 30 June 2013, Egypt’s first democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi was deposed by the military. Among the more surreal facts of those eventful days, was that the very revolutionaries who had been at the forefront of the Egyptian revolution that led to the downfall of Mubarak, were either calling for military intervention to depose the increasingly embattled Morsi, or cheerleading the coup from the side-lines. During the western post-mortem analysis that followed, it was notable how quickly these activists were no longer designated liberals, but instead described as anti-Islamist instead. How do we make sense of the speed with which many western analysts dismissed the liberal credentials of the activists?

Presumably, the operating assumption was that no ‘true’ liberal would have supported a coup and therefore any liberal justification can be safely ruled out of hand. But is such an assumption vindicated by the liberal tradition? What follows is a closer examination of the tradition, which will reveal that liberalism is more than able to justify the military coup on its own terms, and not on ‘realist’ terms alone. I argue that not only does liberalism fail to provide a doctrinal constraint in safeguarding democracy, it can even advocate its removal if the need arises. Furthermore, I will show why western liberals were unable to recognise liberal arguments for the coup, and why they may find it difficult to recognise such arguments in future. Not only can the coup be justified, but Arab liberals may also have a vested interest in perpetuating an anti-democratic military regime – and not solely for reasons of material interest, but as consistent with their liberal beliefs.

A built in disadvantage: rise of illiberal democracy in the Middle East

In his recent book The Temptations of Power, (see excerpt) Brookings fellow Shadi Hamid argues that the Arab Spring showed that any notion of stability in the Middle East was illusory, and that the west must be ready to accept the eventual emergence of ‘illiberal democracies’. Hamid presents numerous polls suggesting that many beliefs commonly associated with an Islamist political platform are widespread in the Arab world. For example, in a 2012 Pew poll, 60 percent of Egyptian respondents and 72 percent of Jordanians favoured laws strictly adhering to Qur’anic teachings. In Egypt, 80 percent supported the view that adulterers should be stoned, 70 percent favoured amputating the hands of thieves, whilst 88 percent endorsed the death penalty for apostasy. In Jordan, the percentages were 65, 54, and 83 respectively.

Hamid argues that even if the reliability of these polls were questionable, it would still mean that a fair percentage of people in the Arab world espouse some seriously illiberal views. In this sense at least, Islamists cannot be considered radicals who wish to impose an extremist social order on an unwilling populace, the picture so often presented to us. It is hard to disagree with Hamid’s conclusion that the “vast majority of Arabs have no a priori ideological opposition to Islamism as such. Most, after all, support a prominent role for Islam and Islamic law in political life.”

But where would an illiberal democracy leave Arab liberals? In a telling anecdote, Hamid says of Egyptian Islamists that “despite occasionally trying, they simply couldn’t bring themselves to take liberals seriously.” This can partly be explained by liberals’ previous tolerance for autocracy over Islamism, as the lesser of the two evils. But also more significantly because liberal parties had obvious weaknesses. Despite their ubiquitous presence in print and media, liberal elites had a distinct lack of presence on the street, weak party organisation and limited experience in campaigning. And when elections came, they were not ready. Outside of Cairo and Alexandria, liberal parties had little presence, and even less in far-flung rural areas. It’s no surprise then that the Brotherhood grew increasingly contemptuous of them, dismissing them as “cardboard parties”.

However, this only partially explains their disdainful attitude. Islamists and Salafists had an ill-disguised scorn for the “foreign” or “infidel” ideas of liberals; ultimately Islamists questioned whether liberals had any natural constituency in Egypt. During elections, religious language and reference points were pervasive in campaign discourse, and Hamid suggests that this led to a built-in electoral advantage for parties campaigning on a religious platform.

Liberal parties, on the other hand, had trouble defining what liberalism actually meant in the Egyptian context, and because of the pressures of overtly religious discourse, even avoided using the term. Hamid quotes Mustafa al-Naggar’s explanation that on the Egyptian street “liberalism” equates to “disbelief”. He quotes a liberal candidate who ran in the 2011 Egyptian parliamentary elections, who noted with bemusement: “I didn’t run a political campaign; I was running a campaign that depended on me telling voters I wasn’t an atheist.” Hamid concludes that with a muddled message, lack of organisation and a built-in disadvantage, it is little wonder that when Egypt grew increasingly polarised, liberals ultimately united on an anti-Islamist platform.

In his compelling essay God and State in Egypt, Century Foundation senior fellow Michael Wahid Hanna rejects the assumption that a widespread adherence to religious beliefs is equivalent to an inevitable political ascendance of Islamism in a democratic Middle East. While Hanna agrees with Hamid that the discourse in the public sphere has become increasingly religious, he sees no reason to think that this cannot change. Hanna’s largely historical account points out that only forty years ago, Egypt was largely secular and religious beliefs were considered marginal to politics. It would be deterministic to rule out a return to this, or to suggest that contemporary religious discourse is here to stay. Such explanations too easily reproduce some of the essentialist and plainly false assumptions that riddle both Islamist analysis and its detractors, that argue that Muslim majority democracies inevitably ‘revert’ to their alleged ‘true’ character of a government with a religious platform – what Hamid would consider an ‘illiberal democracy’.

This is an instance of a widespread fallacy pervading Islamist rhetoric, that in order to be a ‘good’ Muslim one has to be ‘Islamist’. However, as Hanna points out, it was not only key constituencies within the political classes and judiciary that were offended by Islamists identifying themselves as the ‘only true believers’, but also many ordinary citizens. They united in their repudiation of Islamists arrogating to themselves a monopoly over religious piety, as sole interpreters of Islam. Hanna is right then to argue that it is a mistake to assume that widespread religiosity within Islamic societies must mean that Islamist power is inevitable.

Hanna presents an alternative historical explanation of Islamist success, which primarily points to the Nakba as the event that led to the slow but sure discrediting of more secular ideologies. He also indicts the liberal political classes for their disconnect from the lives of Egypt’s mostly poor population, and for indulging their own material interests. This has created a vacuum that a more religious discourse has seeped into and filled, precipitating a situation where certain segments of society have become thoroughly Islamist. Hanna, an unrepentant liberal, is unequivocal in arguing that the widespread religious discourse needs to be challenged. He chides the political classes for not having done this, instead of embracing the authoritarianism and hyper-nationalism that he rejects.

Hanna argues that liberals must create a political organisation and capacity that would allow them to challenge the Islamists at the polls. He notes that there can be no ‘short cuts’ in replicating the ‘grunt work’ of politics that the Brotherhood have been doing for years. He also advises liberals to challenge the political legitimacy that the Brotherhood has wrapped itself up in, presenting itself as the sole opposition to an authoritarian regime. Liberals must join and participate in this opposition, thereby challenging one of the central planks of Islamist legitimacy.

Democracy: what's in it for the liberal?

While Hanna’s account is a useful corrective to Hamid’s, it is difficult to imagine how Hanna’s advice could help in the short-term. The question must be asked; in as far as democracy can lead to a loss or reduction of disproportionate liberal influence, is it really prudent for liberals to embrace democracy in Egypt?

Even though like all good liberals, Egyptian liberals have a natural inclination for democracy, it must be recognised that in the short term, given the nature of Egyptian society, the odds are stacked against them. Let us suppose for a moment that free and fair elections were held in Egypt in the next six months; despite all that has happened it would still be difficult to imagine liberals winning. However, it is not just a case of losing elections – the loss may have a long-term significance. In all likelihood, Islamists will attempt to manipulate constitutional arrangements to recognise their larger numbers, thereby locking in their advantage. One of the major ‘drawbacks’ of democracy for liberals is that it opens up the possibility of Islamists ruling Egypt by popular mandate and never getting voted out of power. Structurally weak as they may be in the beginning, it is not a far-fetched scenario.

Underlying such anxieties is the extent to which those in power can impress their vision on Egyptian society, more specifically the extent to which an Islamist government might be able to do this. Just as liberals have done or have attempted to do, Islamists may use the state to impose their own vision of society on Egypt, only with wider popular support. In Turkey, so often touted as a model country for countries experiencing the Arab Spring to emulate, the increasingly religious and authoritarian turn that the so-called ‘post-Islamist’ prime minister Erdoğan has embarked upon seems to be ample proof of this. Liberals are then understandably anxious about what Islamists might do once they have access to the ministries of government and other instruments of the state.

The liberal can then be forgiven for wondering, given the receptivity of Egyptian society to a more religious vision, whether Islamist voices will extinguish liberal voices altogether. This is why some liberals could reasonably argue that democracy is unnecessarily risky and the losses incurred may be permanent, and why it is not unreasonable that some liberals fear the prospect of an illiberal democracy, and embrace military authoritarianism however repugnant they may find that choice. Confronted with such alternatives, it is not surprising for the liberal to ask what democracy offers them; ‘what’s in it for the liberal?’

Such reasoning expresses an ends-justifies-the-means attitude that many would consider objectionable. More pertinent to us is whether outside such starkly ‘realist’ reasoning, would the removal of democracy be a distortion of liberal values, or could it be justified by the liberal tradition?

The liberal tradition: Locke on toleration

So what does liberalism have to say about the situation in Egypt? A useful place to begin is the quintessential liberal philosopher John Locke and his Letter concerning Toleration. Locke argues that the purpose of government is to manage worldly affairs and to ensure security and prosperity, not to concern itself with matters of conscience or the ‘care of souls’. Locke argues that the business of laws is to provide safety and security of the state and not to busy itself with the ‘truth of opinions’. However there are limits to Locke’s tolerance; he does not extend it to atheists and Catholics, and a closer look will show that Locke is doing more than just succumbing to plain prejudice.

Locke considers Catholics’ and atheists’ beliefs to be inherently subversive. Locke argued that atheists’ lack of faith in God rendered them incapable of being trustworthy and faithful to their promises and oaths, which he considered ‘bonds of human society’ essential to any community.

It is Locke’s views towards Catholics that have particular relevance to our discussion. Firstly let us note the context that lent his arguments a cogency they may no longer possess. Europe was convulsing with religious wars and sectarian strife. In Protestant countries including England, Catholics were under suspicion for their supposed loyalty to a foreign sovereign, the Pope. Even more pointedly, a few Catholic countries were aiming to revert Protestant England to Catholicism once again. We can perhaps begin to understand why Locke felt Catholics ought not to be extended toleration, if they could not be trusted to protect and preserve Protestant England.

One way to read Locke would be to define subversive beliefs more loosely; not only beliefs in contradiction to those held by a community, but also those that encompass a vision of society that contradicts what the community believes it ought to be, and well as the impulse to change and transform society accordingly. If a group then, were to hold beliefs that ‘contradict’ the common sentiments of a community, let us say, the ‘proper character’ of Egypt, it could be tantamount to rejecting what Egypt properly is. A group’s beliefs, say the Islamists in general and the Muslim Brotherhood more specifically, may render it untrustworthy if it is unable to adhere, maintain and pass on the ‘proper character’ of the community or nation. At best such a group should be treated with suspicion, and at worst, cannot be trusted to possess any loyalty to a particular vision and may even attempt to subvert it. Such a group’s beliefs, so the reasoning goes, render it ‘intolerable’ to the community and no tolerance can be extended to its members.

Such a line of reasoning may partly explain the hyper-nationalism that has enveloped certain constituencies in Egypt. What appears to be a celebration of Egyptian identity, is in fact an exercise in aggressive redefinition of national identity by certain key constituencies, both narrowing as well as policing what Egypt nationhood is allowed to mean and constitute. If this redefinition exercise explicitly excludes the Muslim Brotherhood from this national identity, then without inconsistency, the Muslim Brotherhood can be said to ‘threaten’ a certain vision of Egypt. This is justifiable even if this vision is not necessarily a liberal one, but a freer vision of what Egyptian identity is held to be than the supposedly exclusionary and reactionary Islamist vision that the Muslim Brotherhood are alleged to hold. This kind of reasoning can begin to explain how the Muslim Brotherhood are suddenly branded ‘unpatriotic’ ‘traitors’ to Egypt (aside from the usual ‘terrorist’ tropes, agents of America or Israel, etc. – take your pick really – that seem to populate the conspiracy theories so beloved by some Egyptians).

There is a further historical context: Locke wrote the treatise during his exile in Holland having fled the English Civil War, a war that was as much about the religious character and identity of England as it was about the proper place of monarchical authority in England. Our inability to relate to such a historical context may mean a failure in appreciating the potency that such arguments had amongst Locke’s contemporaries. More pertinently, this failure would leave us unable to recognise if analogous historical situations have emerged that lend cogency to arguments we are convinced have lost their allure. And this may lead to a further failure to recognise the dilemmas that Arab liberals may believe themselves to be in.

'Enlightenment liberals'

One of the main reasons why western liberals find it so difficult to appreciate the dilemmas that Arab liberals face is because in the west religion does not play the same role in society that it does in the Arab world. It may be more instructive to see how liberals behaved in a historical setting where religion played a far greater role, especially when liberals feared that the devout ‘masses’ might threaten their existence. An illuminating example would be to consider the behaviour of the philosophes under ‘enlightened despotism’ or ‘enlightened absolutism’ in the Age of the Enlightenment.

The philosophes were recognisable liberals, prioritising liberal values such as freedom of expression, freedom of interference from the state and advocating a smaller role for religious institutions. What is notable is that they prioritised values associated with liberalism over those we associate with egalitarianism and democracy, especially if the latter were seen to conflict with the former. In these more devout times, circumstances were more precarious for liberals. They were happy to consort with enlightened despots, often to initiate, collaborate, and encourage the structural reforms they believed were needed to lead Man out of ‘ignorance’ and ‘superstition’ into light and progress.

Liberals were fully prepared to make ‘authoritarian compacts’ with governments who held converging interests; both were frightened of the prospect of increased egalitarianism and the possibility of more democracy even if for very different reasons. The nobility-dominated government feared the loss of the status quo, power and material interests, while the philosophes feared that the encroaching egalitarianism of a religious populace could potentially lead to a greater role for religion within the state and the diminution of freedom of expression.

Scorning the masses for their ‘superstitious ideas’, it is little wonder that intellectuals spent their energies privately trying to reform, educate, and ‘enlighten’ rulers. They concentrated their attempts on reforming the deeper causes and socio-economic structures that were available, and often still are, as material explanations for the causes of ‘regressive religiosity’. They would also challenge religious discourse by indulging in polemics against organised religion or what they saw as superstitious excess in religion. Hence Enlightenment philosophes were prepared to make a spoken or unspoken agreement with authoritarian interests, promising obedience and loyalty as long as core liberal values such as freedom of expression over private beliefs were maintained, at least those opinions that would not trouble the security of the state.

In a number of different ways then, Arab liberals find themselves in circumstances that resemble those of the Enlightenment philosophes more than the experiences of contemporary western liberals. As the philosophes did before them, Egyptian liberals find themselves within societies that have religious majorities who view liberal ideas at best as religiously problematic, or at worst as foreign or sinful.

These resemblances explain why Egyptian liberals, sometimes with a remarkable ferocity, often present arguments that regard Islamists as an existential threat. It also explains why western observers are dismissed by Egyptian liberals as foreigners who have the luxury of returning home to a society that is already liberal. As foreigners they are unable to understand what is at stake; it is Egyptian liberals who have to remain and defend not only their right to live as liberals but also the possibility of a future liberal Egypt.

Such justification is often used for actions that western liberals may automatically judge to be anti-democratic and therefore consider beyond the pale. Yet these refrains are clues that the circumstances that Arab liberals face are so removed from ours, that western liberals are often unable to recognise and understand the reasons that inform their Egyptian counterpart’s actions. It is little wonder that many western liberals were unable to comprehend how calling for the military to intervene to depose a democratically elected government could ever emanate from a ‘true’ liberal.

The priority of liberty

Liberal political thought cannot then supply the easy answers that some western liberal commentators have been guilty of assuming. It would be a mistake to think that supporting a coup is illiberal by definition, especially if it is believed that it is necessary to save the ‘moral character’ of a nation and secure a freer and potentially liberal future. Given the difficult prospects of liberalism in Egypt then, it is understandable why liberals there have embraced authoritarianism even if we ultimately disagree with them for doing so. It is not implausible to assume that a democratic Egypt would lead, all things being equal, to the emergence of an Islamist dominated government, and by extension the emergence of an illiberal democracy. For many liberals this could constitute an unacceptable threat to the ‘moral character’ of the nation.

And despite the repugnance, even despair, of some western liberals towards their Egyptian counterparts, it has been shown that Arab liberals have not misunderstood or misinterpreted liberalism. A closer examination of the wider liberal tradition reveals individuals who, when they are given a choice between liberal values and democratic ones, have preferred the former. This goes to show that the ‘goods’ of liberty and democracy are not identifiably the same or always harmonious, and it is mistaken to think so. And while there is little doubt that contemporary versions of liberalisms in the west are more egalitarian, this does not mean that western liberals don’t prize core ‘goods’ associated with liberty any less. It seems then that western liberals cannot even console themselves with the satisfaction that were they confronted with a similar scenario and forced to choose between democracy and the ‘goods’ of liberalism, they would not prefer the latter, hateful as such a choice may be.

Uncomfortable as such reasoning may be, it cannot be easily dismissed as beyond the pale of liberalism; on the contrary there may be a robust liberal argument that if difficult choices have to be made, then certain core values have to be prioritised over others, especially if it is to save the ‘liberal identity’ of a nation. Ultimately liberals will find no consolation within liberal philosophy, nor can they absolve liberalism from the actions of Arab liberals; the justification for the coup is right there within liberalism itself. On this matter, liberalism cannot carry the moral burdens that its followers assume.

An extended version of this essay can be found on Faheem Hussain’s blog

About the author

Faheem A. Hussain is about to begin a PhD in Politics at Royal Holloway University of London pursuing research in liberalism and multiculturalism. He has a BA (Hons.) in Arabic and Islamic studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, a PGCE in Religious Studies from Roehampton University, and an MA in philosophy from Heythrop College, University of London. Find him on
twitter @FaheemHus and some of his writings at Some Thoughts.


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