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How Liberals Can Stand a Chance in Egypt

A couple of days ago I was asked about the chances of liberal forces in Egypt after the referendum results. My response was in the negative. The young activists that are often described in the Western media as liberal, democrat, or secular stand no chance in the next parliamentary elections scheduled for next September. My judgment is not only based on the existence, or lack thereof, of those forces or their strength, but also on the nature of the elections system in Egypt and the way the districts are drawn. The overrepresentation of the countryside and the two-candidate district design means that the “liberal” forces only stand a chance in competing in 21 districts out of 222. Even if they win all of those seats, they will represent less than 10% of the members of parliament. Of course some traditional opposition politicians will win elsewhere, but they will totally depend on their family connections in those districts and will run as traditional patriarchal candidates.

The next question was naturally so what can they do? Initially my response was again in the negative. There are historical and institutional reasons for why liberalism has failed in Egypt in the past and will continue to fail in the future. For the past couple of days, I have been thinking about that question. Do we really stand no chance and how can we overcome those overwhelming odds?

Let us begin with the historical crisis.

The Crisis of Egyptian Liberalism is a long and sad story. It is the story of intellectuals who emerged not from an independent middle class similar to the European bourgeoisie but from the state bureaucracy. Their utmost dream a self-contradictory program of a state-sponsored modernization forced on the rest of the population. It is a story of a complex love-hate relationship with the West as a representative of modernity, never fully embracing it and never rejecting it, but always with a sense of betrayal. It is also a story of a failure to understand modernity, failing to distinguish between it and the Enlightenment and forever doomed in a lack of ability to deal with religion. The current crisis in Egyptian liberalism is not a new one. It is rather the latest manifestation of a crisis that Nadav Safran dealt with 50 years ago in his book Egypt in Search of Political Community.

Egyptian liberalism’s goal was always a state-sponsored project of modernization. With this goal in mind, Egyptian liberals were always writing and talking to the one actor that could enforce their project: the State, or more precisely the ruler. If the ruler held all the chips and if he alone could enforce the dream, why bother talking to someone else? Why bother addressing the Egyptian population? The natural outcome was a tendency to ignore the Egyptian population, and with it was built all the tendencies of an elite that is detached from the rest of the population, a tendency to ignore, a tendency to ridicule, and a tendency to disrespect. When it was forced to address the rest of the population, nationalism was the chosen mechanism.

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Egypt’s intellectuals could never overcome their love-hate relationship with the West. Since the day that Napoleon landed in Alexandria and introduced modernity to Egypt, the inescapable question was that of Bernard Lewis: “What Went wrong?” The initial answer was to copy the advanced technology of the West. Science and technology were viewed as a collection of findings with no acknowledgment of the underlying philosophical spirit. When that failed, the answer was one of unity. Gamal El Din El Afghani struck the initial note with his insistence that the West was a unified entity and that the East had to do the same if it hoped to stand a chance. Nationalism in the Middle East might have been, as Elie Kedourie had argued, an idea imported from the West, but it was also a mechanism of standing in front of the West. In the process and following the spirit of the age in the 1930s it was inevitable that nationalism would lose whatever liberal discourse it initially held and become an anti-liberal discourse taking the various totalitarian ideologies of the day, initially fascism, later on Arab Nationalism, and inevitably Islamism.

The Egyptian liberal project was one modeled on France. It was there that the student missions were sent and from which the ideas were imported. France, as the world power of the time standing against Egypt’s occupier, was the greatest source of inspiration. It should thus come as no surprise that the French understanding of the world would be the shaper of the Egyptian intellectuals. The French Enlightenment became the benchmark and as a result its form of secularism the model. While the Egyptian intellectuals could never follow in Ataturk’s footsteps, their ideas were not that different from his. They could never accept or understand religion or the role that it plays in the public sphere. In a nutshell, they read Voltaire and Rousseau but never for a second Burke.

This is the historical crisis, and this is also the current challenge. Egyptian liberalism has never been able to find a coherent voice that addresses the rest of the population. It has further suffered from the adaptation of various totalitarian ideas that crept into its discourse. It is thus no surprise when you find self-prescribed liberals adopting anti-Semitism or anti-Western slogans in their rhetoric and suggested policies.

While it is impossible to change this historical problem in one day or a year, there are certain steps that might change liberalism’s chances in the next elections. So without further delay, here is the action plan:

1. Split

Oh yes, you read that correctly: those various groups need to split and they need to split ideologically. Let me start with a simple question. What do a free-market liberal academic, a socialist movie director, and an unidentified religious group numbering 300,000 have in common? Anywhere in the world this is probably the beginning of a joke, but in Egypt they do have something in common. They form a political party. You seem confused: why would people that have no ideological common ground form a party? The answer is the obsession of unity and the lack of an ideology. With every blow that “liberals” have faced in Egypt, their natural response was: we need to unite. Here exactly is their problem. Because when diverse people who share no ideology unite, they fail to have any coherent program. Try imagining for a second what the above-mentioned people will have as a program for their party? Democracy? Sure, but what else? Nothing! Some catchy slogans on freedom and democracy, a bit of social justice, and nothing else. The very obsession with unity prohibits the ability to form coherent programs based on clear ideological views. If liberals are to stand a chance in any elections, they need to start forming parties based on clear ideas and thus be able to offer clear programs. People will not elect a party that has nothing to offer them but some slogans that are meaningless in their daily lives. It is an insult to the Egyptian people to suggest otherwise.

2. Choose where to run

It is a joke for any emerging party with no grassroots organization to decide to compete in every district in the country. That would be a total waste of resources and quite frankly would render any emerging party again valueless in its content due to its insistence on offering policies that suit the whole country. The Law of Comparative Advantage is supreme here. Calculate where you stand a better chance and focus there. Let me cite an example. I am a Free Market political party: should I run in Helwan, where the district votes are mostly labor votes? Of course not. Calculate which districts would be more acceptable to your ideas. It would also be pure insanity to run in any of the desert districts. There the vote is purely tribal, and you stand no chance.

3. Tailor programs based on the district

The obsession with unity and the similar obsession with offering a nationwide program have made any program offered content free. People in the various districts might be interested in what your overall plan for Egypt is, but what they mostly care about is how you can address their specific problems in their particular district. Let me again cite an example. I am economically a Libertarian. I would like to limit the State’s interference in people’s lives and its role in the economy. Every single expert would tell you that I stand no chance in any district in Egypt. I am willing to bet that with my ideas, I can run and win in any rural district in Egypt. Let me explain how.

First, as a believer in private property and the withdrawal of the State from the economy, I will demand that the peasants be allowed to build on their agricultural land. You see the Egyptian elite in its obsession with keeping the agricultural land in Egypt intact and its similar obsession with making Egypt agriculturally self-sufficient has banned people from building on their agricultural land that they own. I will run against this. My slogan is “The land is yours. Build on it.” If you want to build on a piece of land that you own, no Cairo bureaucrat should tell you not to. Second, no government should tell you what to plant in your land. The government should not be allowed to decide that a certain percentage of Egypt’s land is allocated to wheat growing. My slogan is “Yours the land. Yours the decision.” Third, as a believer that taxes should only be on income and not on property, I will demand the cancellation of all forms of fixed taxation on agricultural land. I can go on forever with such suggestions and policies that address the rural district that I am running in. It is important to notice that I did not give up on my ideas thinking no one would accept them. I just tailored them to suit the specific district that I am running in.

4. Respect the Egyptian people

For so long you have dealt with the Egyptian people as ignorant and uneducated. You have cried for many hours on your sad destiny of being in such a country. That has been your weakness. You never respected your countrymen, and they in turn naturally never respected you. They have realized from intuition and experience that all you have for them is empty slogans, and thus they have chosen to ignore you. Talk to the Egyptians. Offer them coherent ideas and trust in man’s natural seeking of self-interest. The Egyptians are not from Mars. Like all other people in the world they seek self-interest. Your job is not a snobbish elitist obsession with educating them. Your job is to use your ideas in creating programs to further their self-interest.

5. Reframe the debate

If you follow the previous suggestions, then this is the natural result. Because liberals have been obsessed with unity that lacks any meaningful ideological content, the debate has been framed by the only common thing between them. Let us take a look at those liberals. What do they really have in common? They don’t share an economic outlook, for sure. They differ on social policies. They also differ on foreign policy. The only thing they have in common is what they are not. They are not Islamists. By grouping them all together by this common denominator, you have perhaps without noticing framed the debate into one between Islamists and all the rest. If this is the debate, you will lose. You will lose not because Egyptians are ignorant religious people who obey their religious leaders, but because if the choice that is offered is between an elite that has no values or coherent content and a coherent Islamist message, people will choose the later.

By creating a battle between ideological camps that differ economically you are reframing the debate at hand. You are forcing the Islamists to play in your field, and in your field they hold no advantage. Imagine for a second that the battle in each district is driven by a clash of economic ideas. Candidates are fighting over which economic policies would better people’s lives. What does the Islamist candidate have to offer? What economic policy does he have? The Islamists have no economic program. They never needed to. Now you are forcing them to take a position. You are forcing them to try to come up not with empty slogans but with real policies. In this scenario a real split within the Islamists ranks is possible.

6. Overcome your hatred of Islam

Religion and tradition are not evil forces in the world. Unlike what your French secular books might have told you, religion is able to offer a positive role. In fact religion and public morality are essential for sustaining a truly free society. Your tendency has been furthered by your inability to distinguish between Islam and Islamism as a modern ideological construction. You need to overcome your hatred of religion and obsession with Ataturk and the French model. There are other models out there. The United States offers such a model. Egypt’s model might be slightly different, but you need to work on finding a formula that allows religion to play a role in the public sphere without controlling it.

This is the action plan. Does it ensure victory? No. But it gives you something you never had before: a fighting chance. In the long run, however, you face enormous challenges. Your historical crisis has to be addressed. A society that swims in a huge vacuum of ideas will not turn into a liberal democracy overnight. A liberal democracy is not a ballot box, and it is not the current obsession with free and fair elections. A liberal democracy is a free society, where dissent is tolerated, private property vigorously defended, the rule of law upheld, religious freedom protected, and individual liberties understood as the real guarantee of freedom. To build a liberal democracy you need two things: liberal democrats and democratic institutions. Both of these require ideas. People do not read Jefferson and suddenly become liberal democrats overnight, but it is impossible to build a country without those very ideas that have shaped modernity as we know it. Ideas matter, and you’d better start realizing that.

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