The crisis of liberalism in Egypt

Liberal politicians must create a platform that can resonate across social chasms

March 8, 2014 12:30AM ET
A protest against the government’s removal of subsidies on basic commodities, in Cairo in 2007.
Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images

After three years of failed governance that followed its popular January 25 revolution, Egypt stands at a crossroads. Although the Muslim Brotherhood amassed the majority of votes in the country’s first democratic elections, it ruled with an authoritarian hand, leading to fears of an impending theocracy resembling Iran’s. On the other hand, the military-backed government, which took over the reins of power after deposing President Mohamed Morsi last July, has instituted repressive tactics, muzzling independent journalism and restricting freedom of expression. The country is now backsliding into authoritarianism, one that analysts warn would be more autocratic than Hosni Mubarak’s three-decade rule.

Underlying these rapidly changing developments is Egypt’s class divisions. The Brotherhood and the military have one thing in common: Both were able to gain the backing of the lower class, a politically homogeneous group of voters with similar needs. In late 2011 and 2012, two-thirds of the votes in five elections went to those who espouse political Islam. Since Morsi was ousted on July 3, Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sissi’s government has enjoyed widespread support. The third anniversary of the revolution last month was marked by pro-military celebrations.  

Meanwhile, liberals from parties such as the Constitution Party and the Free Egyptians Party — which espouse civilian oversight of the military, a multiparty system, stronger free speech rights and the decentralization of the state — have failed to establish their political ideology as a legitimate alternative for all Egyptians. The liberals’ failure to compete with the military and the Brotherhood is in part due to a social chasm rooted in the perception that liberalism is championed by the Western-educated elite who rarely interact with the rest of the citizenry.

Many prominent liberal politicians, including the founder of the liberal Constitution Party, former interim Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei, are seen as upper-class citizens who have had little interaction with the Egyptian electorate. They attended elite Western schools and lived abroad for many years. As a result, they are seen as out of touch with the needs and everyday realities of the lower class. Its members, who live in an extreme poverty, make up about 25 percent of the population, the single largest voting bloc. During Egypt’s 2011 revolution, the lower class joined liberals in their calls for freedom, social justice and human dignity.

Perceptions of the ‘other’

The upper class’ condescending perceptions of the lower class reinforces this divide. My extended family members in Alexandria, who were educated in French schools, routinely avoid public places occupied by “nas sha’abiya” — Arabic common people. It is not unusual to hear people in Cairo talk about visiting “common” coffee shops and restaurants as exciting adventures into the unknown.

After Morsi’s ouster, a friend who supports Hamdeen Sabahi’s leftist Egyptian Popular Current party advised me to avoid observing demonstrations in Tahrir Square in favor of the “cleaner people” at Etehadeya Palace, one of the mainstays for pro-military demonstrations attended by upper-class citizens.

Prominent liberal politicians and academics have contributed to this sense of aloofness. Critically acclaimed Egyptian novelist Alaa Aswany recently referred to uneducated Egyptian citizens as “our people” and asked if we should “glorify” illiteracy by allowing them to vote on issues they do not understand. In his 2012 comments on the mass support for political Islam, ElBaradei was even more blunt. In an interview with “PBS Newshour,” he lamented, “Right now, we have the educated middle class on one camp and the so-called Islamists and the majority of the illiterate part of the country on the other side.”

The social chasm

Egyptian liberals concede that they live in a separate world from that of many of the impoverished citizens who joined them in 2011. Sharif Lotfi, secretary general for the Constitution Party in the East Cairo district, says only a small percentage of Egypt’s poor attend public universities. Lotfi and most of his party colleagues, by contrast, went to expensive Western institutions, from primary schools all the way to universities, and they often go on to work for Western companies.

Consequently, they are inclined toward liberal political ideals such as a transparent, decentralized state that fosters individual freedom. This informs their complex demands for broad-based civilian government over military rule, freedom of the press, the right to free assembly and other concepts of freedom typically protected in liberal societies. This is also why liberal activism and politics in Egypt focuses so much on civil liberties. For example, the liberals who demonstrated in November outside the Shura Council, the upper house of Egyptian parliament, opposing the use of military trials for civilians were mostly upper-class citizens.

Underprivileged Egyptian citizens, by contrast, are more concerned with concrete demands: equal opportunity in the job market, unemployment, wages and the rising prices of food.

Bridging the gap

Lotfi believes that liberals must come out of their lecture halls at prestigious educational institutions such as the American University in Cairo, exclusive compounds in the suburbs and Nile-front cafes in affluent districts to engage in local campaigning and grass-roots organizing. During a recent interview, he shared an anecdote about an employee working under his authority in an impoverished governorate who had trouble securing office space. When the employee voiced this concern, Lotfi helped him find an office space, cover rental expenses and coordinate staffing. Lotfi says he did this to prove to his counterpart that the liberal aims of the Constitution Party apply to the needs of all Egyptians. That employee is now one of Lotfi’s most dedicated staff members in one of the highest performing offices in the governorate.

The task before liberals now is to prove a sincere commitment to the well-being and progress of all Egyptians by embracing both economic populism and human rights. This would be essential to draw mass support away from the military and the Brotherhood at the ballot box. It would also help dispel the widely held perception that liberalism is indifferent to the needs of the lower class.

Liberals could start by denouncing such systemic economic disparities as fuel subsidies, which represent a hemorrhage in public spending allocated to the few upper-class Egyptians who own vehicles. A platform that puts the good of all Egyptians first, even at some expense to the elite, would build credibility. Liberals must also start challenging socially sanctioned segregation in public spaces such as hotels, restaurants and universities that limit interaction among members of different classes.

A parallel can be drawn between protesters in Tahrir Square in 2011 and the whole of the Egyptian citizenry today. Just as liberal demands of bread, freedom, social justice and human dignity cut across social chasms in Tahrir, liberals must create a political platform that could resonate across social chasms in Egypt.

Amrou Kotb is a Cairo-based freelance writer focusing on politics in Egypt and the goals of the 2011 revolution.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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