The Dilemma of Egypt’s Liberals

Khalil al-Anani
Khalil al-Anani Senior Fellow - Arab Center Washington DC

September 2, 2008

Liberals in Egypt never stop complaining. The reasons behind their complaints are different. Some complain about the political deadlock in the country and the lack of opportunities for the liberal trend to participate in political life. Others complain about the continuous crackdown on liberal figures either by imprisonment, as in the case of Ayman Nour, or exile, as in the case of Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim. A third group complains about the Islamists’ dominance over the social and cultural scene in Egypt and the liberals’ lack of opportunities to recruit potential candidates.

In spite of the deterioration of the political situation in Egypt, we have not heard of a liberal bloc with a unified vision for reforming these conditions. On the contrary, the liberals seem to be the weakest and most fragmented political force in Egypt.

We have also not heard of a demonstration organized by the liberals calling for constitutional and political reform. And even worse, we have not felt any real liberal solidarity with the opposition movements in Egypt such as Kefaya, the April 6 Youth Movement or the workers’ unions.

Liberals in Egypt face three major dilemmas: the first is the haughtiness and the supercilious discourse liberals use in dealing with the situation in Egypt, as they refuse to join the opposition ranks because they consider them to be politically immature populist movements. They also refuse to reach out to the street on the grounds that it is monopolized by the Islamists, with whom they cannot compete. This makes their discourse merely wishful thinking that has no place on the ground.

The second dilemma is a fanciful conspiracy theory, as most of them believe that liberalism in Egypt is victim to a full-blown conspiracy launched by the regime, the Muslim Brotherhood and the community. They also believe that they are the only persecuted group in Egypt.

Unfortunately, this attitude has developed into a psychological complex suffered by most of the liberals who are trying to generate sympathy at home and abroad through lamenting over the ruins of the liberal era in Egypt during the first half of the twentieth century.

The third dilemma is the unclear liberal vision as a whole, as it is difficult to say there is a unified liberal vision in Egypt. There is a widening gulf between those who demand more political and economic freedom, ensuring a degree of social justice, and those claiming to be committed to liberalism for the sake of sectarian interests.

No one can claim to be the spokesperson for all liberal Egyptians, as is the case with the leftists, nationalists and Islamists. The liberals’ dilemma is that they want change without paying the price, and they want power as a result of a democratic change initiated by others. In light of this situation it is difficult to expect a liberal shift in Egypt, as long as the liberals stay in their ivory towers, unaware of the reality on the ground.