Last month, General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and Egypt’s new military strongman, asked Egyptians to “come out to give me the mandate and order to confront violence and potential terrorism.” What al-Sisi sought was a green light from the Egyptian street to put down the Muslim Brotherhood, whose supporters were still protesting on behalf of the country’s first elected President, Brotherhood member Mohamed Morsi, whom al-Sisi removed from office and jailed on July 3.
Yesterday, al-Sisi put his mandate to work when security forces attacked demonstrators in Cairo, Alexandria and other cities and villages throughout Egypt. At this point, 575 people are confirmed dead nationwide. Only time will tell if al-Sisi has eradicated the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies, but the death knell is already ringing for another of Egypt’s famous political movements: liberalism.
Mohamed ElBaradei, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and the face of Egyptian liberalism, resigned on account of Wednesday’s violence, but the reality is that many of those Egyptians who define themselves as liberals supported the July coup as well as today’s crackdown. “Egypt’s liberals are trying to ignore the fact that people are being murdered,” says Samuel Tadros, an Egypt expert and a fellow at Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom. In doing so, Tadros told me in a recent interview, they have lost any claim to a moral high ground. “For liberalism to succeed, it needs to explain why this political worldview is superior to others. It’s not just about the material benefits of economic liberalism, but why it’s better for man. Man, after all, does not live by bread alone. Here, Egyptian liberalism has failed completely. The liberals in support of the coup and the violent crackdown have abandoned morality for short-term political gains.”
It’s understandable that many Egyptians are concerned about the Muslim Brotherhood’s religiously fundamentalist and paranoid worldview. But the fact that people who describe themselves as liberals want to see their neighbors’ blood shed suggests that their liberalism isn’t what we typically mean by a political doctrine that prizes individual freedom and seeks as little interference from the state as possible. The reality is that Egypt’s liberals have aligned themselves with the military — the very same regime that they protested against during the 2011 uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak.
Why have liberals turned from democracy, albeit a very imperfect one, back to the military? As Tadros explains in his new book, Motherland Lost: The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity, Egypt’s liberals have always depended on the state for their advancement, for education, employment and social status. “In Egypt,” Tadros tells me, “liberalism didn’t start as it did in Europe with the emergence of an independent bourgeoisie that sought to limit the powers of the state and other entrenched institutions. In Egypt, liberalism was born with the rise of the civil-servant class in the mid–19th century. Since civil servants are a part of the state, this liberalism is not at all interested in limiting the role of the state.”
Moreover, whereas Western liberals have historically seen it as their role to educate their fellow citizens in liberal values, Egyptian liberals have always seen this as the job of the state. Should the state prove incapable of inculcating others with the same ideas and ambitions, then it is up to the state to protect the liberals from what they perceive as the unwashed masses, i.e., their neighbors. And right now it is the Muslim Brothers and their Islamist partners whom the liberals see as a threat that needs to be put down.
In addition to acting in bad faith, the liberals have made a bad deal by siding with the army. Because the liberals never prepared the ground for liberalism, they left it wide open for the Islamists, who over 80 years built a grassroots network that combined political indoctrination with social services that earned them respect and admiration — which is why Morsi won the presidential election in June 2012. In spite of al-Sisi’s crackdown, the Muslim Brotherhood will almost surely return — and next time better organized and, holding a vendetta against the army and the millions who clamored for the Brotherhood’s blood, much angrier. In the meantime, as Tadros argues, “it’s the Muslim Brotherhood, and not the liberals, who can claim the moral high ground.”