The Troubling Disorganization of Egypt’s Liberals

Jun 21

Bobby Ghosh at Time has a blog entry today disparaging the democratic skills of Egypti’s liberals and suggesting that, by contrast, the Muslim Brotherhood has a much better understanding of how democracy actually works.  There is little to disagree with in Ghosh’s post except that he perhaps understates the inability of the “secular” or “liberal” forces in Egypt to compete effectively in a democratic system.  The reason for this failing, I think, has little to do with the the inherent unattractiveness of liberal ideas in Egypt as much as it does with the class divisioins that are rife in Egypt, and that lead many of the liberal elite to believe — although they will never say so explicitly — that they are entitled to rule because they are the “best” of Egyptian society, the “awlad al-nas,” so to speak.  Parties that are actually popular are dismissed as demagogues or as exploiting the ignorance of the Egyptian masses.  Indeed, one prominent Egyptian liberal, a justice on the Egyptian Supreme Constitutional Court, no less, suggested that the votes of illiterate Egyptians should be weighted 1/2 of those of educated Egyptians.

In any case, this sense of elite entitlement is the most salient characteristic of the “liberal” parties in Egypt, and that is what will be their downfall.  They have to learn that leadership in a democracy is earned, not inherited, or obtained by especially refined taste and manners.  What is puzzling, however, is their failure to put forward a platform that could credibly compete with the Muslim Brotherhood: How hard could it be for a genuinely liberal party to put forward a platform that combines a commitment to individual rights with progressive taxation and redistribution of income to benefit Egypt’s poor?  One would think that a platform like that would attract large numbers of Egyptians who are disadvantaged and otherwise “susceptible” to the magic “spell” of the Muslim Brotherhood.  The answer, of course, is that Egypt’s liberals are liberal with respect to personal freedoms, but they are not necessarily so keen on redistribution.  It may be the case that at least with respect to economic policies, Egypt’s lower classes might be better off with a Muslim Brotherhood government than one dominated by elites who are indifferent to questions of social justice.

This is a serious problem, because it is not at all clear to me that the Muslim Brotherhood is capable of functioning as a political party — its membership is profoundly divided on numerous policy questions, and this leads to a real concern (at least in my opinion) that he Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership, in order to preserve the unity of the organization, will have no choice but to repair to the argument that “Islam” is under attack: it appears that threats to “Islam” are the only factor that can keep the organization unified.

In my opinion, it is time for the Muslim Brotherhood to declare victory, retire from politics entirely, and stick to social and religious activism.  Their membership is not unified around a particularly “Islamic” political vision for Egypt, but instead, reflects more broadly the divisions within Egypt regarding the path forward.  In these circumstances, the failure of the liberal elements in Egypt to put forward a coherent program for Egypt that could win hte support of a broad cross-section of the Egyptian populace is disconcerting.  Accordingly, the strength of the Muslim Brotherhood is not a reflection so much of their superior organization or superior political platform as it is a reflection of the cluelessness of the liberal political forces in the wake of the January 25 Revolution, many of whom seem to believe they are entitled to rule.

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One comment

  1. alhakim /

    This is fascinating. I get the impression (as it sounds like) that Egyptian liberal theorists, or at least those that come from the educated and perhaps wealthy class, elect to ignore the distributive justice aspect of liberal theory and focus their concentration more on the political/civil rights aspect of liberal theory. Of course, the political rights also implicitly suggest a equal distributive scheme but it is not the same as the idea of, say, arranging economic policies so that it benefit the worse off.

    I thought this was interesting even though political rights questions are important, they may be (at this time) slightly less pressing than redistributive questions.

    Thanks for sharing this post.

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