Don’t Count Out Egyptian Liberals

Opinion

By Tarek Osman

Published February 09, 2011, issue of February 18, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Now that the surprise over the sudden outbreak of mass demonstrations is beginning to recede, we are left to survey Egypt’s changed political landscape. Many observers, however, remain fixated on the decades-old power struggle between the regime (which is much larger than simply President Hosni Mubarak or his son Gamal) and political Islam (which is much larger than the Muslim Brotherhood).

But there is a third actor that is too often given short shrift: Egypt’s liberal movement. And in contrast to both the regime (which, under siege, is now reverting to its core military form) and the Muslim Brotherhood (which was caught off guard by the upheaval), Egyptian liberals have everything to gain from the emerging political situation.

The demonstrators who shocked the regime and stirred the stagnant waters of Egypt’s politics were in large part young middle-class Egyptians — Egyptian liberalism’s natural constituency. Immense pressure for change had built up in the middle class, stemming from more than three decades of mounting political and economic frustration. An eruption from within that gigantic social segment was inevitable.

It is important to note that the protesters have affixed their political and economic grievances to a nationalist agenda, presented via secular rhetoric and detached from any sectarian idiom. Their cause is not Islamism but rather Egyptianism.

Egyptian nationalism is itself a product of the country’s liberal experiment in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. The modern Egyptian state founded in the early-19th century by Muhammad Ali was based around the notion of an Egypt independent of the Ottoman Empire, free from the reins of the caliphate (the historic abode of Islamic political authority) and steadily rediscovering its unique history and character. Under his successors, Egypt’s rich heritage and history were weaved together with modernity and an ambitious attempt at creating a progressive, enlightened society. The vibrant Cairo and Alexandria of the 1920s to 1940s were distinguished by their cosmopolitanism, tolerance, entrepreneurial spirit and cultural effervescence.

The most influential political forces of that era endeavored to give rise to a liberal democracy. The outcome was hardly perfect, but it did introduce constitutionalism, political pluralism, cross-class participation in the political process and civil liberties into Egypt’s political culture.

Now, nearly 60 years after the 1952 coup/revolution brought this experiment to an abrupt end, Egyptians are living with the consequences of that liberal age’s less-than-successful successors — from Gamal Abdel Nasser’s socialism and Arab nationalism to Anwar Sadat’s and Mubarak’s distorted combination of capitalism and realpolitik. Amid this disappointing heritage, Egypt’s liberal experiment stands out as the most inspiring period of the past two centuries of Egyptian political history. Egypt’s liberal tradition has the potential to inspire the young people who will fashion the country’s political future.

Today, the liberal movement has momentum. The demonstrations have given Egypt’s liberals immense political capital. Meanwhile, the sectarianism from which Egypt has suffered over the past two decades has made the country’s middle class very apprehensive of deepening the divide between Muslims and Christians. And the rise of the private sector and the recent revival in the role of civil society bolsters Egyptian nationalism, as opposed to any sectarian identity or framework.

Because of Egypt’s demographic weight in the Arab world, its far-reaching media and cultural products, its strategic significance in the region and even the accessibility of its slang, Egyptian political currents have the potential to resonate throughout the Arab world. Arab liberalism, Arab nationalism, modern political Islamism, 20th-century jihadism — all were conceived in Egypt. If liberalism were to mount a comeback in Egypt, it could usher in a new era for the Middle East.

Tarek Osman, an Egyptian writer, is the author of “Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to Mubarak” (Yale University Press, 2010).


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “I don’t want to say, ‘Oh oh, I’m not Jewish,’ because when you say that, you sound like someone trying to get into a 1950s country club, “and I love the idea of being Jewish." Are you a fan of Seth Meyers?
  • "If you want my advice: more Palestinians, more checkpoints, just more reality." What do you think?
  • Happy birthday Barbra Streisand! Our favorite Funny Girl turns 72 today.
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.