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).