Egypt, the Arab Spring and the Duping of Liberalism

By Tom Dinham - 13 March 2017
Egypt, the Arab Spring and the Duping of Liberalism

Tom Dinham argues that Western observers of Egypt need to understand that a large part of the current predicament faced by the liberal forces behind the revolutions of 2011 and 2013 is that islamists are not unproblematic, or even acceptable, partners for those seeking a democratic future. This is a chapter from the e-book 'The Future of the Middle East' co-produced by Global Policy and Arab Digest, and edited by Hugh Miles and Alastair Newton. Freely available chapters will be serialised here and collected into a final downloadable publication in the spring.

Six years after what became known as the Arab Spring revolutions convulsed the Middle East and North Africa with their inspiring affirmation of liberal and democratic values, the scale of liberalism’s defeat has been astonishing. National publics that revolted in support of democracy now yearn for peace and stability. Egypt, in the midst of an economic crisis and a festering islamist insurgency in the Sinai peninsular, is no different. Where once the middle class demanded personal rights and accountable government, now an exhausted public are reminded by President Abdul Fatah al-Sisi to be grateful that Egypt has not collapsed into the internecine bloodletting of Syria, Libya or Iraq. Whilst disappointment at the political demands of the 25th of January revolution has been total, the inability of the Egyptian political system to accommodate discontent means that further instability is highly likely. Exhaustion and fear are sufficient grounds for government legitimacy for the time being, especially against the background of regional chaos Egyptians currently see around them. Exhaustion and fear of the further instability on their own, however, cannot form a durable replacement for the failed social contract of the Mubarak regime.

The liberal current and the 25th of January revolution

Whilst analysing how Egypt came to its present state of reversal it is important to first characterise what the 25th of January revolution was, what political currents and groups drove it and, more importantly for a Western audience, islamist attitudes towards this political platform after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak.

        The 25th of January revolution, as conceived by the activists that catalysed it in its first days was, in the broadest sense, a political platform that rejected the status quo of corrupt authoritarianism in favour of a democratic civil state. The lightning-rod issues that brought people onto the streets before the revolution gained popular momentum all shared this theme. First among them was the brutality and lack of accountability of the security apparatus, an issue symbolised by the police murder of Khaled Said in Alexandria in 2010. The 25th of January was chosen as a day of protest as it was Eid al-Shurta, a national holiday celebrating the police. The second issue was that of political corruption, namely the blatant rigging of elections in favour of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, an issue brought to a head by the 2010 parliamentary elections. Finally, the nexus of political and financial corruption that might loosely be termed predatory capitalism formed the third target of popular anger. This issue manifested itself most prominently in fears that Gamal Mubarak, champion of neoliberal economic prescriptions and son of the President Hosni Mubarak, was being groomed as a successor to the ageing President.

        The civic platform of the revolution can easily be seen by the slogans employed by the protesters, which stressed national unity, the fall of the regime and the hoped-for state that would replace Mubarak. The slogans of the revolution and its songs are notable for the total absence of islamist imagery and demands. Popular islamist slogans such as “Egypt is Islamic”, “Islamic, Islamic” and “Islam is the solution” made no appearance whatsoever, whilst the most prominent slogan articulating a vision for a post-Mubarak reality was “Bread, Freedom, Social Justice!”.

        The activists involved in mobilising around these issues might broadly be termed liberal civil society and non-governmental organisations. Groups like Kefeya and 6th of April formed the backbone of anti-government protests in the first days of the 2011 revolution in partnership with individual activists such as Wael Ghonim, Head of Marketing at Google for the Middle East and North Africa and administrator of the Facebook page “We Are All Khaled Said”.  These liberal activists, with their articulate spokespeople, global outlook, savvy use of social media and capacity to communicate were crucial to bypassing the state media and reaching a mass audience. The capacity of these individuals to mobilise on a mass level was not just a symptom of their skill at exploiting a ripe political environment, however, but also the result of the inoffensive and inclusive nature of their political demands: the downfall of a corrupt, authoritarian political regime and its replacement by an accountable civil state that respected individual rights. These demands ensured that the protests had a near-universal appeal capable of accommodating most of Egypt’s opposition currents, including islamists who came to see in calls for democracy and Mubarak’s downfall a means to ending their oppression and political exclusion as well as a means of enacting their ideological agenda. The Nasserite left, liberal democrats, the religious right and political malcontents of all descriptions could all unite around calls for the end of Mubarak’s political system and the establishment of democracy.

        Whilst islamists as individuals played an undeniable role in the mass protests that led to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, islamism as an organised political current did not formulate the political platform of the revolution and the Muslim Brotherhood only came out in public support of calls for the downfall of Mubarak at the very last moment. Crucially, the demands and platform of the 25th of January revolution were not generated by the islamist political current and were not islamist in tone or content. Islamists in Egypt never developed the capacity to mobilise on a mass scale outside of their sectional support base in support of their political platform, with the liberal civic current in Egypt alone retaining the capacity to stage protests of a truly national character. The inability of the islamists to mobilise outside of their base was due to the reactionary and exclusionary nature of their political platform, based as it was on identity politics and a narrow conception of what Egypt should look like totally alien to the social and political reality of what Egypt actually is.

        Perversely, however, the transition period that followed the overthrow of the Mubarak regime was not shaped in any significant way by the liberal coalition responsible for its downfall. Liberal groups totally failed to transform the popular enthusiasm for their revolutionary, democratic platform into organisationally powerful political parties or institutional frameworks capable of influencing the formal political process. Liberals, in short, did not have a seat at the table. Instead, revolutionary civil society groups were restricted to the role of provocateurs, repeatedly mobilising huge demonstrations throughout the period from 2011 to 2013 around issues related to democracy, transitional justice and personal rights, but with no single spokesperson or party machine to formally channel these demands. These mobilisations were in effect treated by the politically organised forces, the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, as an external factor to be opportunistically used to bring pressure to bear on the other in a zero-sum game of realpolitik bargaining.

The Muslim Brotherhood in power: From a civic to a theocratic state

The failure of Egypt’s liberal political current to translate mass discontent into institutional power meant that the transition period was shaped by other, better organised forces: the Muslim Brotherhood and Egyptian military. Neither has an ideological, values-based interest in establishing a civil democratic state. The struggle between the Egyptian military and the Brotherhood has fundamentally been one over power rather than democratic principle. In this struggle Egyptian liberals have been dupes brought in from the sidelines to mobilise when one camp or the other required the legitimacy that cross-sectoral mobilisation by liberal activists could provide. Promises of democratisation and security sector reform were made, and broken, by both.

        Tragically for Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood leadership did not view the 25th of January revolution as mandating a democratic reformation of the state apparatus. Rather, the revolutionary moment was seen as an opportunity to seize that apparatus for themselves and exploit the transition period to set parameters for changing Egypt into a theocratic islamic state. The Brotherhood’s attempts on the constitutional drafting committee to move the basic law of the state from a civil to an explicitly religious basis eventually led to the withdrawal of every non-islamist delegate on the committee. Such a change, had it been passed, would have had drastic consequences for what would be politically permissible for non-islamist political currents if their vision of society conflicted with a narrowly-defined version of Sunni sharia jurisprudence. In effect the Brotherhood and their islamist allies sought to enshrine a religious veto of anything that contravened the letter, rather than simply the spirit, of sunni jurisprudence based on the Quran and Sunna into the basic law of the state. Time and again, whether on the issue of drafting a unifying, inclusive constitution for the country or reform of the security forces, the Brotherhood chose to ignore other opposition political currents and either try to win over the state or go it alone using its popular mandate as a blank cheque to irreversibly mould the future polity and the rules of the political game in service of their ideological agenda.

        It can be argued that the Brotherhood were set up to fail through a transition process that went ahead with popular elections before the constitution and character of the state had been settled. This left the polarising issue of the future character of the state to electoral politics in which the well-organised Brotherhood was bound to do well when compared to the loosely-organised network of activists that mobilised the 25th of January revolution. This outcome, however, was actively sought by the Brotherhood. Parliamentary elections prior to the formation of the constitutional drafting committee was an option campaigned for by the Brotherhood in a 2011 referendum held on constitutional amendments organising the transition process. Moreover, once in a position to dictate terms, the Brotherhood showed no interest in reaching compromises with non-islamist groups. Islamist domination of the electoral process led the courts to continually frustrate the islamist current by, for example, dissolving the freely-elected parliament in which the Brotherhood and its islamist allies held a large majority on the eve of Mohammed Morsi being elected president. Court decisions clearly reflected a politicised attempt by a secular judiciary to prevent the islamist trend from using its popular mandate to capture all centres of decision making. On the eve of Morsi’s election on June 30 2012 the Brotherhood, which had previously promised not to contest the presidency, looked set to control the parliament, the presidency and the constitutional committee drafting the country's new constitution.

        The Brotherhood and their islamist allies, with their winner-takes-all attitude with regard to the character of the future Egyptian polity, quickly united all other political forces in the country against them. Had the Brotherhood played a better hand, they could have used the transition period not as the moment to take a stand on the explosive issue of their vision of an islamic polity, but rather to institute neutral rules of the democratic game and find common cause with other political currents against the security state. Instead, they expended political capital on divisive identity issues rather than popular revolutionary causes such as a reformation of the security state, a consensus-based transition democracy and transitional justice. Within five months of Mohammed Morsi taking the Presidency, the Brotherhood had totally alienated non-islamist political currents and lost any ability to form broad-based coalitions against the security state. Indeed, the signals being sent by the Brotherhood were so alarming to liberal, urban opinion in Egypt that virtually all major cities began seeing large mobilisations against attempts by the Brotherhood to use their electoral majority to impose a theocratic state by plebiscite, a vision in stark contrast to the political platform of the 25th of January revolution.

Liberal dupes and the return of the security state

The horror induced in liberal civil society by islamist attempts to frame the future Egyptian polity on a theocratic basis led to a tacit alliance between liberal civic forces and the security state to end islamist rule. That these civic forces failed to predict that this confrontation would lead to the return of a Mubarak-style security state rather than a transition to a civic democracy will forever be a stain on Egyptian liberalism. Nevertheless, islamists carry the lion’s share of the blame for re-imagining the 25th of January revolution as an opportunity to swiftly impose an islamic state by majoritarian plebiscite before liberal forces had a chance to organise and a democratic system had time to settle in. There can be no doubt that a necessary step for this to happen would have been a liberal-islamist alliance against the security state. Instead, the Brotherhood attempted to win the state for themselves in order to impose their theocratic agenda and irreversibly change the basic law of the polity.  The Muslim Brotherhood, as a vast faith-based political organisation with millions of members, had the capacity to win votes and influence formal politics in a way the amorphous liberal civil society groups could not. Islamist electoral success was not, however, a true measure of the popularity of the islamist agenda, as events were to prove.

        Millions protested to end the rule of Mohammed Morsi and the Brotherhood in the summer of 2013. These protests, of a scale unprecedented in Egyptian history, were mobilised by the same coalition of liberal civil society activists behind the 25th of January revolution. Liberal activists found temporary common cause with the security state and international backers in the Gulf to stave off the spectre of an islamist theocracy. Ultimately, despite the Brotherhood’s abandonment of the 25th of January political platform and attempts to appease it, the security state was biding its time for a comeback. The fall of Mohammed Morsi in 2013, as that of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, was facilitated in the last instance by the military, who used the masses in the streets as a mandate to remove the President in both cases.

        Unfortunately, the liberal forces that mobilised in June and July 2013 were not organised enough to ensure the overthrow of Mohammed Morsi would mark the return of a transitional period. Indeed, the summer of 2013 marked the end of formal politics in Egypt. By the time the Rab’aa and Nahda massacres of islamist protesters had occurred, the islamist political current had so thoroughly alienated itself from the Egyptian mainstream that these events were met by non-islamist publics with indifference or a schadenfreude-like glee. Attempts by the Muslim Brotherhood and Qatari-owned interests such as Al-Jazeera to mobilise the Egyptian public against the military overthrow of Mohammed Morsi were a total failure. Throughout the period between 2011 to the summer of 2013, the Brotherhood’s mobilisational capacity had been characterised by two things: the highly sectarian, identity-based nature of the mobilisations, and the organisational infrastructure deployed to ensure a high turn-out. Islamist mobilisations were highly sectarian affairs with participants literally bussed into the cities from the provinces, viewed by many of the citizens of Cairo with suspicion and, by the summer of 2013, murderous disdain. Sectional appeals to a platform based on explosive identity issues could never hope to replicate the scale and spontaneity of the mass mobilisations of the 25th of January and the anti-Brotherhood mobilisation of 30th of June, with their calls for a civic, democratic state.

        That islamists in Egypt have been on the receiving end of horrendous oppression, past and present, is a matter of historic record. The mere fact of oppression, however, does not make the Brotherhood martyrs of a democratic cause. Quite the contrary, the Muslim Brotherhood are the carriers of a deeply sectarian and problematic ideology that, if implemented, will not result in free democratic societies. The Brotherhood in Egypt has a long history of political violence and terrorism against both the state and intellectuals with which it disagrees. Wherever islamists have gained power in the absence of a restraining security state, the result has been a theocratic replica of the secular dictatorships they replaced or majoritarian authoritarianism with a theocratic twist. Even Erdogan’s Turkey, once held out as a model for the region, has slipped into neo-fundamentalist authoritarianism. Tunisia, often branded the only success of the Arab Spring, is locked in an uneasy war of position between islamists and a wary alliance of leftists, liberals and the security state. The fact that the Tunisian Brotherhood stepped back from the brink in the summer of 2013 can in large part be explained by the exemplary fall of the Egyptian Brotherhood at a time when Ennahdha was itself facing a crisis of legitimacy in Tunis. The problematic nature of Ennahdha’s agenda for human rights and a civic state have not been resolved.

        The problem Arab publics face in the Middle East is that of al-bedeel al-mustaheel, literally “the impossible alternative.” Islamism is so anachronistic and hopelessly divisive an alternative to the secular security states of Arab dictatorships that islamists cannot hope to command a societal consensus. The beauty of islamists, a Baathist explained to me in Damascus as I prepared to flee in late April 2011, is that the sheer bizarreness of their vision of a theocratic polity where sovereignty belongs to God, and the ease with which they adopt terrorist violence, allows the political space to be securitised and governments to kill their way out of political binds. Once the islamists bare their fangs, he argued, the urban middle classes and minorities can be relied upon, however reluctantly, to swing behind the state in a popular war against terrorism.

        For those that share the political platform of the 25th of January revolution, however, the problem is that a secular security state is potentially as odious as theocracy. The moment that the 30th of June revolution against the Muslim Brotherhood represented was sabotaged by the Rab’aa and Nahda massacres, which securitised the political space by inciting anti-state terrorism and provided the necessary cover for the security state to abort any free formal political process. Whilst the current President and former Defence Minister Abdul Fatah al-Sisi enjoys genuine patriotic legitimacy amongst the majority of Egyptians, the return of the Mubarak-style security state which he has overseen is unsustainable.

Between religious and military authoritarianism

The political platform of the January 25th 2011 and June 30th 2013 revolutions has been utterly defeated. The liberal civil society activists instrumental in mobilising both are now either silenced, in jail or dead. Liberals have to face the stark reality that their genuine and well-founded fear of the theocratic project of the Muslim Brotherhood has delivered them into the arms of a brutal security state that has closed off any hope of democratic progress just as comprehensively as any islamist theocrat could have done. Politics as a genuine competitive enterprise between independent political parties free to participate in the public space does not exist in Egypt today, and has not existed since the summer of 2013. The civil space has been closed to independent groups and the media and parliament have been brought under the influence of the security services to an extent unheard of even under Mubarak. There is a bitter irony in sitting with liberal friends who once sought to rationalise the massacres of the summer of 2013 as an ugly necessity to preserve democracy but who now live under the constant harassment and threat of the security state. The demented drive by the present government of Egypt to control every facet of the public space and eliminate contrarian voices will only provoke further unrest and offers no convincing answer to the historical earthquake that began on the 25th of January 2011.

        For those who wish to see a free and democratic society in Egypt, a clear-eyed diagnosis of what went wrong between 2011 and the summer of 2013 is a pressing necessity. To be clear, no group comes out of this period well. Liberals can justifiably be accused of cheering from the sidelines whilst their compatriots were killed by the state. Islamists can be condemned for condoning or participating in political violence against Egyptians in events from the Itihadiyya protests of December 2012 or the Maspero incident of October 2011. The tragedy of the Rab’aa and Nahda massacres does not expunge the gross sectarian rhetoric and incitement to violence broadcast by the Brotherhood and its islamist allies from these very locations and in Sinai, nor the wave of islamist terrorism that gripped the country after their dispersal.

        Western observers need to understand that a large part of the current predicament faced by the liberal forces behind the revolutions of 2011 and 2013 is that islamists are not unproblematic, or even acceptable, partners for those seeking a democratic future for their country. Only dishonesty or ignorance can lead an observer to be fooled by the discourse of democracy and civil rights used by the Brotherhood whilst addressing a Western audience. Naked religious prejudice and sectarianism is the language with which the Brotherhood addresses and mobilises its base, its history is characterised by political assassination and terror against opponents, and its time in power was spent trying to win over the security state and impose a theocracy by plebiscite. Yet the theocratic extremism of the Brotherhood does not excuse state violence employed against those members not involved in promoting violence, and islamist groups remain a powerful political fact on the ground that cannot be ignored. For the time being Egyptian society has chosen a secular security state over theocracy imposed at the ballot box, yet if Egypt is to enjoy a democratic future, a path will inevitably have to be plotted between these two extremes.



Tom Dinham is an analyst and writer specialising in political and security issues in the MENA region, and has written extensively for both English and Arabic-language publications. Tom began his career as a journalist covering the Arab Spring in 2011, and was present in Egypt from May 2011 to October 2013, during which most of the events referred to in this article occurred. He has a BA from the University of Oxford and an MA from the University of Exeter.

Photo credit: MoudBarthez via / CC BY-NC-SA

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