15 July 2013

Are there liberals in Egypt?

Fareed Zakaria writes: "The choice in Egypt is not between bad democrats and a Singapore-style efficient and open autocracy. It is between illiberal generals and illiberal politicians. The tragedy of the Arab world is that it is trapped between these two forces, neither of which is fertile ground for the flourishing of liberal democracy." That made me wonder: what would liberalism in Egypt look like? For that matter, what does liberalism mean to Fareed Zakaria? There seemed to be an assumption that the opponents of President Morsi, whose demonstrations forced the military's hand, were the liberals because they weren't the Islamists. Yet by agitating for a coup they failed one test of liberalism, at least as it is understood in the U.S., which is tolerance by people who disagree with you. Zakaria may acknowledge this failing by not listing the urban demonstrators as a liberal force. Instead, he sets a liberal test for the new regime. "[T]he central challenge it faces is to bring the forces of political Islam back into the political proces," he writes, "Remember that they still represent millions of Egyptians. For Egypt to be stable, let alone democratic, the Muslim Brotherhood has to be allowed to compete in elections at every level." This is a pragmatic necessity, Zakaria contends; excluding the Brotherhood from elections will only steer them toward jihad.

But isn't there a greater burden on the Brothers? It would only be asking for a repeat of the Morsi administration if Egyptians felt obliged to integrate the Brotherhood into its new politics without some guarantee that they'll avoid even the appearance of the sort of power grab that provoked Morsi's opponents. Since many Egyptians remain distrustful toward the Brothers, it's more likely that a new constitution will have to include more ironclad safeguards (checks, balances, etc.) against a power grab by elected leaders. Some may still distrust the Brotherhood regardless of all the safeguards that can be enacted or imagined. The real question for Egyptians is whether a liberal solution to the problem of the Muslim Brotherhood really solves the problem. That problem is twofold: whether they can abide by a liberal political order and whether they can be trusted by everyone else to do so. The country remains in a revolutionary state; by definition that's an illiberal condition, since revolutions are acts of coercion. While deploring the coup that toppled Morsi I've also argued that the new regime may have no better option than to go all-out to destroy the Brotherhood, which does not represent all of "political Islam" in Egypt. That would be a supremely illiberal act, but can there be a liberal polity without a universal, unconditional commitment to liberalism? But the question begs others: again, what does liberalism mean, either to Egyptians or objectively? In political terms, it seems to mean that, once you have political power, you're willing to surrender it if you lose an election, as even Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. are willing to do most of the time.  Morsi wasn't given a chance to establish his liberal credentials, and by virtue of that neither have his opponents. Can liberalism flourish amid enduring uncertainty about the Brotherhood's intentions, or those of any Islamists? Can liberalism flourish on illiberal foundations? That is, can Egypt become a liberal polity after having destroyed the Brotherhood, if it comes to that? On the other hand, if destroying the Brotherhood is the precondition for a liberal polity, can liberals -- if Egypt has any -- bring themselves to do the deed? Tolerance is both a virtue and vice of liberalism, depending on circumstances. But it may be better not to discuss the prospects for liberalism in Egypt, or to hold the country to any liberal standard, until its revolution has actually played itself out. If liberals had their way, after all, there would never be revolutions, even when they're necessary.

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