Special Report

The Failure of Secular and Liberal Egyptians

Before this is over, they'll wish they still had Mubarak to kick around again.

By 12.16.11

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Contrary to the expectations of many analysts, both the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party and the Salafist al-Nour coalition trounced the secular Egyptian Bloc and the Wafd Party in the first stage of voting for the parliamentary elections. Indeed, whereas Wafd received 7.1% of the vote and the Egyptian Bloc 13.4%, al-Nour alone took 24.4% of votes and the Brotherhood's party 36.6%.

Even more discouraging, this round of voting took place in areas where Egyptian liberals and secularists can most count on support. One can only wonder how much wider the margin will be as the second round of voting commenced on Wednesday.

That said, it should not necessarily be thought that the Brotherhood will form some sort of an alliance with Salafist parties. Deep tensions between the two Islamist factions have already become apparent with reports of attacks by members of Gamaa Islamiyya on Brotherhood campaign workers in the southern province of Assiut, where there was a local run-off election as part of the first round of voting.

The animosity exists not because the Brotherhood is somehow actually more moderate, but rather because the Salafists are against the idea of forming coalitions and being pragmatic in trying to implement Sharia. For the Brotherhood, unlike the al-Nour coalition, believes that it is better to apply Islamic law in gradual stages. The rivalry will almost certainly become more evident in the next stages of voting that will take place in the more rural areas of Upper Egypt, where the popularity of Salafists could well outstrip support for the Brotherhood.

Yet the more urgent question arises of why the secularists and liberals have fared so poorly in these elections. After all, were they not dominant in the mass demonstrations in Tahrir Square back in January and February that culminated in the resignation of Hosni Mubarak? Did not numerous pundits speak of the "Twitter and Facebook" generation of secularists and liberals -- primarily youth activists -- that would supposedly prevent the Islamists from gaining ascendancy in the post-Mubarak political scene?

Before turning to recent developments for explanation, it is worth pointing out that the military regime that overthrew the constitutional monarchy in 1952 and has been ruling Egypt since has always had a love-hate relationship with the Islamists.

While Islamists were formally snubbed in the upper ranks of government and those who openly came out in opposition to the regime were subject to brutal crackdowns (particularly during Gamal Abdel Nasser's rule), they were granted numerous concessions at the ground level and tolerated in the promotion of Islamist ideals. This de facto arrangement included, for example, the teaching and glorification of jihad in school textbooks, and the promotion of Islamist discourse on Egyptian TV channels. That Islamism consequently has a significant degree of appeal should not come as a surprise.

Coming back to the present day, it is of course true that the Islamists were in general conspicuously absent from the initial protests against Mubarak's regime, but many pundits made the mistake of assuming that mass demonstrations expressing a particular opinion or ideology are representative of the population at large. Indeed, as the intelligence group STRATFOR estimated, the protests in Tahrir Square probably never exceeded 300,000 people. Given that Egypt has a population of over 80 million, it would be absurd to extrapolate the liberal and secular sentiments of the protesters in those anti-Mubarak demonstrations to the people at large.

In the protests last month where the military attacked and killed numerous demonstrators, the Islamists' absence was again notable. Yet this observation easily links to an inherent problem with the performance of liberals and secularists in Egypt. The Islamists' decision not to attend the more recent demonstrations was a very clever move on their part.

The Islamists and the military realize that the continuing anarchy produced by these protests and clashes is only aggravating the disastrous situation for Egypt's economy, which was improving significantly under Mubarak's reforms in the ex-president's last few years in power.

As the Wall Street Journal notes, foreign exchange reserves at Egypt's central bank have halved to around $22 billion, while the projected deficit for the current fiscal year is thought to be around 9% of GDP, which "would not be sustainable even if Egypt's economy were growing at robust rates." The Brotherhood has some idea that a key problem here is the subsidy system, even as the group does not offer specific policy initiatives on the issue, but the liberals and secularists seem to be completely oblivious to the economic problems at hand.

Meanwhile, tourism revenues have decreased by a third this year, and it is likely that many tourists will be deterred from traveling to Egypt over the coming years in light of prominent calls from Islamists for a ban on alcohol and segregation on beaches. Given that sexual harassment is already a problem widely noted by tourists, the feeling of intimidation is only likely to increase.

Perhaps most importantly, instead of trying to offer comprehensive alternative policy programs to voters, prominent, Western-educated Egyptians like Mona Eltahawy have become enthralled with spectacles like that of an Egyptian female blogger's stripping completely naked (this was a problem first drawn to my attention by the owner of the "Happy Arab News Service" blog).

Writing in the Guardian's "Comment is Free" site, Eltahawy hailed Aliaa Mahdy for posing nude on her blog site, claiming that she is "the Molotov cocktail thrown at the Mubaraks in our heads -- the dictators of our mind."

The idea that baring one's breasts and genitalia will somehow reduce support for the Brotherhood, Salafists, and other Egyptian misogynists is misguided, to put it mildly. In fact, given the high prevalence of female genital mutilation in Egypt (because the prominent Shafi'i school of Islamic jurisprudence in Egypt affirms that the practice is mandatory in accordance with Muslim tradition), it is hardly as though the Islamists in particular are going to be scared away by a blogger's posing nude. No, they have probably seen much worse than that.

Far from aiding the cause of secular liberalism in Egypt, Eltahawy and her ilk have done it more harm than any Salafist could have hoped to achieve. If, in the midst of an Islamist upsurge in Egypt, they can find nothing better to do than to express delight over someone exposing her entire body on a public forum, then sadly one can only recognize their disconnect from Egyptian society.

If the secularists and liberals do not wish to become a completely marginalized force, they must overcome the problem of disorganization, abandon incoherent leftist populism, and wake up to the dire reality of the economic situation.

The army probably desires to continue managing things behind the scenes and is certainly aiming to remain independent. However, the army may come to feel that it has no other option but to rely on the Muslim Brotherhood, or perhaps even the Salafists. Ironically, the liberals and secularists may soon discover -- if they are able to get their act together -- that the military they have so vigorously opposed could also be the last institution that can prevent an Islamist takeover.

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About the Author
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University. His website is http://www.aymennjawad.org.