By Max Reibman
Egypt’s liberals confront a fundamental and long overdue self-reckoning. Like most liberal revolutionaries, who often disappoint and rarely go on to govern, Egypt’s are slowly slipping into irrelevance. After setting off protests that paralyzed the old regime, they lacked the ruthlessness to fuel popular momentum, eschewed district and provincial level organizing, and shunned compromise when it was needed most. Egypt now awaits its future at a crucial crossroads, but the liberals remain absent. They have no clear program or plan of action. Many boycotted the recent run-off and few of its activists appear motivated to reignite the social movement that brought down Hosni Mubarak a year and half ago.
The liberals are a broad coalition of young, tech-savvy entrepreneurs, urban professionals, socialists, Coptic Christians, and non-ideological Muslims, alienated both by the corruption of the ancien régime and by the chauvinism of Egypt’s two main Islamist forces—the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis. However, Egypt’s liberals need to recognize their differences and move past them. For months following the January Revolution, they showed little sense of urgency. They bickered about economic programs and foreign policy while the Brotherhood and Salafis organized. The Brotherhood activated an extensive network of previously underground activists, and the Salafis marshaled their cohorts in mosques and villages throughout the Nile Delta, the Western Desert, and across Upper Egypt.
When the liberals finally came together last August, a near eight months since the beginning of the revolution, in a much-anticipated coalition that became the “Egyptian Bloc,” or the Kutla Masriyya, they left much to be desired. Incapable of resolving disputes directed mainly toward the “Free Egyptians Party”—al-Masreen al-Ahrar—a group founded by Neguib Sawiris, the billionaire scion of Egypt’s wealthiest and most influential Coptic family, Kutla soon faced defections and it steadily splintered. It lost two key socialist parties in October, refused to negotiate with the longstanding, secularist opposition, the Wafd party—which entered into a convenient coalition with the Brotherhood in the prelude to the parliamentary elections last December—and failed to attract credible candidates who could compete with the Islamists on the economy and questions of quality of life outside of Cairo, Alexandria, and the southern resort towns of the Sinai Peninsula.
Still, Egypt’s liberals had no shortage of opportunities to regain influence in the evolving political process. Last November, when the governing military council announced a set of proposals aimed to insulate the armed forces from budgetary oversight, thereby preserving the army’s inflated and opaque stake in Egypt’s private sector economy, the liberal response was ineffectual. The proposals touched off a vicious round of violence in Tahrir Square, but the liberals were caught flat-footed. Put on the defensive in the media cycle and unprepared for the military’s heavy-handed tactics, they lost control of the Square as a focal point of non-violent civil disobedience. They also refused to rebuke the Brotherhood for its calculated non-participation. The events threatened the time table of the December parliamentary elections, which the Brotherhood was poised to dominate.
After being trounced in the parliamentary elections, liberals were nonetheless tainted by charges of collusion with foreign NGOs last February. By again allowing SCAF (the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) to monopolize Egypt’s critical news-media cycle, the liberal coalition had no compelling way of explaining that the charges were mere scare tactics designed to deflect public scrutiny from the real issue of the day: a powerless parliament unable to legislate or appoint a constituent assembly without continued SCAF interference. Further flash points provided additional opportunities. Few were recognized, and none were exploited.
It should have been little consolation for the liberals when a set of reactionary candidates, including the lawyer and Salafi messiah, Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, were disqualified from the May Presidential election on various technical grounds. Instead of taking comfort in the demise of Abu Ismail’s candidacy, the decision by the Supreme Presidential Electoral Commission (SPEC) to bar candidates from the race should have highlighted the arbitrary decision-making process and disproportionate powers wielded by hold-over institutions from the Mubarak regime. For the liberals, almost unanimously overjoyed with the defeat of Abu Ismail, their response was a tactical shortcoming and strategic error. The disqualifications, in fact, provided a preview for what was to take place in mid-June–the disbanding of a freely elected parliament by another remnant and unrepresentative body of the former government.
Fortunately for the liberals, the Brotherhood might finally need them. Even if the generals respect the Brotherhood victory in last weekend’s Presidential election, SCAF will almost certainly try to undermine the Islamist opposition by peeling away one of its constituent parts. In an effort to divide the Islamists, SCAF might engage the Salafis, to whom it could promise a role in any new, nominal cabinet as they work to bring down Muhammad Moursi. A dubious strategy, no doubt, since national armies can almost never exert political control over autonomous Islamist groups, the likely move should convince the Brotherhood of the necessity of a new national coalition. Liberals can and should anticipate this, forfeiting temporary reservations about allying with the Brotherhood, itself trying to heal a host of internal tensions surrounding its ideological approach to Egypt’s economy, shifting social landscape, and foreign policy commitments.
Egypt’s liberals, moreover, have suffered far too long without a cogent leader capable of uniting its disparate elements–a point that cannot be lost among Egypt’s liberals, who already experienced the disastrous consequences of divided resources in last month’s Presidential election. A failure to concentrate support behind one viable candidate, either Abdel Moneim Abou al-Fatouh or Amr Moussa, in turn, gave way to boycotts and short-lived excitement for attractive, but ultimately hopeless, insurgent candidates like Khalid Ali and Hamdin Sabbahi. This was a mistake that cannot repeated.
Now, more than ever, Egypt’s liberals need a leader. Its few charismatic spokesmen, among them, Amr Hamzawy, Wael Ghoneim, and Muhammad al-Baradei, must find common ground with the Brotherhood and then package together a deal palatable to the remnants of Egypt’s young revolutionaries from January of last year. For its part, to calm the country and steward the opposition, the Brotherhood needs these statesmen and their powerful network of allies and supporters both within Egypt and abroad. There is no alternative. If the liberals cannot find a way to make themselves relevant in a new Brotherhood-backed coalition, only violence and perhaps a new “Battle of the Camel” is conceivable.
Max Reibman is currently a PhD candidate in modern Middle Eastern History at the University of Cambridge. His doctoral research is funded by the Gates Cambridge Trust. His main research interests are Egypt and the Middle East in the era of the First World War. He speaks fluent Egyptian colloquial Arabic and spent this past year in Egypt conducting field research and archival work as an affiliated fellow at the American University in Cairo.