EGYPT AND THE CONTRADICTIONS OF LIBERALISM: Illiberal Intelligentsia and the Future of Egyptian Democracy.

AuthorShepard, William
PositionBook review

EGYPT AND THE CONTRADICTIONS OF LIBERALISM: Illiberal Intelligentsia and the Future of Egyptian Democracy

Editors: Dalia F. Fahmy and Daanish Faruqi

Published by: Oneworld Publications, London, 2017, 388pp, US$35.

Perhaps the most distressing paradox of recent Egyptian history is that when General al-Sisi in 2013 overthrew the democratically elected government of Muhammad Morsi and replaced it with what amounts to a military dictatorship, he received the support of most of the secular liberal intelligentsia, who are supposedly committed to freedom of expression, human rights and democracy.

In the book under review here thirteen scholars specialised in the Middle East, and sharing the same values, seek to understand and explain why and how this happened. In general terms they describe the following situation.

Secular liberals are heirs to a rich legacy going back to the 19th century, but they are also an elite whose Western derived ideology has never won the hearts of the predominantly conservative Egyptian population. To survive and convey their message, they have largely had to rely on autocratic governments that have been secular but not liberal and they have had to compromise with these governments. They have also confronted a strong Islamist movement, which has a competing vision for society and a much larger following among the people. Its pre-eminent representative is the Society of the Muslim Brothers. When Muhammad Morsi, who was connected with the Muslim Brothers, was elected president the year after the popular uprising in 2011, they found this far too threatening. Following their longstanding 'statist' tendency, they supported the autocratic government after it overthrew the Islamist president in spite of its violations of human rights.

Chapters 8 and 9 in particular spell out these points in detail and note that both the liberals and the Muslim Brothers have a statist mentality and think the masses are not yet ready for democracy. Other chapters outline further details of the situation and present some of the background to it. One chapter summarises the history of liberalism in Egypt from its 19th century beginnings. Another traces the development of the student movement from the early 20th century. Yet another discusses the role of civil society and especially nongovernmental organisations that advocate for human rights.

Two others discuss the dysfunctional nature of Egyptian political parties, sketching parliamentary history...

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