Egypt and the Contradictions of Liberalism

Illiberal Intelligentsia and the Future of Egyptian Democracy

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Dalia Fahmy, Daanish Faruqi
  • London, England: 
    Oneworld Publications
    , August
     416 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In January 2011, the world sat in rapt attention as Egyptian citizens in Tahrir Square protested the repressive government of Hosni Mubarak, eventually leading to his overthrow and the promise of a constitutional democracy built on popular sovereignty. Egypt and the Contradictions of Liberalism, edited by Dalia F. Fahmy and Daanish Faruqi, is an exploration into how that exuberant moment would lead to military coup and the instillation of another repressive regime just two years later. More than just a narrative of events, however, this volume of essays examines the history of liberalism in Egypt and the impact it had on these recent events. As the title suggests, this impact has been chaotic, contradictory, and illiberal at times, leaving the future of Egyptian democracy still in question.

In the introductory chapter, Fahmy and Faruqi identify the central question of the book: Why did well-known liberal activists and intellectuals in Egypt, who had championed democracy and human rights during the Mubarak regime, later renege on these commitments, “enthusiastically support[ing] the coup against Egypt’s first democratically elected president, and…[continuing] that wave of support well into the point at which the new order under Sisi’s rampant illiberal repression” was made clear (3). This betrayal calls into question the future of liberalism in Egypt, but also, as the title of the book suggests, whether liberalism as a philosophical and political doctrine has contradictory tendencies. Ultimately, Fahmy and Faruqi demurely conclude that this volume isn’t the appropriate forum to arbitrate any definitive claim about liberalism in general, but they do lay the foundation for a lasting critique of liberalism in Egypt: “the contradictions of the liberal experiment in Egypt can only be overcome by realigning the project to speak to the needs of the Egyptian people in a cultural, social—and yes, religious—idiom that they find congruent” (27).

One of the strengths of the book is the fact that the editors don’t rely solely on analysis of particular individuals who have betrayed the liberal doctrine they once claimed to support, but instead focus on the institutions that play a large role in the politics of Egypt. In the first two sections of the book, various authors examine institutions of the state as well as civil society, including political parties, rules governing the transition of power, the judiciary, the NGO community, the media, universities and student movements within them, and religion. This first half is key to providing historical and cultural context for the reader, which it does very well. The second half of the book takes a more evaluative turn, first making comparisons between major figures within Egypt and in other regions, and then presenting appraisals as to why Egyptian liberalism has failed.

Khaled Abou El Fadl’s chapter titled “Egypt’s Secularized Intelligentsia and the Guardians of Truth” and the concluding chapter by Emad El-Din Shahin, titled “Does Liberalism have a Future in Egypt?” provide particularly cogent analyses of themes that run throughout the volume: liberals’ insistence on the necessity of secularism, and the problem of hypocrisy. When the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate Mohamed Morsi was democratically elected in 2012, prominent liberals throughout Egypt went on the offensive using rhetoric, various influential social institutions, and, in the end, military power. Eventually, General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi took over leadership and has retained the support of secular liberals throughout his massacres and other human rights violations. For both Abou El Fadl and El-Din Shahin, this kind of forced secularity and overt hypocrisy is exactly the reason why Egyptian liberalism appears contradictory and imperils its own future in Egypt.

The one area where the book struggles to find its footing is perhaps, unavoidable given the hypocritical nature of the liberal intelligentsia. Fahmy and Faruqi continue to refer to these individuals as “liberals,” yet then they describe positions they hold that are definitively anti-liberal. As El-Din Shahin remarks, “it has become increasingly difficult to identify precisely who constitutes a ‘liberal’ in contemporary Egypt” (366). Although Fahmy and Faruqi claim the volume isn’t intended to analyze liberalism’s philosophical claims as contradictory, the title suggests they think these Egyptian examples are endemic to the doctrine itself instead of merely examples of historical failures to live up to its ideals, much like the failures of European or American liberalism. It is not clear whether a failure to live up to ideals makes the doctrine itself contradictory, or if it is simply difficult to implement given human frailty.

Egypt and the Contradictions of Liberalism provides a thorough but still focused account of recent events in Egypt and the historical and cultural context of Egyptian liberalism. For anyone studying Egyptian political history or the politics of that region, this book is a wellspring of information and analysis for the incredibly influential events of the last decade. The volume, however is more than descriptive; it endorses a prescription: a conclusive break from European, paternalistic governance-models and the forced secularity that attacks the values and belief system that constitutes Egyptian civil society. El-Din Shahin ends the book on a sanguine note, believing a liberal future is possible, but only if Egyptian liberals “construct an indigenous liberal model with its own creative frame of reference, moral values, inclusive political orientation, and economic vision” (362).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Thomas Greene is a doctoral candidate in Religion, Ethics, and Philosophy at Florida State University.

Date of Review: 
January 25, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Dalia Fahmy is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Long Island University. She lives in New Jersey. 

Daanish Faruqi is a PhD candidate in History at Duke University, North Carolina.


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