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Egypt's Pathetic Liberals

Ed Giles/Getty Images News/Getty Images

When I heard the news about the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi I was crestfallen, and this startled me. The Muslim Brotherhood disgusts me. Democratic governance cannot be founded on an authoritarian view of life. An election is not all that is required for the establishment of democracy; it can result just as well in democracy’s disestablishment. The instrumental nature of the Muslim Brotherhood’s enthusiasm for democratic forms was confirmed by the sectarian and sanctimonious manner in which Morsi ruled: his intolerance was more objectionable even than his incompetence. Yet I cannot deplore this casualness about democracy in the Muslim Brotherhood and celebrate it in the army. The festivities in Tahrir Square were grotesque: liberals rejoicing in a military coup! What sort of liberalism is this? A lame liberalism, since it relies on generals to do its work. Also a compromised liberalism, since it seems to define its work as including a purge against a perfectly legitimate party with which it disagrees, and against whom it pathetically failed to prevail by democratic procedures. (The Islamists in Egypt are a minority.) Yet the weakness of Egyptian liberalism seems to be more than merely political. It seems also infirm in its sense of its purpose, and of the very calling of politics. If democratization fails in Egypt, it will be the failure of Egypt’s liberals. After all, the rivalry between the mosque and the military is an old story in the Arab world. It was not for the Algerian model that Mubarak was deposed. Only the introduction of a third term into the script—call it, since the president prefers not to use such a vocabulary, the forces of freedom, which the mosque and the military certainly are not—will revise the story. And the scandal of the Egyptian revolution, and of all the Arab revolutions, is the absence of a forceful third term.

“My sole objective was the emancipation of the country and the prosperity its people would enjoy under a just, truly representative government. Such a government would give the people their proper rights without distinction between civilians and foreigners, so that all the inhabitants of Egypt would be as one, regardless of differences of religions and beliefs, since all men belonged to the same common humanity.” Those shining words were composed in 1882 by an Egyptian colonel who directed a constitutional revolution against the British occupiers and the Egyptian monarch. The rebellion failed and he was exiled; but liberal constitutionalism became an important element in the politics of the country, and of the region, for many decades. (The colonel with the Jeffersonian idiom was invoked by the crowds that overthrew Mubarak in 2011.) Egypt is not lacking in a liberal tradition, as Albert Hourani eruditely documented many years ago. Here, for example, is his summary of the progressive principles of Egypt’s interwar period: “the separation of religion and politics; the democratic system of government, that is to say, the prevalence of the general will as expressed by freely elected parliaments and ministries responsible to them; the respect for individual rights, particularly the right to speak and write freely; the strength of the political virtues, of loyalty to the community and willingness to make sacrifices for it....” All this is natively Egyptian. The beliefs that are required for democracy do not need to be imported into this country: neocolonial condescension is especially stupid in this case.

So what happened to Egyptian liberalism? The first answer is Mubarak. When he decimated the political culture of his country, only the mosque survived: in this sense the Muslim Brotherhood owes the dictator a great deal. For politics to exist, moreover, there must be political organization. The Brotherhood, like the army, is organized. They are both institutions with hierarchies and leaders. But the young liberals of Egypt reject what Wael Ghonim calls “Revolution 1.0,” which was characterized by “charismatic leaders,” in favor of “Revolution 2.0,” which is “like an offline Wikipedia,” and “a spontaneous movement led by nothing other than the wisdom of the crowd.” Why is an anti-Morsi crowd wise and a pro-Morsi crowd unwise, if they are both crowds? Or is it that we are a crowd but they are a mob? The link between massification and intelligence is one of the most widespread illusions of the Internet—and in this instance, a disastrous transposition to politics of the techniques of digital marketing. (“The science behind marketing ...,” Ghonim excitedly recalls, “would come in quite handy in promoting a product I had never seen myself marketing: democracy and freedom!”) Ghonim proudly reproduces in his memoir this post from a Facebook page: “Do you know what is brilliant about this idea? That we are not an organization ... and we are not a political party ...” Brilliant? Facebook pages accompanied by regular paroxysms in Tahrir Square do not constitute a politics. Meanwhile various hacks of the Mubarak era—Moussa, ElBaradei, and others—have sought to exploit the unrest, but they are hardly the future of Egyptian liberalism. And so Revolution 2.0 has been succeeded by Revolution 3.0: the military overthrow of a democratically elected government. This must be the first coup in history that is cool.

The progressive partiers in Tahrir Square (a political party!) will be disappointed, of course. The generals whom they glorify will not do liberalism’s work. They are in the business of power, not in the business of justice. They have already committed a massacre. A few years ago the liberals stood with the Brotherhood against military dictatorship, but now they form a Bonapartist left. They appear to have concluded that secularism is coercive and that tolerance is not an essential element of the democratic mentality. The degradation of liberalism by Arab liberals, and their expedient preference for force over organization and argument, will doom the Arab Spring, because the historical onus of the Arab Spring has always been born by the liberals. It is they—not the soldiers who dream of stability and the mullahs who dream of sharia—who represent historical change. But democracy will never be created by people who do not take democracy seriously.

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.