Egypt: Why Liberalism Still Matters

Michele Dunne & Tarek Radwan. Journal of Democracy. Volume 24, Issue 1. January 2013.

A recent Egyptian political cartoon depicts a bearded man in traditional Muslim attire stepping on the back of another man labeled “the revolution” in order to ascend to a seat labeled “the dictator’s throne.” Although those familiar with Egypt will recognize the first man’s clothing as the garment of a Salafist, many would interpret the meaning of the drawing more broadly: The liberals who in 2011 upended the thirty year-old Hosni Mubarak dictatorship were duped, and now Islamists with completely different goals-including the country’s newly elected president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood-are using the liberals as stepping stones to power. As a result, Egypt is becoming increasingly Islamist and is on the road to becoming more of a theocracy than a democracy.

According to conventional Western wisdom, liberal ideas are unpopular among Egyptians, despite what some enthusiastic young people said in Tahrir Square in early 2011. Consequently, liberals fared poorly in the legislative elections that took place in late 2011 and early 2012, in which Islamists won 70 percent of the 498 directly elected seats in the People’s Assembly. In the June 2012 presidential election, no liberal was a serious contender. Many Egyptians associate liberal ideas with Western colonialism and hegemony, and hence find these ideas distasteful. In addition, Egyptian liberals tend to be elitist, distraction-prone, and given to squabbling over petty differences.

Threads of truth run through these claims, but the overall pattern that they weave is misleading. While it is true that social mores have become more conservative in Egypt in recent decades, it is not true that core liberal ideas are in retreat. On the contrary, the essentials of political liberalism-citizens’ rights, government accountability, the rule of law, limits on state power-have become so popular that the liberal ideological field has become crowded. Liberals have had a hard time gaining public support in part because others-notably, the Brotherhood and, before the revolution, Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP)-appropriated liberal ideas, leaving liberals with a smaller portfolio of social issues, such as women’s equality and minority rights, with which to distinguish themselves from the others. So we must therefore ask, is there any space or need in Egypt for liberals?

In discussing the progress of liberal ideas in Egypt, we take as our starting point core ideas that have evolved since John Locke set forth the classic formulation of the concepts of natural rights and the social contract. Locke argued that the rights of the individual must be kept free from interference by the state, which exists solely to protect and preserve the individual’s welfare. The consent of the governed allows the state to rule over a civil society and justifies the removal of the government by any means if the terms of the social contract are broken.

The idea that individuals have inalienable rights-karama (dignity)-which they should be able to enjoy without government harassment-hurriya (freedom)-was the long-smoldering tinder that set alight the Egyptian revolution. Explicit in the uprising’s calls for democracy and implicit in its demands for Mubarak’s removal and a transition to democracy was the notion that citizens should have the right and the ability to choose their government and to change it if it fails to fulfil the social contract.

“Liberal” is not a static concept, of course, and while the basic tenets of a liberal understanding of political life have endured, those related to economic and social matters have expanded over time. What liberal values embody in a social sense has changed in the West, as the notion of equality now includes more and more people, regardless of sex, race, class, religion, or sexual orientation. In Egypt, such economic and social ideas are far more contested than are the core political principles of liberalism.

The fact that the term librali (liberal) is fraught in mainstream Egyptian discourse is an additional distraction. In Egypt, the word “liberal” is often considered synonymous with “secular,” which in turn implies “atheist” to some-a concept both foreign and offensive to many Egyptians. As an alternative, the less troubled term madani, which can mean either “civilian” (not military) or “civil” (not religious), has become common in political parlance. Thus current discourse parallels the dilemma in which Egyptian liberals often find themselves: Should they define themselves primarily as nonmilitary (and hence also nonauthoritarian) or as non-Islamist? This dilemma has effectively divided liberals since the 2011 revolution, with some (often the younger ones) opting to cooperate tactically with Islamists in order to end military rule and others (often older liberals, used to dealing with the Mubarak regime) choosing to cooperate with the military or other elements of the ancien régime in order to forestall Islamist dominance.

In this essay, those referred to as “liberals” are political actors who have made democratic governance, the rule of law, equal rights for all citizens (including women and religious minorities), and a free-market economy the main principles of their ideology. Such actors might refer to themselves as “liberal” but, due to the issues mentioned above, rarely use that moniker for their political movements or parties. And as we will see, core tenets of political liberalism such as democratic governance and rule of law have also come to be broadly accepted by Islamists (who might not accept the full equality of all citizens regardless of sex or religion) and leftists (who do not necessarily accept a free-market economy), making the political spectrum increasingly muddled.

Liberalism Before the Revolution

Although a full exploration of liberalism in Egypt would need to begin in the early nineteenth century, here we shall focus on the last twenty years. Over these two decades, ideas such as democratic governance, citizenship, and individual rights came up for wide discussion even though political freedom notably contracted during the 1990s as the ossifying Mubarak regime, pointing to the threat of domestic terrorism in the early part of the decade, put the clamps on. Prominent figures-Mubarak, members of the ruling NDP, opposition politicians, and public intellectuals-often discussed concepts such as democracy, political reform, and civil society, in part to show that they were in touch with the major global developments of the time, including the spread of democracy in Central and Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union.

The ruling NDP performed poorly in the 2000 parliamentary elections. Showing a lack of party discipline, many prospective candidates deserted the NDP, ran as independents, and then rejoined after winning their (largely corrupt) races. President Mubarak’s son Gamal, who was being positioned to succeed his father, took advantage of the party’s poor showing at the polls to propose reinventing the NDP. Gamal saw political liberalism as promising turf for his new NDP to occupy and attracted prominent liberals such as intellectuals Aley Eddin Hilal, Abdel Moneim Said, and Hossam Badrawi. Adopting the slogan tafkir jadid (new thinking), Gamal’s NDP focused on economic reform and concepts such as citizenship, modernization, government efficiency, and women’s rights.

Gamal Mubarak’s push for liberal economic reform had real vitality, and by 2004 there was an economic-reform dream team in the cabinet led by Prime Minister Ahmad Nazif that made significant macroeconomic changes over the next six years. Gamal’s vision for political reform, however, was incoherent and apparently driven by two factors: 1) the need for a certain degree of openness (in terms of the media and Internet freedom) and government efficiency in order to attract foreign direct investment; and 2) the need for at least tacit support from the United States for his eventual succession to the presidency. President George W. Bush had articulated his “forward strategy of freedom” in a November 2003 speech at the National Endowment for Democracy, signaling U.S. backing for democratic reform

The NDP was not the only group to respond to the growing calls for change from inside and outside Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood put forward a political-reform program in 2004 after Mahdi Akef became Supreme Guide, partly as an attempt to accommodate younger members who desired more political engagement and partly as a response to the Bush freedom agenda. As Mona El-Ghobashy observed, the program was also a message to other Egyptian opposition groups that “the Muslim Brothers and they are in one camp, speak the same constitutionalist language, agree on the foundational issue of the division and rotation of powers, and can be counted on in any future common initiatives.” The 2004 program expressly embraced a constitutional, parliamentary form of government in conformity with Islam-a remarkable step given the movement’s prior political thought.5 By the early 2000s, the debate among Islamists over representative government was nearly over, as support for the key concepts of political, if not social, liberalism had become widely accepted.

Still, it was not the Brotherhood but rather a new opposition group that became the vanguard of political change: the Egyptian Movement for Change, formed by leftist, Nasserite, Islamist, and human-rights activists. Generally known by its slogan “Kifaya” (Enough), the movement captured the Egyptian popular imagination upon its founding in 2004 and tapped public weariness with Mubarak-era stagnation and the prospect of Gamal’s succession. Showing the resourcefulness and wit that would become a hallmark of revolutionary groups later on, Kifaya’s first public protest in December 2004 featured several hundred activists demonstrating mostly silently before the High Court building, wearing round seals emblazoned with “Kifaya” over their mouths.

Although the Kifaya movement declined in importance within two years, it made several important contributions to political life in Egypt. It broke the taboo against direct criticism of Mubarak and overcame the fear of engaging in antiregime public protests. In addition, the group began to establish a public consensus in favor of liberalizing political life. Kifaya was not the first or only group to bring activists of different political stripes together, but it did so with the explicit call to build “a homeland of democracy and progress” via “breaking the hold of the ruling party on power and all its instruments” and the “cessation of all laws which constrain public and individual freedoms.” It called for constitutional reform to provide for the direct and competitive election of the president, limited presidential terms and powers, stronger parliamentary and judicial independence, free media, the establishment of new political parties, and the holding of free and fair parliamentary elections.

Precursors of Change

Kifaya not only addressed the need for political reform but also connected that issue to public anger about economic injustice, corruption, and Egypt’s diminished role in regional affairs (which Kifaya attributed to “American and Zionist influence”). While the movement broke new ground by holding a number of joint protests with Brotherhood activists, it still insisted on a certain rigor when it came to liberal political ideas. During one memorable demonstration in May 2005, Kifaya protestors objected to the Brotherhood’s habit of waving copies of the Koran in the air and challenged the Islamists on the meaning of the gesture. Did the Brotherhood envision sovereignty in a future Egyptian democracy belonging to the people or to God? After a brief consultation, the Brotherhood protestors reportedly replied, “To the people,” and agreed to put their holy books away for the remainder of the protest.

Kifaya’s influence declined rapidly after the group failed to prevent Mubarak’s election to his fifth six-year presidential term in September 2005. Independent candidates affiliated with the Brotherhood (at the time still an illegal movement with no political party) won a fifth of the seats in parliament, a stunning victory that might well have been larger had the elections been completely fair. The few candidates affiliated directly with Kifaya, lacking a political machine to back them, fared poorly at the polls.

The period between late 2005 and 2010 was difficult for Egyptian activists, bringing waves of arrests and financial repression against the Muslim Brothers as well as regime measures to restrict pro-reform judges and other groups. Along with the Brotherhood, the explicitly liberal al-Ghad (Tomorrow) Party received special punishment, with its leader Ayman Nour, who had run against Mubarak for the presidency, convicted on trumped-up forgery charges in late 2005 and the remaining party leaders harassed into resigning.

The repressive environment forced activists to become more resourceful. The April 6th Youth Movement, a loose grouping of young liberal and leftist activists, was founded in 2008 and attempted to escape repression by doing most of its organizing via Facebook. Its leaders faced intimidation after they succeeded in promoting a nationwide general strike on April 6 of that year. The strike alarmed the regime by linking youth activists with the large labor protests that had been rocking the country for several years. Although repression and internal struggles took their toll on the movement, it remained at least symbolically important and eventually played a role in the early days of the 2011 revolution.

Throughout this period, dialogue continued between Islamists and liberal and other secular political groups, even amid government crackdowns on the media, exclusion of opposition candidates from many elections, other forms of election rigging, and the systematic use of torture against political opponents of the regime. One of the most remarkable episodes of Islamist-liberal dialogue revolved around the circulation of a draft Brotherhood political program in 2007. The fact that it was shared in draft form with activists outside the Brotherhood was in itself notable, considering the organization’s usually opaque decision making.

While the program supported the idea of parliamentary democracy for Egypt and detailed the Brotherhood’s vision in more than a hundred pages, it contained two elements that alarmed non-Islamists: the creation of a clerical council to review legislation for conformity with Islamic law, and a ban on both female and non-Muslim candidates for head of state. These positions provoked a firestorm of criticism and were opposed by some of the Brotherhood’s more progressive members. The 2007 draft remained unfinished, and the clerical council and presidential exclusion would fail to appear in future Brotherhood platforms. Yet as late as 2012, some figures in the organization continued to say that they personally considered women unsuited for the presidency.

Not all the political activity in the years leading up to the revolution took place behind the scenes. In February 2010, Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, returned to his native Egypt to challenge the Mubarak regime. Unlike the April 6th Youth Movement, which was arguably too small to attract much harassment from the regime, ElBaradei was too big. Returning just a year before Mubarak would either attempt to run again or promote his son as successor, the Nobel laureate quickly became Egypt’s leading liberal and, in the eyes of many, a possible future president. He adopted an explicitly liberal program that was similar to those of Kifaya and al-Ghad but more focused on free elections as the engine of political change. Like Kifaya, ElBaradei reached out to groups with different ideologies, especially the Brotherhood.

Forming the National Association for Change (NAC), ElBaradei and other prominent figures drafted a seven-point petition and said they planned to gather a million signatures. The petition called for measures specific to the preelectoral context of Egypt in 2010: ending the state of emergency, empowering the judiciary to supervise elections, allowing domestic and international monitoring of elections, providing a level playing field for all presidential candidates, allowing expatriates to vote, limiting the president to two terms in office, and allowing voting with national identity cards rather than requiring registration. Prominent Brotherhood politician Mohamed al-Beltagy actively participated in the NAC, and the petition became one of the most striking instances of liberal-Islamist cooperation. Because the Brotherhood promoted the petition, the NAC managed to obtain hundreds of thousands of signatures by late 2010.

The most prominent protest group to arise in the months ahead of the revolution was We Are All Khaled Said, an assortment of activists drawn together in protest against the June 2010 beating death of a young Alexandrian blogger by police. It mattered not whether the killing was spontaneous brutality or premeditated murder; the death of a middleclass youth at the hands of police in the street outraged Egyptians. As the April 6th Movement had done, We Are All Khaled Said organized via Facebook, bringing four-thousand people into the streets on 25 June 2010 at a time when few protests other than labor strikes attracted more than a meager few hundred. Prominent liberal figures such as ElBaradei and Ayman Nour joined in. While the group’s main purpose was to galvanize public outrage against police brutality and other widespread human-rights abuses, it also called for political change, saying that “Egyptians are aspiring to the day when Egypt has its freedom and dignity back, the day when the current thirty-year-long emergency martial law ends and when Egyptians can freely elect their true representatives.”

The contribution of We Are All Khaled Said, like that of the April 6th Movement, was more in mobilizing dissent than in spreading political ideas; its Facebook page was the primary organizing venue for the January 25 Day of Rage that spiraled into the eighteen-day revolution. Still, these groups primarily comprised activists who espoused a liberal political agenda and used their ingenuity and social-media skills to knit the various strands of grievance-economic, rights-based, and political-as well as the various political tendencies into a unified call for a transition from authoritarian to democratic rule. Young activists from the April 6th and Khaled Said movements also began to interact intensively with the youth wing of the Brotherhood, a partnership that would prove potent and inspiring to many Egyptians during the revolution.

Liberalism During and After the Uprising

Egyptian demonstrators stunned the world in January 2011 not only with their courage but also with their liberal demands: dignity, freedom, and economic opportunity. This was by no means the Islamic revolution that many had predicted would eventually challenge Mubarak. Not only did the Brotherhood have little to do with starting the uprising-although its website advertised the January 25 Day of Rage, few Brothers showed up at the outset-but the group continued for many months to shift tactics in order to maximize its advantage, cooperating at one moment with the authorities and at the next with there volutionaries.

After Mubarak’s dramatic ouster on 11 February 2011, the assumption of executive power by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) marked the start of the military’s stewardship of the political transition. To create a legal and constitutional framework, the SCAF suspended the 1971 Constitution and summoned a constitutional-review committee, led by the moderate Islamic political intellectual Judge Tarek al-Bishri. Working directly against liberal and revolutionary activists who were calling for the early drafting of an entirely new constitution, the Brotherhood and the ultraconservative Salafis spent tremendous energy and resources to persuade the public to vote in the 19 March 2011 referendum for a package of constitutional amendments that would pave the way for early parliamentary elections.

In the months that followed, liberal activists felt betrayed by Islamists, who did not participate in the antimilitary demonstrations that exposed liberal and leftist protesters to grave human-rights abuses including torture and military trials. Assaults by the military on civilian demonstrators in the run-up to the parliamentary elections that began on 28 November 2011 drew severe criticism from local and international activists and politicians. The Brotherhood had been calling for calm and hoping to avoid confrontations with the SCAF in order to maintain a laser-like focus on winning elections. Only when it appeared that the SCAF intended to usurp control of the constitution-drafting process did the Islamists begin to protest in mid-November 2011. Most later withdrew, however, leaving the liberal, secular, and leftist youth to face the tear gas and rubber bullets on downtown Cairo’s Mohamed Mahmoud Street in November and December. When asked about the Islamists’ absence from the demonstrations, one protester smiled and said, “The Muslim Brotherhood will fight to the very last liberal.”

The first parliamentary elections after the revolution were held in three rounds between November 2011 and January 2012 and illustrated the liberals’ failure to convert their momentum into a political presence. The evidence suggests, however, that their losses stemmed more from political miscalculations than public antipathy to liberal ideas. In a typical postrevolutionary scenario, multifarious parties (liberal, Islamist, leftist, and nationalist) proliferated once the Mubarak era’s draconian limits were lifted. While the Brotherhood’s new political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), and the several Salafist parties (of which the most important was the Nour Party) worked assiduously at their campaigns, liberals and other non-Islamists frequently suspended their activities amid clashes with security forces and flirted till the last moment with the idea of an election boycott.

Nonetheless, the jockeying for parliamentary power produced coalitions in which Islamist factions joined forces with secular, liberal, and leftist parties, if only temporarily. In June 2011, the FJP formed the Democratic Alliance for Egypt as a unified front against former re gime politicians contesting parliamentary seats. Notably, Ayman Nour’s Ghad al-Thawra Party remained a part of the alliance despite a series of defections, some based on ideological differences and others on administrative ones. The moderating effect of pluralist voices within the alliance led the FJP to agree to drop the slogan “Islam is the answer” and adopt in its place the religiously neutral “We bring good for all of Egypt.” Alliance members also committed to the “Fundamental Principles for the Constitution of the Modern Egyptian State,” a document that would guide the draft constitution toward upholding the rule of law, free expression, free association, and freedom of belief, while at the same time preserving Islam as the official state religion and shari’a as the principal source of legislation.

Campaign Disarray

The Egyptian Bloc, led primarily by the Free Egyptians Party and cast as the vehicle that secular liberals would use to counter Islamist contenders, comprised groups dedicated to a civil democratic state. It too suffered massive defections, mainly due to disagreements over electoral lists, though leftist and revolution-affiliated parties such as the Socialist Popular Alliance Party and Amr Hamzawy’s Egypt Freedom Party left the coalition in outrage over the inclusion of former NDP officials as candidates as well as the lack of transparency in candidate selection. The defections left the Bloc with only three parties, forcing it to vie with a multitude of other liberal-leaning parties such as Adl (Justice Party) and Wasat (Center Party) as the alternative to the Brotherhood and Salafis. The venerable New Wafd Party, a onetime liberal standard-bearer that had become tainted by its cooperation with the Mubarak regime, at first planned to run as part of the FJP coalition but eventually ran on its own.

As an example of the chaos that afflicted many liberal campaigns, candidate George Ishak-a founder of Kifaya and a household name in his hometown of Port Said-lost in the first round to a Brotherhood challenger in what many expected would be a hard-fought race. Ishak’s campaign managers confessed that almost none of their volunteers showed up for last-minute pamphleteering and electoral observation because they had all taken buses to Cairo to participate in a massive protest just before the elections and had failed to get back to Port Said on time. In fact, it is possible that some of the volunteers and voters were uncertain on election day whether Ishak was running or boycotting-hardly a recipe for success.

There were exceptions to the trend of liberal failure: Liberal intellectual and media star Amr Hamzawy handily won his Cairo seat in the first round of voting, and several other prominent liberals such as analyst Amr Chobaky and young revolutionary Mostafa Naggar gained seats as well. But the overall result was that the FJP’s Democratic Alliance for Egypt won nearly half the seats in the People’s Assembly and the Salafist parties won another quarter, leaving all non-Islamists combined (liberals, leftists, and Nasserites) with only a quarter of the seats in parliament. Still, this was the liberals’ best performance at the polls since the Wafd Party began to decline in the 1930s.

After the elections, the Brotherhood and the Salafis, believing the country to be behind them, overplayed their hand by selecting a 100-member constituent assembly that included 66 Islamists, but only five non-Muslims and six women. Walkouts by non-Islamist members, a court freeze on the assembly’s activity, and popular disapproval of the extent of Islamist domination forced the Islamists to back down and agree to the assembly’s dissolution in April 2012. That same month, parliament agreed on a second, slightly more balanced assembly. Despite another round of walkouts, the new body held together thanks to yet another round of dramatic political shifts: the Supreme Constitutional Court’s June 14 order to dissolve the People’s Assembly, the SCAF’s appropriation of executive and legislative authority by constitutional addendum, and the impending presidential run offset for June 16-17.

Nearly two-dozen candidates initially entered the presidential race. Yet by the time of the first-round voting on May 23-24, due to a number of disqualifications and withdrawals, only five serious contenders remained: Ahmed Shafiq (secular, ex-military), Amr Moussa (secular, exdiplomat), Mohamed Morsi (FJP), Abdel Moneim Abul Futuh (liberal Islamist), and Hamdeen Sabahi (Nasserite). To the disappointment of the youth movements and liberal revolutionaries, Mohamed ElBaradei withdrew from the contest in January 2012. He claimed that the lack of a proper democratic structure and the SCAF’s mishandling of the post-Mubarak transition forced him to pursue the revolution’s goals through unofficial channels. ElBaradei’s withdrawal from the race meant that liberals were without any independent alternative candidate.

Abul Futuh and Moussa appeared to be the frontrunners, but both lost public standing after participating in Egypt’s first (and so far only) televised presidential debate on May 10. In the first-round voting later that month, Morsi won 25 percent and Shafiq won 24 percent to edge out competitors Sabahi (21 percent), Abul Futuh (18 percent), and Moussa (11 percent). Morsi won the second round with 52 percent of the vote. Yet despite the significance of a Muslim Brother succeeding Mubarak as president and the lack of a truly liberal candidate in the race, liberal values had a strong presence throughout the campaign, and voting results indicated that a non-Islamist president might well have been elected had the leading secular candidate not been a former military officer. Moussa, Abul Futuh, and Sabahi-combining to win roughly half the first round votes-divided the ballots of relatively moderate voters. Thus Morsi and Shafiq actually represented the preferences of only a minority of the Egyptian public, which is not necessarily polarized between Islamists and secularists; many voters seem to favor some shade of gray.

Moussa and Abul Futuh battled for what was clearly liberal political turf. Although a former member of the Mubarak regime, Moussa publicly supported the uprising early on and railed against religious rule while promoting a reformist agenda and promising to serve only one term if elected. Abul Futuh’s campaign team incorporated leftists, liberals, and young Islamists who backed his vision of a civil state, based on Islamic values, that would respond to the demands of the revolution. Abul Futuh gained support from an unlikely source: the Salafist Nour Party. Known for its regressive and distrustful stance toward liberal democratic values, this party surprised many by endorsing Abul Futuh over Morsi. Khalil al-Anani, an analyst of Islamist movements, noted that “politics, not ideology, dictated the Salafis’ decision,” citing Nour spokesperson Nader Bakkar, who said that the party was “looking for a president who can be a mere executive manager, not an Islamic caliph.”  The Nour Party’s decision offers a compelling example of the implicit acceptance of liberal ideas within the democratic process.

Shafiq campaigned on an anti-Islamist, security-oriented platform, while Morsi’s platform focused on the “Nahda (Renaissance) Project,” which emphasized economic revival and social justice. Morsi and the Brotherhood promoted the project, distributing pamphlets describing its details. Despite its explicitly religious overtones, the document echoed Morsi’s rhetoric and used liberal language that stressed “respect [for] citizens’ rights and dignity inside the country and abroad,” alongside a focus on a “centrist understanding of shari’a (Islamic law), without which [Egypt] could not attain progress or justice and equality.”

After Morsi won the presidency, the SCAF, supported by Supreme Constitutional Court rulings, blocked his attempt to reinstate parliament, a move that some liberals decried and others hailed as the final bulwark against Islamist domination. Morsi, however, played the winning hand in August by issuing a presidential decree annulling SCAF’s June constitutional addendum, ending its formal political role in the transition, and replacing the top generals. The decree, by virtue of its popular acceptance, granted Morsi unprecedented interim constitutional, legislative, and executive authority. Critics accused him of assuming more power than Mubarak ever had. Initially, Morsi only used his legislative power cautiously: to strike down pretrial detention for journalists accused of insulting the president and to release prisoners held on crimes related to supporting the revolution. Nonetheless, Morsi’s move to stack state me dia with Brotherhood members and his failure to pursue internal-security reform raised concerns that he might use the still-extant authoritarian bureaucracy inherited from Mubarak for his own ends.

Liberal and secular politicians refused any association with Morsi’s government. In July 2012, Morsi recruited Hisham Qandil, the relatively unknown minister of water and irrigation in Kamal al-Ganzouri’s interim government, for the premiership. Qandil, who is not a member of any political party, in turn formed a technocratic government that granted to Brotherhood members only five (out of 35) ministries-information, higher education, housing, labor, and youth. Revolutionary activists praised Morsi’s pick for vice-president, Judge Mahmoud Makki, who was best known for challenging Mubarak on judicial independence. Morsi chose the judge’s more Islamist-leaning brother, Ahmad Makki, as his justice minister. Liberals pointed out, however, that Morsi reneged on his campaign promise to appoint a woman or a Coptic Christian as vice-president.

Constitutional Contention

The most important debates surrounding liberal principles in 2012 revolved around the draft constitution. Salafists and other Islamists clashed with liberals and other non-Islamists over the wording of Article 2, which in the 1971 Constitution states, “Islam is the religion of the state and the principles of shari’a are the main source of legislation.” Despite an initial agreement to leave the article unchanged, the draft released on 24 October 2012 surprised secular and liberal members of the constituent assembly with the inclusion of an article defining those principles, in effect producing a more theocratic foundation. The religious institution of al-Azhar was also granted a formal role in reviewing legislation, and blasphemy (already against Egyptian law) was specifically banned in the constitution. Inadequate protections for human rights and women’s rights, as well as articles limiting press freedom and allowing military trials of civilians, also drew objections, prompting liberal-minded members (roughly a quarter of the assembly) to withdraw in protest.

In an effort to preserve the transitional roadmap, Morsi issued on November 22 a constitutional decree that protected the assembly from dissolution by the courts, insulated his sweeping powers from judicial oversight, and gave him any authority needed to “protect the revolution.” The constituent assembly, fearing that judges might ignore the decree, replaced the members who withdrew in protest with last-minute stand-ins and rushed the passage of a draft in a marathon session that lasted through the night of November 30.

The large public backlash that followed showed how unacceptable it was to Egyptians for Morsi to seize unlimited power, even temporarily; to deprive the judiciary of its role in the system; and to ignore liberals’ unhappiness with the draft constitution. Political heavyweights Mohamed ElBaradei, Hamdeen Sabahi, and Amr Moussa pulled together to form the National Salvation Front. Supported by massive popular protests staged in front of the presidential palace in Cairo and in many other cities, as well as by resignations of some of Morsi’s advisors, the Front demanded that the president rescind his decree and postpone the constitutional referendum, set for December 15. Morsi insisted on pressing ahead with the referendum but was forced to concede the point about the inviolability of his decisions. The episode has produced some unusual bedfellows-young revolutionaries and members of the old regime on one side and the Muslim Brotherhood together with the military on the other-but also showed that, even two years into a difficult and tiring transition, there were tens of thousands of Egyptians willing once again to take to the streets to protest a constitution they considered not liberal enough.

How Liberal Is Egyptian Liberalism?

The Egyptian uprising’s calls for human dignity, freedom, bread, social justice, and equality embodied basic demands in liberal philosophy. If the protesters who took to the streets initially approached the matter from a social perspective, the Islamists who joined them fused it with a religious one. Shortly after the Brotherhood launched the FJP, party vice-chair Essam el-Erian said, “When we talk about the slogans of the revolution-freedom, social justice, equality-these are all in the shari’a. This revolution called for what the Islamic shari’a calls for.”

Islamist and liberal ideology in Egypt have converged over the years around a strongly held recognition of the importance of building democratic institutions and the rule of law. The primary difference between liberals and Islamists lies in the Islamist conception of the state as a moral actor responsible for social transformation. This belief is reflected in the postrevolution policies and behavior of Islamist groups and the Islamist-dominated government that promote and defend checks and balances within government, the right to protest, and political participation, but mostly within an Islamic framework that places limits on free speech and on the equality of women and non-Muslims, as delineated by shari’a. The result might be a more intrusive state than what liberals advocate. Nonetheless, having assumed the presidency, Morsi (and, by extension, the Muslim Brotherhood) is under pressure to maintain the terms of fair democratic governance, as domestic liberal actors and the public will measure his performance against the country’s authoritarian past.

On the economic front as well, several factors-the vast needs of Egypt’s poor, the military’s large economic interests, and the association of reform with Mubarak-era cronyism-will continue to lead toward more government involvement in the economy than most liberals think advisable. Thus Egypt might well forge its own brand of liberalism, in which politics is largely liberal, but society remains more conservative and the economy more statist than liberals would like.

The dominant narrative that focuses on Islamist electoral ascendance ignores not only the increasing acceptance and even dominance of liberal political ideas in Egypt, but also the transformative and moderating effect upon the political scene exerted by liberals both before and during the transitional period. Leading political figures such as Mohamed ElBaradei and Amr Hamzawy have done yeoman’s work in assembling a public consensus behind liberal political ideas, and groups such as Kifaya have had an unmistakable impact on the changing political views of the Muslim Brotherhood as well as Egyptians generally. Civil society organizations such as the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies and the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (among many others) act as checks on the institutionalization of Islamist social conservatism. Liberal journalists such as television host Yosri Foda, newspaper editors Ibrahim Eissa and Hani Shukrallah, and publisher Hisham Kassem are a constant presence in the mass media and help not only to shape public debate but to raise difficult questions for Islamists.

Acceptance of the civil, if not secular, nature of the state by mainstream Egyptian society has forced the Muslim Brotherhood to adopt the language of democracy, equality, and human rights in order to appeal to the public and to promote its political platform in what Abdou Filali-Ansary has called the “new political language” of the Arab Spring. The merging in this new language of religious and modern ideas of governance, Filali-Ansary argues, represents a reconciliation of widely accepted contemporary liberal principles with familiar Islamic concepts that help to establish their democratic legitimacy.

Egypt’s liberals, though they do not dominate political life and perhaps never will, remain the vanguard of change in the country. They have helped to make the entire political space more liberal and to defend that space against regressive initiatives, forcing the peaceful (if heated) dialogue and negotiation necessary to resolve differences through a democratic process. From Kifaya to April 6th to the National Association for Change to We Are All Khaled Said, liberals have been the ones to crystallize the growing public desire for political reform and individual rights, and to light the way forward. To dismiss liberals now as hopeless or irrelevant would be to misunderstand the outsized but underappreciated role that they have played and will likely continue to play in shaping Egypt’s future.