Egypt's Illiberal Liberals

Egypt's Illiberal Liberals

They're more Chavez than Madison.

David Brooks caused a firestorm last week when he questioned whether Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has “the mental equipment to govern.” Yet lately we might ask the same question about Egypt’s liberals.

Brooks was drawing on an essay by the American Interest’s Adam Garfinkle, which asserts that

A typical Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood rank-and-file type now saddled up on the gyrating entrails of the Egyptian state bureaucracy...does not accept the existence of an objective fact separate from how he feels about it, and if he should feel negatively disposed toward the fact, whatever it is, the fact can be made simply to disappear.

Garfinkle’s broader argument about the Brotherhood outlook has some odd inflations and conflations. Yet this particular claim has a ring of truth. Mohamed Morsi and his followers lived, at times, in a world of their own creation. They were intuiting conspiracies everywhere long before one brought them down. And the trend continues after the coup—for example, the Brotherhood’s Arabic-language website briefly featured an article asserting that interim president Adly Mansour is a Seventh-Day Adventist, and therefore is Jewish. (Needless to say, Holocaust deniers can find friendly ears among the Brothers.)

But Egypt’s secular-liberal revolutionaries seem to be living in an alternative reality of their own. The most fundamental fact in their world is that Egypt’s coup was not a coup—that the Egyptian army can inform the Egyptian president that he is no longer the president, use its commandoes to remove him from his office and then have its head appear on national television to announce the suspension of the constitution without committing a coup. (Helpfully, the Obama administration is weighing the incorporation of this fact into its reality, as well.) And the chief argument for this fact is the enthusiasm of the coup’s civilian enthusiasts—in other words, there is no “objective fact separate from how [they] feel about it.”

Needless to say, it was very disconcerting when major media networks like CNN declined to report from the alternative reality and called the events a coup. The protesters promptly accused CNN of supporting the Brotherhood—pardon, of supporting terrorism. Sympathizers in New York City demonstrated outside CNN’s offices. Foreign reporters alleged harassment at demonstrations, and CNN international correspondent Ben Wedeman stated that “to go into Tahrir would be to risk our lives right now.”

U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson has also come under attack from the secular-liberal rank-and-file. Consistent with her duties as America’s representative to the Egyptian government, she met with Morsi and his associates; consistent with the American government’s views, she noted publicly that Morsi had been lawfully elected and expressed a preference for elections over “street actions.” In the alternative reality, she, and Obama, were therefore supporters of the Brotherhood. (Helpfully, some on the American right swiftly added this fact to their reality, too.) The Brotherhood became “a compliant tool at the hands of the US to serve its interests in the region.” Banners proclaimed that “Obama & Paterson [sic] Support Terrorism In Egypt.” Patterson, said a demonstrator, “manipulates people and secretly governs the country,” and “is part of a conspiracy against Egypt and its people.” She has been widely labelled “hayzaboon”—“ogre” or “crone”—and depicted with her face distorted to look the part. Others have called her “lady of doom” and “bitch.” (And we’re told that this is the faction America needs to back to advance the interests of women.)

The Egyptian liberal’s alternative reality is a very illiberal place, for it cannot bear contact with anything outside itself. Dissent threatens its very existence. And so pro-Morsi journalists are shouted out of press conferences by their colleagues. Opposition parties must
be banned, their leaders rounded up, their media outlets shut down. Blotting out offensive views becomes a form of political speech. The liberals are not calling for a liberal state—what they want is a fury-state, where the government derives legitimacy from serving as a funnel for the public’s revolutionary anger. It’s New Left, not liberal democracy. It’s the vision of Maximilien de Robespierre and Hugo Chavez, not James Madison and John Stuart Mill. ="#.udxarj4-sze">

Morsi was an inept ruler, and deserves much of the blame for the coup against him. He did little to guard his most precious asset, his legitimacy, until he was crowing about in his final days. He was not liberal. But neither are many of Egypt’s liberals.