The Left's Abandoned Allies in Egypt

November 6, 2013 Topic: Civil SocietyDemocracySociety Region: Egypt

The Left's Abandoned Allies in Egypt

Egypt's liberals feel the West has forgotten them.


In 1932, British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, an eager young Communist, traveled to the Soviet Union to, “see the Ideal, even if I am unworthy of it.” It was an ideal shared by many intellectuals in the West and was daily reinforced by reports from Russia by Western journalists. What Muggeridge observed in Russia shattered that ideal: Stalin’s troops and secret police terrorizing and starving Soviet citizens; in one instance, “peasants with their hands tied behind them being loaded into cattle trucks at gun point … and so silent and mysterious and horrible in the half-light, like some macabre ballet.” When he submitted articles about what was truly occurring, these were either edited or altogether suppressed.

Muggeridge was outraged by the intellectual cowardice and duplicity of his fellow journalists—in particular Pulitzer Prize winner Walter Duranty of the New York Times; Muggeridge wrote that Duranty “admired Stalin and the regime precisely because they were so strong and ruthless.” Sensing that many of his comrades preferred might over right, Muggeridge began to shift away not only from Communism but liberalism as well—though for the remainder of his life he would call himself “a man of the left.” Of his time in Russia, he would later write, “In the beginning was the Lie and the Lie was made news and dwelt among us, graceless and false.”


In February 1968, Muggeridge appeared on William F. Buckley’s weekly television program, Firing Line. When Buckley asked him to explain his residual leftism, Muggeridge explained, “I am instinctively against authority and on the side, or wish to be, on the weaker side…what is good in the left position is precisely that…the good side is an instinctive, almost chivalrous feeling that you should be on the side of the weak.” Muggeridge would be an advocate for the weak for the remainder of his life, never forgetting the betrayal by the West of those who suffered in the Soviet Union.

There is in Egypt today a sense of betrayal by Western governments and journalists among Egypt’s moderates, liberals, and secularists. On a May trip to Egypt, just before June 30’s popular protests swept the nation and the Muslim Brotherhood from power, I had occasion to meet with one such thoughtful moderate, a natural ally of Western values.

Gehan, a professor of English literature at a women’s university, invited a small group of us into her home in Cairo. Muslim, secular and liberal in worldview (in the Middle Eastern rather than the contemporary Western sense), Gehan had looked on in horror as Mubarak fell, then as Egypt descended into chaos, and then again as Muhammad Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood rose to power. Mubarak “should have left earlier,” she concedes. As the light flickers and dies with yet another power outage, Gehan sighs. “This never happened before 2011.”

After 2011’s revolution, in which many of her students took part, Gehan began teaching William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and George Orwell’s Animal Farm in an attempt to convey the dangers of revolution, especially of the impulsive, trendy variety. Gehan believes that this year’s June 30 Revolution was, by contrast, “a true revolution—not a coup as the West believes.” As clashes between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood in recent weeks have given way to systematic violence against Egypt’s Christians, Gehan and I resume the conversation from her living room, this time via email. “I just don't know what to say,” she writes. “It is heartbreaking to witness all this violence and killing and blood. Egyptians against Egyptians ... this never happened before in our history. She adds, “I cannot believe this is Egypt. Where did all those weapons that ordinary people have come from?”

In the Egypt of Gehan’s youth, few women would be seen wearing the hijab. Today, however, most of her students don the headdress, a Wahhabi-Salafi influence prevalent in the Gulf region. One of her students refused to shake hands with a male professor to whom she was introduced. Another, after accompanying her to the ballet, said, “It is a sin to dance, let alone if it’s ballet!” Gehan replied, “To me, dancing made me feel so awed at the beauty God had put in the human body.” The student was, Gehan emphasizes, “a lovely, kind, smart girl.” The male adherents of the Muslim Brotherhood—“closed-minded, militant, bigoted”—must get permission to read nonreligious books, and will typically be told to read the Quran instead. “When it gets to the point that they ask their leaders if they should get into the bathroom with their left or right foot, then there is something very wrong here,” Gehan insists. “God never wanted us to be so. True Islam is so free and it is supposed to set you free, not depend on somebody ignorant who is a control freak to ruin your life in the name of religion.”

Watching the recent outbreaks of extremist violence in their country, Egyptian moderates are disdainful of the U.S. government and Western media’s conciliatory stance with respect to the Muslim Brotherhood. “International silence—worse still, support—is encouraging the terrorists to continue in their violence. It is violence in the name of religion. Why is this difficult to see?” Gehan argues a point believed by many Egyptians, though not conveyed by Western media: Egypt’s soldiers acted with restraint, while the Muslim Brothers were the armed aggressors in the street violence. She says that the government even asked human-rights groups to observe. “I really wish you were here to see it all with your eyes.” She adds, “It is sad that Obama chose the wrong side to support.” Of course, he was not alone.

Still, Gehan remains optimistic. “I just want to say that as much as it is painful to see all this happen to us, as much as it looks dark, I am hopeful that our future will be better.” One can only hope that she is correct. It is difficult to imagine many female professors of English literature at state-funded universities if the future of Egypt were handed over to extremists.

Western governments and media have generally characterized recent upheavals in Egypt in terms most favorable to the Islamist fundamentalists, at the expense of Egypt’s secular institutions. Perhaps, like Muggeridge’s liberal colleagues, they believe that a lie in the service of political objectives is preferable to a truth that undermines them. Why liberals in the West would choose to align themselves with militant theocrats in the first place is deeply troubling, and merits further inquiry. That Egyptians themselves did not hesitate to jettison an increasingly oppressive regime and restore secular government—in spite of Western criticism—is a sign that hope is not lost in the Arab world’s most populous country.

Andrew Doran served on the Executive Secretariat of the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO at the U.S. Department of State. His views are his own.

Image: Flickr/Gigi Ibrahim. CC BY 2.0.