Egypt’s selection of a new strongman, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who is likely to take over as the country’s new president and who espouses far less “liberalism” than even Hosni Mubarak did, certainly does not augur well for a future of more individual freedom in Egypt.
In fact, his rhetoric demands that people sacrifice for Egypt. A recording of an off-the-record conversation caught the former general saying: “People think I’m a soft man. Sisi is torture and suffering.”
Promoting liberalism in the Arab world is a Herculean task. It is no exaggeration to say that liberalism has an image problem here. Many, if not most, Egyptians have a negative view of all things liberal.
Many perceive liberalism as against their heritage and culture and in contradiction with religious teachings.
The allegation that liberals and their ideas are inspired by outside forces and have no home-grown roots is probably the biggest challenge for liberals and liberalism in the Arab world today. It is crucial that Arab liberals confront this allegation. To assert that the idea of individual freedom is foreign and, therefore, not compatible with Arab cultural and religious beliefs, borders on racism.
Anyone who holds this view suggests that the people living in this region are either not ready for liberty or – even worse – not capable or unwilling to live as free men and women.
Promoting the ideas of freedom in Arab lands is not made easier by the confusion about the very definition of liberalism. Importantly, this uncertainty is not limited to this part of the world.
In Europe, liberalism is understood as a set of (political) principles that aim at curbing the intrusion of the state into citizens’ personal lives (and consequently also in the economy).
In the US, liberalism has become a synonym of exactly the opposite. It stands for advocacy of state-sponsored spending and big government.
Some North Americans even push liberals into one corner with leftists – socialists and communists.
Most Arabs today have, at best, a limited exposure to liberal conditions as they grow up and live in a different environment. In most parts of the Middle East, the only “tangible” experience of liberalism is “economic liberalisation”.
In many cases, however, the declared market reforms have failed to improve living conditions, which have remained far below the expectations of the masses. Today, many Egyptians blame “market reforms” for the perceived widespread corruption and nepotism. That gives liberalism a bad name.
What they are not able – or not willing – to appreciate is that it is not the market system that has failed. The main reason for the absent “trickle-down” of wealth is a lack of the rule of law and accountability. These are essential preconditions for the markets to set free their beneficial power.
There are various other reasons for the weakness of liberalism in the Arab world. They are sociological, cultural and political. It is well established that many, if not most, political parties claiming to be liberal are elitist and find it hard to have their message resonate “on the street”.
It is also no secret that many of these parties lack organisational clout and unity. Disunity and factionalism remains the Achilles heel of Arab liberalism. As long as this malady prevails, the liberal forces will remain far away from popular success and political power.
In the Arab world, as in other cultural environments, “liberal” is not an attractive brand name. It is no surprise that not a single political party in the Arab world uses this word in its name.
To help rectify this unfriendly image and promote a rational debate about liberal ideas and policies has been the main focus of my work in this part of the world.
We have organised a myriad educative activities and various campaigns to raise liberal awareness. I am particularly fond of a series of liberal books in Arabic in which mainly Arab liberals have published their thoughts.
Another priority throughout has been efforts to promote co-operation between the liberal parties of the region. Many are not aware that liberal political parties and groups aspiring to promote a liberal agenda actually exist in more or less all Arab countries. They are particularly vocal with a distinguishable role in domestic politics in Morocco, Lebanon and Egypt.
Today, many Arab liberal political parties are members of Liberal International, the world federation of liberal parties based in London. They participate in the federation’s congresses and thus have a chance to promote also distinctly Arab causes in these international meetings.
Why is this important? Many challenges our societies face will never be solved on a national level.
Regional and international co-ordination is essential. International relations should not be left exclusively to governments. Political parties and civil society should have a stake also.
For this, they need to co-operate. This is one raison d’etre for international organisations like the Arab Alliance for Freedom and Democracy or Liberal International.
More recently, the sense of harmony between liberals in the Arab world, particularly in Egypt, and their companions in Europe has suffered a blow. Differing assessments of the events in Egypt in the summer of last year are the main reason for the setback.
In a nutshell, liberals outside the Arab world have shown little understanding, let alone sympathy, for the conduct of the security forces against the Islamists.
As a result, there exist profound differences of opinion between Egyptian and European liberals on how to deal with political Islam.
I share the European position that, in the long run, the problems facing Egypt (including the detestable terrorism) will only be solved in the context of a political process. However, discussing these matters honestly and openly has become increasingly difficult.
In an environment governed by emotions fanned by nationalistic media, Egyptian interlocutors often expect unconditional support for their position and the authorities’ actions.
This makes reasonable dialogue difficult. As a result, foreigners with a diplomatic inclination often simply avoid such interaction.
The exchange of ideas is always important – particularly in difficult times, like the period we are in right now. This is the case all the more for dialogues among liberals who intrinsically hold a common set of values.
Against this background, we have developed new programmes that aim at bringing liberal leaders from Europe and the Arab world together to discuss issues of common interest and, hopefully, arrive at joint conclusions.
* Editor’s note: For nearly eight years, from 2007 until now, a momentous time in the Arab world’s modern history, Ronald Meinardus headed the Cairo office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Liberty, Germany’s liberal think-tank. This essay highlights some of his key insights from the political dialogue and exchanges he organised and participated in during this period.