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Egyptians celebrate in Cairo's Tahrir Square on June 3, 2014 after ex-army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi won Egypt's presidential election. (KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Reflections on the Revolution in Egypt

Samuel Tadros

The problem is not that Egyptians are averse to liberalism, it’s that no one has offered them the option, says Hudson Institute analyst Samuel Tadros. Democracy assistance too often comprised technical training rather than genuinely political aid, he contends in this extract from his new book, Reflections on the Revolution in Egypt.

The most important legacy of President Bush’s Freedom Agenda was not the pressure it put on regimes, for that soon subsided, but the new world that was opened to dissidents and opponents of Mubarak. Dissidents were suddenly international celebrities, and the newly acquired attention protected many of them from the worst of the regime’s practices. Egyptian activists and bloggers were showered with invitations to meetings and speeches in the US and Europe, and the regime was put more on the defensive as its practices received further scrutiny and criticism. More consequential, however, were the tools and opportunities that were suddenly put at the dissidents’ disposal.

In December 2002 Secretary of State Colin Powell had announced the creation of the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI). One of its aims, he indicated, was “to close the freedom gap with projects to strengthen civil society, expand political participation, and lift the voices of women.” Together with MEPI, the US Agency for International Development began to focus more on democracy funding in the region. US democracy promotion organizations such as the National Endowment for Democracy, the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, and Freedom House received more funding to bridge that freedom gap.

The results were nothing less than spectacular.

Thousands of Egyptians traveled to the United States in a variety of programs that aimed to provide them with the necessary tools to change their societies. Thousands of training sessions were held in the US, the region, and around the world to teach activists new ways to organize and mobilize. They learned how to use new technology to their advantage. Hundreds of Egyptian civil society organizations received funding for political training and election monitoring. Experiences were being transferred as veterans from pro-democracy movements in Eastern Europe trained Egyptian activists on how to challenge the authoritarian regime. Regional ties were being created as thousands of activists from across the Arab world were being introduced to one another and sharing their experiences.

Funding illiberal anti-Americans

Nevertheless in the rush to support activists and dissidents and close the freedom gap, something was largely missing: the content that would fill the gap. Action, not theory, was what was sought. Activists were being provided tools but no substance to use them for. Human rights activists were being trained on how to document abuses, but no one paid attention to explaining the intellectual foundation of why these were considered abuses in the first place. Newer computers were being provided to Egyptian newspapers, but the same anti-American, anti-Semitic, conspiracy theory-driven articles were being written. Some of the programs, like those run by any bureaucracy, and the American one is no exception, suffered from the problem of giving people a fish per day instead of training them how to fish.

More profoundly, no one paid the slightest attention to explaining why fishing was good in the first place. In a region that had not developed a natural rights discourse, democracy assistance only exasperated its ills instead of helping cure them. Human freedom was being downgraded and replaced by a mere tool; democracy and democracy promotion became a goal in itself with no understanding of what that democracy might produce.

No war of ideas

Activists were being trained, but who were they and what did they advocate? No one seemed to care. Anyone who was neither part of the regime nor a member of a terrorist organization seemed to qualify for US benevolence. It mattered little if those activists were actively attempting to replace the oppressive regime with worse ones of the Islamist, Nasserite, or communist variant. Any regime opponent was described as a liberal and every beardless activist depicted a secular. While Western policy-makers spoke of a war of ideas being waged for the hearts and minds of the region’s citizens, they hardly provided any ideas to compete with the prevalent leftist and Islamist ideas that dominated Arab culture. Ultimately they were only providing the existing anti-American ideologists with better tools.

With abundant funding, civil society organizations were becoming more attractive to young Egyptians than political parties. Some were genuine believers, but in a political environment in which opposition parties suffered from the same diseases afflicting the ruling one, civil society organizations provided a much-needed breathing space. They also provided an opportunity for personal development, fame, and economic advancement. But it was not any associations that were being promoted, but a particular kind—human rights NGOs. Funding was available for monitoring elections, documenting abuses, even video journalism, but not much more. A new generation of activists was trained to approach Egypt’s democratic deficit from a rights perspective, not politics. People were trained how to protest and challenge autocracy; no one was trained on how to politically organize, formulate programs, and compromise. The depletion of talent from political parties would be a problem that would have a profound eff ect on the future of the Egyptian revolution.

The generation that had left politics for human rights advocacy could not be suddenly expected to make the transition back. Human rights defenders are fighting for a noble cause. They do not negotiate, they never compromise. There is no negotiation between the abused and the abuser, no compromise between the tortured and the torturer. As Burke wrote: “They have ‘the rights of men.’ Against these there can be no prescription; against these no agreement is binding: these admit no temperament, and no compromise: anything withheld from their full demand is so much of fraud and injustice.”

Contempt for politics

Pragmatism is not a virtue in the world of human rights advocacy. Asked what he had in mind for his movement’s future, April 6 founder Ahmed Maher replied: “April 6 will monitor Parliament’s performance and confront any mistakes. . . . The group will continue to mobilize in Tahrir Square when necessary.” His colleague in the movement, Mohamed Adel described their priorities: “building a new state, societal reform, and putting pressure on anyone in power.” If they clung to their previous practices, it was because they knew no other.

The contempt the revolutionaries held for politics was most apparent in their accusations against the Muslim Brotherhood. Its greatest crime, in their eyes, was having betrayed the demands of the revolution and cutting a deal with SCAF. Regardless of the truthfulness of the accusation, that it was viewed as an accusation in the first place is remarkable. Politics by its very nature is the art of negotiation, compromise, and cutting deals. No political actor is likely to achieve all his aspirations, at least not one who does not have a monopoly on the state. Given that the revolutionaries had the weakest hand among the three contending groups, they should have been the one who most sought a deal. Nothing of the sort took place. The few non-Islamists who were willing to negotiate with SCAF and guarantee a state where Islamists would not dominate the country and transform society in return for preserving the military’s interests were pronounced traitors by the revolutionaries. Negotiations were a betrayal to the blood of martyrs, they said.

In the end it was all or nothing. Naturally, they got nothing.

The revolutionaries’ worst offense, however, was their complete ignorance of the country they sought to transform. Their imaginary Egypt had no relationship to the actual Egypt. When Salafis began demanding an Islamic state, many a revolutionary expressed surprise and admitted not knowing Salafis existed in Egypt. When attacks on Christians intensified, many a revolutionary were astonished by the level of sectarianism in the country. When Egyptians elected Islamists to Parliament, the revolutionaries could not understand why they didn’t vote for the revolution’s party. When Mohamed Morsi and Ahmed Shafik received the highest number of votes in the first round of the presidential election, there was genuine shock among the revolutionaries. Burke had described their French ancestors as “men who never had seen the state so much as in a picture.” His words have never rang truer.

A liberal democracy is not born out of thin air. It requires the existence of liberal democrats. And if the term means something more than people who are simply not Islamists and not extreme leftists, then they are absent in Egyptian politics. There are very few liberals in Egypt, not because Egyptians are averse to liberalism or are different from any other people, but because there is no liberalism in Egypt. There is no liberal discourse in the public square. People cannot belong to an ideology that does not exist. With hardly any liberal books written in Arabic and no translations of the major works of Western liberalism, those liberals in Egypt are but a privileged few who are able and willing to read in a foreign language.

Today, Egypt’s former revolutionaries are split between the submissive and the delusional, between those who have become no more than cheerleaders for a military coup and those who continue to dream of an endless revolution— or, as Leszek Kolakowski once remarked, “between lovers of prostitutes and lovers of clouds: those who know only the satisfaction of the moment . . . and those who lose themselves in otiose imaginings.” It is easy to mistake them for helpless victims, men caught like Oedipus in a tragedy they cannot control. Greek tragedies, however, have little to offer in understanding the story of the Egyptian revolution and its failure, but perhaps another Greek contribution to civilization might be better suited for the task—Greek mythology. Unless they begin to learn from their mistakes, unless they embark on a journey of discovering their own country, unless they educate themselves not on the newest technology but on the oldest books, unless they start offering their countrymen something more than abstract principles, they are forever doomed, like Sisyphus, condemned eternally to repeatedly roll a heavy rock up a hill only to have it roll down again as it nears the top. An eternity of fruitless labor and endless disappointment.

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