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Liberal voices isolated after Egypt votes for Islamists

Liberal voices isolated after Egypt votes for Islamists

Author: Jake Meth
Publication: The Times of India
Date: December 4, 2011
URL: http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2011-12-04/all-that-matters/30474295_1_liberals-mubarak-egypt-votes

Egypt's first post-Hosni Mubarak parliamentary elections finally began this Monday, and they are not going well for liberals. Islamists have taken a majority of the parliamentary seats in the first round of voting, and though two rounds remain , liberals have little chance of closing the gap.

This outcome, while of concern to many in left-wing circles, should come as no surprise. Though liberals were largely responsible for organizing and inspiring the January 25 revolution earlier this year, Egypt remains, as it was the day Mubarak resigned, a deeply religious and illiberal society.

Some liberal causes - notably among them the fight against military trials of civilians and highlighting of police abuses - are indeed popular with the Egyptian public. But the acceptance of these causes has little to do with openness to liberal politics and everything to do with the anti-authoritarian mindset that emerged on the streets during the 18-day uprising against Mubarak. At that time, Egyptians hesitantly approached, and eventually fully embraced, the belief that they no longer had to live in fear of a repressive state, that the legitimacy of their government should no longer be based in the blackclothed riot police attempting to push them backward with their riot shields, clubs and tear gas, but rather in themselves.

Less ubiquitous was the belief that the fall of Mubarak was only part of a larger fight for the liberal menu of demands - among them the separation between religion and state, equal protection for minorities and social justice. The rapidity of the events unfolding in Egypt naturally left them open to interpretation, and liberals were quick to reiterate their version of the revolution in an easily packaged form for the eager Western media to devour. What soon emerged in the English-language press was a sanitized and inaccurate version of who actually took to the streets earlier this year, and why.

As one Muslim Brotherhood youth observed in retrospect, "The liberals started the revolution, but then all of the Egyptian people continued it." Liberal youths are far from making up a majority of the Egyptian population, which meant that Islamists young and old, Nasserists, far-left communists, and many others of varying political tendencies were needed to push the anti-Mubarak protests to critical mass. This fragmented coalition was held together only by its demand for Mubarak to step down, and once that was achieved it dissipated.

With the military promising to shepherd Egypt's transition to democracy, liberals quickly realized that free parliamentary elections would inexorably yield a legislative body filled with members of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's most popular and well-organized political group. Viewing the electoral process as a lost cause, they decided to instead focus their energy on operating outside of the democratic process to bring about the state they desired.

By far liberals' most favored tactic has been to hold massive popular demonstrations to agitate for reforms, which over-inflate their actually tenuous base of support. Such was the case on November 18, when a massive coalition of liberals and Islamists took to Cairo's Tahrir Square to protest against the military government's attempt to entrench its autonomy in the next constitution. A police assault following the demonstration eventually set in motion nearly a week of violent clashes in the streets of downtown Cairo and returned numbers to the square akin to those seen in January and February.

The sight of a packed Tahrir was excitedly interpreted in the international media as the sign of an impending 'second revolution.' But the truth is that the protest was running on fumes all along, its numbers only sustained by a familiar broad-based opposition to dictatorship and brutal police practices. As the week wore on and most Islamists departed, the numbers in the square thinned considerably.

Public attention has since shifted to elections. The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party and Salafi Al-Nour Party have won the most and second-most amounts of seats respectively unsurprising results considering Islamists' and liberals' divergent attitudes toward the process. Islamists , who have waited decades for the opportunity to freely run candidates, are dedicated to proving their widespread support. Over the first two days of voting, Freedom and Justice members manned 'information tables' and slept outside polling stations to ensure no votes were tampered with. Liberals, on the other hand, have questioned the elections' legitimacy, and many have opted to boycott the vote.

The election results confirm that the Egyptian public has no desire to see liberals running the new government. This does not mean liberals should give up; added time and resources may allow them to eventually build a more robust and popular movement. But abandoning the country's democratic process now, at its most crucial moment, will only undermine liberals' commitment to the democracy for which they have so fiercely struggled.

The writer works with the English edition of Egyptian independent newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm . His work also appears in World Politics Review

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