In October 2013, the Egyptian writer Alaa al-Aswany gave a talk in Paris, to promote the French translation of his new book. The event ended in chaos, as a group of Aswany's fellow Egyptians disrupted the talk. They were angry at Aswany's ardent support for the military, and in particular, the General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, the man who deposed President Mohamed Morsi in July. Aswany, a long-time opponent of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, has described Sisi as a "national hero".
The event is recounted in a recent article in the New Yorker, by Negar Azimi. The article examines the polarisation present in modern Egypt, and explains why many liberals – such as Aswany, who spent years protesting against dictator Hosni Mubarak – supported the military coup in July.
In Azimi's view, this support comes down to a deeply held distaste for the Muslim Brotherhood. She asks Aswany what would have happened if Morsi had remained in power: "They would have controlled the whole country. There would be Brotherhood in the media, Brotherhood in the Ministry of Culture, Brotherhood everywhere!" Azimi's response is as follows:
"This, I felt, got to the heart of what many secular intellectuals fear most. I heard it over and over again this fall: given enough time, the Brotherhood would have spread its tentacles throughout the system, until it became the system. "We don't want to turn into Iran," the newspaper editor Ibrahim Eissa told me, explaining why he felt the ongoing crackdown on the Brotherhood was necessary. Eissa, a friend of Aswany and a prominent Egyptian liberal, faced multiple prison sentences for criticizing Mubarak in the aughts [2000s]. These days, his weekly television talk show is a wince-worthy carnival of affection for the military. In a landscape in which good choices are few and far between, the Eissas of Egypt have attached themselves to what they may perceive as the lesser evil."
Today, Egypt is polarised. Semantic debate has become a signifier of which side one stands on: whether the July takeover was a "coup" or a "revolution", whether the death of hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters in August was a "massacre" or the result of "provocation". Azimi's article, which has been well received on social media, effectively depicts the sometimes contradictory alliances that can result from the attitude that your enemy's enemy is your friend. Though the piece focuses on Aswany, Azimi posits that the views he expounds – that the Muslim Brotherhood are fascists and that the military has acted in good faith – are in the mainstream.
Of course, not every liberal, secular intellectual sticks to the binary where distaste for the Brotherhood means support for the military. The journalist Mona Eltahawy and the novelist Ahdaf Soueif are two prominent activists who have argued that Egypt's situation should not be seen as a simple choice between military rule and the repressive conservatism of the Brotherhood. Azimi says that this view "remains small, and in many circles, unpopular".
From the time of Morsi's deposition, the political situation in Egypt has presented a problem for the country's liberal secularists. Many felt that the 2011 revolution which toppled Mubarak had been co-opted and derailed by Morsi and his coterie of conservative Islamists. Critics point to his authoritarian style of rule, the rushed through extra-constitutional decree that granted the president extra powers, and his failure to accommodate secular voices in the writing of the constitution. However, as a CNN article noted back in November, "a considerable number [of liberals] have since supported the increasingly authoritarian decisions of the interim government which followed." It is this shift – from opposing Morsi and supporting his deposition, to actually unquestioningly supporting the return of military rule – that is surprising to many onlookers.
Writing in the Washington Post in August, Max Fisher suggested that the movement was increasingly driven less by liberalism, and more by secular nationalism in the vein of Gamel Adbel Nasser (the popular military president of the 1950s). Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations has noted that Egypt's liberals have twice failed to organise politically – after Mubarak was toppled in 2011, and after Morsi was toppled in 2013. Focusing on what Cook calls "revolutionary navel-gazing" has meant that the liberal, secular movement has failed to create a viable political alternative to Islamism or the military. Mirroring Azimi's analysis in the New Yorker, Cook warned that some liberals "have made common cause with remnants of the old regime and the military."
It is an important issue, which strikes to the heart of the problem of direction that Egypt faces today. Human rights must be universal, if they are to have any meaning at all: so what does it say when those who have advocated for human rights ignore the violations carried out against those they do not agree with? For Egypt's liberals to retain credibility, they should not be slavishly devoted to the army to the extent that they ignore the persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood. Nor does that mean that they must embrace Islamism. A pluralistic society allows for a range of views and voices; finding that middle way will be vital if the secularist movement is to move forward.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.