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Challenges and Chances for Egypt's Liberals

By Ronald Meinardus *

Liberalism in one of the four political mainstreams in Egypt. The others are nationalism, socialism and Islamism. As would be expected in a democratic system, to which this country is morphing, political parties mirror these ideological camps. In the liberal camp, the party with the big tradition is the Wafd, which played a decisive role in Egyptian politics of the first half of the last century — also termed the liberal era. This historic period refutes the allegation that Egypt and the Egyptians are not compatible with liberal rule. While the Wafd continues to have a sizeable following, many liberal activists have complained that during the Revolution the party failed to express unconditional support for the uprising. Critics also mention internal infighting and a lack of a clear programmatic liberal vision.

That said, it came as no surprise that that party did not attend an open forum held a few days ago at a hotel in downtown Cairo which brought together the heads of the main four political parties which define themselves as liberal. These are the Democratic Front Party, or Gabha, as it is commonly referred to in Arabic, the Free Egyptians Party, the Justice Party and the Egyptian Democratic Social Party. The public forum organized by a group of NGOs was a huge and overcrowded event the kind of which I have never seen before in Egypt. It soon became clear that the common denominator of these parties was their by and large secular orientation — or, in a political context: their dislike for the Muslim Brotherhood. It also became apparent that the party leaders were far from espousing one joint liberal program let alone a common strategy. Liberals, I hasten to add, are known for their tendency to hold long discussions and dislike for subordination. Two liberals might end up with three opinions, goes one joke illuminating this behavioural pattern in liberal parties.

In light of the parliamentary elections in September forging some sort of agreement or unity is one of the main challenges for Egypt’s liberal forces. There are various models how such an agreement could look. Typically, coordination and cooperation aimed at electoral alliances is the first important step. Such a measure would stop one liberal candidate from running against another liberal candidate in the same constituency splitting the votes to the benefit of the opponents.

In my discussions with liberal Egyptian politicians I get the sense that it is too early to talk about mergers of the newly formed parties. This could follow after the elections, they say. At this stage, mediators are in negotiations with the aim at coming up with one grand liberal alliance of forces well ahead of election day.

Organizing an electoral campaign in a nation as huge as is Egypt, is a challenge in any case. This challenge is aggravated by the fact that basically all liberal forces are starting their political outreach from scratch. With the exception of the Democratic Front Party, which is emerging as a focal point of efforts aimed at liberal unity, the other parties have yet to register formally, which according to the new law requires at least 5.000 authorized proxies assembled in at least ten governorates.

Compared with political parties in advanced democracies, the new Egyptian liberal parties lack organizational structures, members, money and — importantly — strategic plans to put all this in place in time for the big electoral showdown in September. Also in light of this gargantuan logistical challenge, coordination and unity are essential — all the more as the liberals’ main opponents, the Muslim Brothers and the remnants of the old regime, have established and resilient organizational networks throughout the country.

However, in the end, neither organizational issues nor the lack of time will be the key to the electoral performance of the liberal forces. The decisive issue is ideological and has to do with the general perception of all things liberal in the Egyptian masses.

To say that the broad majority of the Egyptian people have no idea what the epithet “liberal” stands for is no exaggeration. Many others, and these are the dangerous types, deliberately distort liberalism and depict liberals as immoral, void of values, treacherous and — topping the list — against religion. Intolerant zealots and others have engaged in anti-liberal propaganda for years thus creating very negative stereotypes among the hugely pious Egyptian people. To overcome this image of being against Arab values and against Islam, will be the main challenge for the liberals — and all other freedom-loving people in this country — for many years to come.

In this ideologically hostile environment liberals will only prevail if they avoid the highly emotional label “liberal” and explain to the people in clear and simple language what they stand for. Liberalism is not a slogan or a catch-phrase. It is a set of essential political, social and economic principles and values which are cornerstones of every democratic and modern polity: Freedom of the individual, social responsibility, human rights, the rule of law, the market economy and tolerance. Importantly, these ideas and principles unify the Egyptian liberal forces and the groups I mentioned earlier. Some even say (this is yet to be proven empirically in an opinion poll) that a majority of Egyptians, the so called “sofa-party”, supports these values.

“Most demonstrators on Tahrir Square were liberals without knowing that they are,” said Egyptian journalist Ibrahim Issa in a speech at an international conference some days ago.

It is more important what is in the box than what is written on top of the box, goes an old German saying. For me, this is the most important strategic advice I would give Egypt’s liberal forces as they gear up to defend the principles of the Revolution at the ballot box.

* Dr. Ronald Meinardus is the Regional Director of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Liberty (FNF) for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) in Cairo. You may send comments to egypt@fnst.org.

This commentary by the Regional Director of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Liberty (FNF) was published in the Daily News Egypt on May 27, 2011.

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