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Growing Gaps? In Cairo, Arab and European Liberals Discuss the Role of Political Parties

Liberal politicians, academicians and NGO activists convened in Cairo from May 16 -18, 2014 for the Second Arab-European Dialogue Forum. Sponsored by the European Liberal Forum (ELF) and co-organized by the Regional Office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Liberty (FNF), the Forum for Greece and Democracy Magazine of Egypt's flagship Al Ahram Foundation, the three days conference discussed "The Role of Organized Liberalism in Promoting Freedom and Democracy". This year's Cairo event was a follow-up to a similar conference held 2013 at which liberals from both sides of the Mediterranean had discussed the basics of liberalism.

Surprisingly for many, at that conference Arab and European liberals agreed on most ideological points. In the realm of ideas, the gap between the two sides proved rather minimal. The situation is far more diverse when it comes to the organizational or institutional aspects of liberal politics: this is the area of political parties and civil society organizations which play an important role in democracies, particularly liberal democracies.

In Cairo, it soon became apparent that in a comparative analysis the institutional framework of politics is very different. While most European countries, this is certainly the case for Western Europe, today have well established institutional frameworks in which political parties, and among them liberal parties flourish, this may not be said of the Arab world, where partisan pluralism is either non existent or in a nascent state. Speaker after speaker illustrated emphasized that the terrain is particularly difficult for liberal parties. They are considered elitist, often also foreign led - some detractors even defame liberals as anti-religious and against the teachings of Islam.

Bridging Cairo Economic Panel Kunze

Dialogue: De Salle (Belgium) and Tamaldou (Morocco)

On the other side, the challenges to European liberalism are radically different. In some European countries liberalism as a set of ideas is considered common sense and accepted by big majorities in the population. This has even led to a situation that many voters question the very need of liberal political parties. "This is one explanation for the weakness of Germany's liberal party, the FDP", said German political scientist Oliver Lembcke discussing this phenomenon.

The situation on the other side of the Mediterranean could hardly be more different. In his tour d'horizon of Arab party politics, Gamal Soltan, an Egyptian professor denied the very existence of liberal political parties. According to this scholar politics in the Arab world is predominantly "identity politics" guided by nationalist, religious and sectarian trends. This bleak picture was somewhat corrected when mention was made of existing – and active – liberal political parties in Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt and Lebanon, who were represented at the conference with senior delegations.

While the history and the sociology of Europe's liberal parties is well recorded, the picture of Arab liberalism in this regard is far from clear. Where lay the historic roots of Arab liberalism and which is the sociological base today? These important questions were left unanswered. In the end, conference organizer Dr. Ronald Meinardus, Regional Director of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, would not hide his regret in this point: "Arab liberals need to clarify these issues if not for the sole reason to refute the allegation that liberalism is an elitist concept, foreign led and, thus not compatible with Arab culture".

According to former Greek Minister Andreas Andrianopoulos, "the beginning of liberalism in Europe was the battle between commerce and the aristocracy". Meanwhile, Arab liberals are preoccupied fighting military rule and religious fundamentalism. "The lack of individual freedom in our daily culture is the basic challenge for Arab liberals", said Saed Karajah from Jordan, who chairs the Arab Alliance for Freedom and Democracy. A delegate from Egypt asked the basic question, how it is "possible to modernize an individual and talk to him about liberalism when he doesn't know the alphabet".

The sober conclusion of the second Arab-European liberal dialogue forum was that the cultural and institutional framework in the Arab world is not particularly favorable for liberal politics. In this regard, the gap between Europe and the Arab world is huge. The bad news is that this gap has grown in recent months. Gone is the spirit of optimism generated by the Arab Spring.

Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Liberty in Egypt :