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High Hurdles for Egypt's Liberals

By Ronald Meinardus *

(Cairo) When the leaders of Arab liberal parties recently met in Cairo for their annual General Assembly, they took an important decision. After a short debate, the forum which unites liberal parties and groups from such diverse countries as Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon, Egypt, Sudan and Saudi Arabia (to name but a few) resolved to change its name from "Network of Arab Liberals" to "Arab Alliance for Freedom and Democracy". Explaining the move, the president of the group, Egyptian liberal activist Wael Nawara said: "The term liberal has a bad connotation in the Arab world. There is no need for us to use a foreign term."

Earlier at the meeting, Dr. Ayman Nour, old and new presidential candidate and one of the most prominent Egyptian politician with a clear liberal profile, lamented about the problems the liberal movement is facing: "They call us three things: liberals, secularists, kafirs (unbelievers)."

Liberals are facing an ideological onslaught in many parts of the world – and the situation is particularly dire in the Arab region. Strategically, the challenges confronting Arab liberal parties are internal and relate to their organizational weaknesses and external as they operate in an all but hospitable environment.

As a result of systematic brainwashing, the opponents of liberalism have managed to instill in the minds of many people the notion that liberal ideas are contrary to the Arabic culture and - far more troubling - against religion and the teachings of Islam. In a society like Egypt, this is a killer argument. Here, religious politicians operate in a homey environment. The average Egyptian is a religious person. If there is one thing that truly unites Egyptians of the Muslim and the Christian creed it is the importance they give to the spiritual and their close relationship to the Almighty. According to opinion polls, a huge majority of Egyptian Muslims (more than four fifths) believe that Sharia should be the source of political decision making. Interestingly, this precept, which has found its way into the constitutional documents, is widely accepted also by all liberal forces – Muslims and Christians alike. Egyptian liberals of Muslim faith (the great majority of Egyptian liberals are pious Muslims!) deem that their liberal political convictions are very well compatible with Sharia. However, and this is the crux of the matter, they have not succeeded in communicating this effectively to the masses.

On the eve of Egypt's historic elections, liberals sense that they are not in sync with the great majority of the people. While their party programs promote principles like individual freedom, gender equality, the rule of law and – very broadly – the notion of openness and modernity, the majority of the people they try to reach is far more conservative: A survey of public opinion on the role of Islam in politics published last year by the Pew Research Center reveals that in the struggle between modernizers and fundamentalists 59 percent of Egyptians side with the fundamentalists. This is the highest number of all countries surveyed – and considerably higher than the results for countries like Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Pakistan and Indonesia. While fundamentalism is a rather abstract formula, the report also reveals that Egyptians are at the top if it comes to supporting harsh punishments (or Hudud in Arabic) which in Islamic law refers to punishments such as stoning people who commit adultery, whippings and cutting off hands of thieves and robbers as well as the death penalty for those who turn their back on Islam. By and large, the report states four fifths of the Egyptian respondents support these archaic punishments.

I was rather shocked when I first saw these numbers as they run counter to my earlier picture of Egyptian Muslims as moderate and not receptive to radical views. The numbers are relevant politically, as they reflect a mood in the people who are now asked to cast their votes in Egypt's first truly pluralistic and hopefully also free elections. Opinion polls predict a victory for the Islamist forces; anything but a landslide would be a surprise. Confronted with this reality, Egypt's liberals are overwhelmed. Their initial effort to form a coalition to counter the "Islamist threat" fell into pieces the moment the party leaders discussed the composition of the candidates' lists. Politically, this has been a disaster: The liberal parties are now running in various alliances and – in some cases – on their own.

Egypt's liberal forces would be happy if – together with other secularly minded groups – they end up securing enough seats in parliament to block a two thirds majority of the religious block. However, the real work for them will begin after the elections. To survive in an ideologically unreceptive society, Egypt's liberals must start to transform their public image. Nothing less than a programmatic revamp is needed. They must convince the masses that liberalism is the program of freedom, and that the quest for freedom lies at the heart of the Revolution. It sounds so easy, but – in this environment – it is not at all.

* Dr. Ronald Meinardus is the Regional Director of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Liberty 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 November 28, 2011.

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