Imperialist liberalism and the Egyptian revolution

In the following lines, I level four criticisms against what I term the imperialist liberal trend of thought and how it deals with the 25 January revolution.

By “imperialist liberalism,” I mean that loose US-European academic tradition, whose defense of liberalism, especially of representative democracy and individual freedom, is inextricably tied to a colonial, Western-centric conceptual toolbox that sometimes reaches the limit of directly and unashamedly defending US global interests.

First, placing the Egyptian revolution within a ready-made typology — derived partly from the study of the so-called Western classical revolutions and partly from the study of some recent democratic revolutions — is one of the famous tricks of imperialist liberalism.

The first signs of this showed in the early days of the revolution. At that time, things were not yet clear. But despite this analyses mushroomed that the 25 January revolt was not in fact a revolution, but a popular uprising that demanded some reform and ended with a military coup.

Defining revolution is perhaps one of the most complicated issues in social and political sciences. And the Egyptian revolution may have indeed taken odd twists. However, it is fair to say that much of the imperialist liberal analysis is based on erroneous and ahistorical assumptions.

The main problem with this Western-centric frame of reference is that it allows the observer to see in the 25 January revolution only one episode: the exceptional 18-day Tahrir Square sit-in that preceded Hosni Mubarak’s ouster. The revolution from this perspective is a spatially and historically limited event; it was located at Tahrir and it lasted for 18 days.

Understanding the Egyptian “uprising” as an 18-day detour that ended with the “revolutionaries” failing to assume power may fit the ready-made typology of democratic revolutions driven basically from Latin American and East European models. But when applied to the Egyptian case, it leads to misunderstanding.

The “revolutionaries” may have not gained power on 11 February 2011. That’s true. However, ignoring the political and social earthquakes that shook Egypt since 11 February — earthquakes that testify to the fact that the revolution continued well beyond the confines of Tahrir and the 18 days — reflects some sort of theoretical blindness.

A broader historical perspective can indeed help us to understand that the Egyptian revolution cannot (yet) be categorized as victorious or failed, betrayed or hijacked. Egypt’s revolt is rather an incomplete episode that continues to reverberate.

This is simply because neither the power strife nor the mobilizations from below have ended, or even started to ebb, after 11 February.

Secondly, reductionism is a prevailing trait in the imperialist liberal literature. First, the Egyptian revolution is reduced to a mere political-democratic revolution, and then democracy is reduced to the ballot box.

But labeling the revolution as a simply democratic one is a contentious issue. There are serious signs that point to deeper aspects of our revolt.

The unending social and economic struggles, the minor uprisings on all fronts and in all areas, might tell us that Egypt is witnessing something a little deeper and more diverse than an attempt to change the way political power is practiced.

But the trick here is this: Liberal imperialists claim that since Egypt has witnessed a transition toward a pluralist political system and has conducted relatively free elections, then there is no point in speaking about continuing the revolution. The main thrust of the argument is that what we need is to focus on now is fine-tuning the procedural aspects of the new system, rather than trying to overthrow it.

Such an argument does not hold unless you accept the definition of democracy as the conduct of periodical elections and nothing more. Of course, the right to assembly, freedom of expression and the rights of women and minorities may also be of concern. But elections represent the core of democracy.

The imperialist aspect of this idea lies in its attempt to market a certain “good model,” and then blame those who fail to abide by it. The chief problem here is that the proponents of this model are obsessed with official politics to the point of reducing democracy to the building of representative democratic institutions.

But this “model worshipping” approach fails in face of a complex and changing reality. What if the Egyptians are inventing a new form of direct democracy that differs from the model of representative democracy? Paradoxically, while Egyptians are losing interest in the official political process and becoming increasingly skeptical of it, both the Muslim Brotherhood and those analysts continue to have faith in it.

Let us not forget that Egyptians were initially enthusiastic about the ballot box democracy. Careful examination of the participation rates in the polls conducted after the revolution shows that they were high at the beginning and then progressively declined as many Egyptians discovered how the political process is disconnected from the demands of the revolution and society.

This means that the “model” was tested and found wanting. But this is exactly what the imperialist liberals do not want to understand.

Thirdly, degrading popular protests is another feature of the imperialist liberalist frame of mind. Some imperialist liberals mockingly say Egyptians have a tendency to protest nonstop.

They overlook the fact that the relationship between official politics and popular protest is not one of mutual exclusion. And in their comments and writings, the overriding idea is that protest is not important compared to the use of the tools of official politics.

But this assumption is not sound or accurate, because protest and official politics interlace in a complex way that differs from one case to another and from one point in time and context to another.

There may be different explanations to the imperialist liberal tendency to look down on protest.

One such explanation might be the currently fashionable theory that major nationwide social movements, like Chartism, for example, are something that belong to the past. Now is the time of local movements with minor goals, they argue.

Another explanation may be the colonialist/racist way of thinking of some Western analysts, which condemns violence and puts the blame in its spread, at least partly, on the lack of democratic culture among the masses.

Of course, this goes hand in hand with a tendency to romanticize the peacefulness of the 18-day uprising.

However, this line of reasoning never asks the most basic and simple question: If Egyptians were so civilized from 25 January to 11 February 2011, what then has befallen them in the following months? Why did they become so violent? Isn’t it the fact that formal, procedural democracy betrayed their dreams and failed to fulfill their demands? Isn’t it logical then that they resort to popular mobilization, and even to defensive violence, in face of an unchanging state of affairs?

Imperialist liberals have a unilateral and unsophisticated view of political Islam. They tend to think of it in binary oppositions, the most famous among these is the moderate-extremist binary.

Paradoxically, both traditional Islamists and imperialist liberals have a one-dimensional understanding of the world.

Islamists divide the world into the simple binaries of Muslim/non-Muslim, East/West and good/evil, and at the heart of their project is a heated conflict over identity and a continuous confrontation with the West and to save Islam with the goal of reviving Islamic civilization.

Imperialist liberals, on the other hand, focus on one core idea, which is freedom and particularly individual freedom. This is somehow reflected in the worship of the free market which, it is claimed, is the embodiment of individual freedom in the field of economics.

To be fair, those liberals do not treat Islamists as one whole unit; nevertheless, they are obsessed with a broad categorization that distinguishes between moderate Islamists and non-moderate Islamists.

The word moderate here requires a special understanding, for it is a heavily politicized word but in fact may mean nothing.

The most important thing about the moderate/non-moderate classification is what it hides rather than what it tells. Moderation in this heavily politicized context really means belonging to or accepting the rules set by the mainstream. The untold truth here is that moderates are those people who do not threaten the interests of the internationally dominant forces, that is to say the US.

Imperialist liberals of course understand that the Brotherhood, though moderate, is not exemplary in its liberalism. That’s why they developed a categorization that distinguishes between anti-liberal democrats, such as the Brotherhood, and anti-liberal un-democrats, such as most Salafis (let us disregard for the time being the fact that the Salafis betrayed this categorization and accepted engagement in the democratic game).

But now it is becoming clear that the Brotherhood is not even democratic, for it has been hostile to the revolution and its demands. Hence, besides writing a non-consensual, sectarian Constitution, it has maintained the old regime’s tools of killing and torture and targeted the media and activists.

But this is of no importance to the imperialist liberals, since, as we said, moderation is a concept whose core is serving the hegemonic interests, rather than abiding by the substantive meaning of democracy.

Atef Said is a human rights researcher and PhD candidate at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.

This article was translated by Dina Zafer.

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