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Why western liberals have problems understanding Egypt

By Ronald Meinardus I’ll start on a personal note. I’m writing this commentary with a sense of unease and cautiousness. I’m a foreigner living in Egypt, and intend to write about political issues related to the host country. As long as foreign journalists are in jail for doing their work, this prudence is in order. …

Dr Ronald Meinardus
Dr Ronald Meinardus

By Ronald Meinardus

I’ll start on a personal note. I’m writing this commentary with a sense of unease and cautiousness. I’m a foreigner living in Egypt, and intend to write about political issues related to the host country. As long as foreign journalists are in jail for doing their work, this prudence is in order. I’m not a correspondent. I could call myself an analyst. Apart from personal vanity which drives more or less all authors, the objective of my writing is to inform the interested audience – Egyptians here, Germans and others back home. I head a liberal German institute which sponsors civic education projects in the MENA region. It is part of my daily routine to initiate and overlook political dialogue activities between Europeans and Arabs, among them many Egyptians. This job has not become any easier in the past couple of months. I’ll try to explain why this is so here.

Looking back the past couple of years, the schism between mainstream public and publicised opinion in Egypt and the Western world has never been as deep and obvious as today. In a climate of suspicion and distrust, foreign correspondents have become objects of vilification, attack, legal action and incarceration. We have witnessed perverse instances of enraged mobs attacking foreign reporters in the heart of Cairo. This is unacceptable under all circumstances. Attacking foreigners is also highly un-Egyptian. I don’t like stereotyping people along national lines, but I assume many would agree that foreigners have fallen in love with Egypt mainly also for the kindness and hospitality of her people. Recent excesses endanger this trademark image.

Much of what is happening in Egypt is hardly explainable reasonably.  It is not reasonable to pick a fight with foreign correspondents when you’re in need of foreign tourists.  But that’s just one of the many mysteries.  Among the biggest puzzle of Western observers is the positioning of Egypt’s mostly secular, often self-proclaiming liberal elite concerning recent political developments. With very few exceptions, this sociological class has vowed nearly unconditional support to the authorities’ “fight against terror”. Opposition to terrorism should be a position that unifies all democrats. However, it is disheartening to see how many here look the other way when it comes to disregard for due process, proportionality, accountability of state action and human rights violations.

“Only a dead Islamist is a good Islamist”. I shuddered when I read this Facebook message by a young leader of a secular political party. A few days earlier a senior member of that group posted the following: “We will fight with whatever we have, we will arrest as many as we can and we will also kill as many if needed but please don’t talk to us about inclusion and reconciliation! Don’t talk to us about human rights and Amnesty International reports because frankly we don’t give a damn!”

Words like these also reflect the alienation between an important segment of Egyptian society and their traditional Western allies. Never have I sensed a stronger estrangement between the two than in these times. I don’t believe turning away and stopping to communicate and cooperate is an option. There exists no alternative to dialogue. For this, it is an essential condition to understand the other.  On my quest to comprehend what is occurring in the hearts and the minds of many Egyptians I have become estranged with post 30 June, I saw the explanation of Lebanese columnist Rami Khouri. After his visit to Egypt in January, he wrote: “What we witness these days in Egypt cannot be analysed by using political criteria, but rather requires the tools of the anthropologist. There is no real political ideology involved here. There is mainly biology driving events these days, primarily the anthropological need of tens of millions of Egyptians to get on with their lives and prevent the collapse of this society that has functioned without interruption for over 5,000 years.” The public sphere in Egypt, Khouri continues in his commentary, is “overshadowed by the herd and its need for self-preservation”.  This analysis reminds me of Egyptian commentary justifying the forceful elimination of Political Islam as a matter of survival and protection of Egypt’s identity. This perspective tends to deny the Egyptian identity of the Islamist forces and the many victims – and opens the door to highly illiberal, if not totalitarian conduct.

While the “anthropological” approach is fascinating, it may lead to racialist, if not racist conclusions.  It also leads away from the roots of Egypt’s political and societal degradation: like in other underdeveloped societies, it is not the miserable and disenfranchised masses who determine the public and – even less so – the publicised opinion. With very few exceptions, Egypt today is void of responsible democratic media. In a nearly totalitarian media environment (with Orwellian spikes here and there) public opinion has become a mirror of publicised opinion. I find it frightening to witness that many Egyptians actually believe all the flimflam they are told to believe by those controlling the media.

A prime object of a seemingly coordinated disinformation and defamation campaign are those who stood at the forefront of the revolution in early 2011.  In a depressing Op Ed in The New York Times, Egyptian novelist Alaa Al Aswany bemoans a “tragic turn of events” and “a systematic media campaign carried out by state television and the private channels owned by businessmen who used to back the Mubarak regime” aimed at conveying the fable that the January 2011 revolution “was a plot by American intelligence agencies” who cooperated with the young revolutionaries who acted as “traitors and paid agents of the West”.

To add insult to injury, only few Egyptian voices are heard in solidarity with the objects of defamation who have been effectively marginalised politically, or criminalised and silenced.

These days, many columns on Egypt end with a reference to the youth and express the – unsubstantiated – hope all will be better if only the youth gets its say on a latter day. In his column “Egypt’s Despair and Its Hope”, Alaa Al Aswany follows the same paradigm. Unfortunately, reality is more complex.  Egypt’s progress is not a biological automatism of the old and corrupted elites dying out. For this country to change to the better, a real revolution is needed. This must begin in the minds and heads of the people. It’s about the education, stupid, one could say. If radical changes don’t occur here, Egypt’s masses will always be in danger to behave in an “anthropological” manner – estranged from democratic, let alone liberal principles.


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. Twitter @Meinardus        

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  • Reda Sobky

    There is a collective Egyptian memory of many many invasions and oppressions and attempts to dismantle the Egyptian state in favor of a colonial power or an enforced religious construction not accepted by the vast majority. As the cycle has repeated itself it has produced a reflexive response which unifies factions into a whole that can resist the loss of Egypt as Egyptians have known it. Everybody should have known this and everybody needs to understand that this is what the deposed attempted to do and everybody needs to accept that when the very structure and identity and presence of Egypt is severely threatened as has happened, full court press is needed on all fronts. Everybody laughs sadly in Egypt when they see the west duped into believing that all the terror attacks against the Egyptian government are from groups not connected to the deposed….give Egyptians a break their country as they know it, their identity and in deed their very existence is now under attack from an international organization of terror and religious fascism supported by Turkey, Qatar and the West. Their brothers in the Army and Police are regularly slaughtered and you don’t want them to have instinctive responses? Look at your own history as a German and see what extreme measures would have been needed if Hitler and his goons were to be stopped from taking Germany to ruin. Paint a picture in your mind if there had been a German awakening in the late thirties before the war and people would have gone out in the street to bring the Nazi’s down. Something like that is in progress in Egypt now. Context is important if anybody wishes to understand what is transpiring and why Egyptians are responding with firmness and vigilance to the deposed.

    • sam enslow

      Much of the developing world was influenced by colonialism. Those that are now prospering are those that turned the page such as the countries of SE Asia. Germany and Japan fought a war to the death during World War II. Once the war was over, the war was over. Now, in spite of frequent disagreements, these three countries are close allies. The page was turned. I note there is no mention of the Soviet domination of Egypt under Nasser that lasted until they were licked out by Sadat. Many of Egypt’s current problems germinated under Soviet influence, including Egypt’s xenophobia.
      It is a TOTAL UNTRUTH that the West supports The Brothers. When the people of Egypt elected The Brothers, the West took a big gulp and accepted Egypt’s choice. And you have read enough of my writings to know I have no use for The Brothers or any religion in politics. The 30 of June Revolution saw Egypt enter into dangerous times as far as the goals of the 25 January Revolution were concerned. The process is still being played out. But since the 25 of January Revolution each side has constantly claimed the other is a “tool of the West.” I recall reading in the Egyptian press how the US would not support The Brothers because the Egyptians made the “wrong” choice, a choice supported by those who signed The Fairmont Agreement. The example given was the US labeling of Hamas as a terrorist organization along with HZ. Our war on terrors was labeled a war on Muslims and Arabs. The choices made by Egyptians (for many reasons understandable) were made by Egyptians.
      Much of what is happening in Egypt is new to Egyptians. It is not new to history. When a Westerner makes a comment, it is most often a reflection of their past experiences. The US had its great period of xenophobia. It was called McCarthyism. It lead to serious foreign policy errors in, especially, South America. All a two bit dictator had to do was say his opposition was “communist” to get more support from the US. These policies changed with the Church Commission and under Jimmy Carter with a regression under Reagan and Bush, Jr.
      The Nazi’s came to power without winning an election. Their breeding ground was a failed world economy that hit Germany especially hard. The yoke and humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles added to its problems. The Nazi’s (the role model for the Brothers) grasped the opportunity. They found a scapegoat (it was not us who made this mess) and recalled a romanticized past to appeal to national pride. The German army accepted Hitler to keep its power thus the Night of the Long Knives. The press was limited as were all personal liberties – all in the name of Order and German Pride. The rule of law disappeared along with all opposition opinion. As Thomas Jefferson said those who trade Liberty for Security get neither.
      The war on terrorism is perhaps the most difficult to fight. Who is the enemy? Is that child standing in the middle of the road an innocent child or living bomb. Is she a decoy planted to make you stop so you will be an easy target? It is a hard struggle that will not be won by force alone. Look at the US experience. Learn from it and its mistakes. Every error, every abuse of power by those entrusted with it helps the terrorists. Errors are more valuable than money to them. While it fights terrorism with its army and police, the rest of the government must to its jobs. Egypt’s economy must grow, legal reforms must be made. All Egyptians must feel as though, “I love Egypt AND Egypt loves me.” The police and army must act as trained and demand the highest standards of themselves. They cannot afford to act on instincts. With all care taken, there will be abuses of power by some individuals, and these abuses, if not addressed, will harm the efforts and reputations of the others out risking their lives to save their country.
      Contrary to popular Egypt belief, Egyptians are well respected in the world. If outside observers call on Egypt to actually achieve the goals of the 25 January Revolution, it is out of respect for the abilities of the Egyptians (abilities often overlooked by Egyptians themselves). We know you can do it. You have all the resources to do it. But problems must be faced and managed and, when possible, corrected. Egypt must makes its moves toward the future, turn the page, and meet a new day. When it does, it will be proud to read foreign press talk about Egypt’s democratic and economic miracle – just as the German’s were happy to read the same press when they grew out of the horror of the Nazi period and the destruction of World War II. Comments and suggestions are just that comments and suggestions. Egypt can accept some and reject others. But what friend sees his friend in danger and says nothing.

      • omega pal

        Egypt has just need a scout who can connect the front and quickly read situations they arise and eventuellemnet solve as soon as possible those that arise.

        Egypt needs a scout who will not solve the problem with people emotion but rather eliminate the emotion galvanized by the revenges and grabbers of opportunities.
        Brief,enlightened leader who will be above the fray.
        The success of this leader going awareness of class politic and the mass.
        Do not forget the illiteracy and years of dictatorship burden are dangerous problem facing Egyptians now.Egyptians mass popular people are teleguided like robots, they took any message true because they look who says it rater than what he says.

    • A Canadian

      You are wonderful Reda Sobky.

    • Sammyb

      Reda, I must say you hit the nail on the head!

    • Sammyb

      Good job!

  • Ahmed El-Sherif

    Indeed it is not a question of democracy ,but it is Egypt’s very existence as a creator of civilization and bridge between East and West ,at the crossroads between three continents that is at stake. Islam is surely part of the Egyptian identity; but it is not the Wahabi fanatic obscurantist medieval Islam that the Brotherhood and its fellow fanatics were trying to create. It is moderate Islam that accepts and interacts with other civilizations and cultures. It is not the Islam that marginalizes women and Christians and defames the fine arts as being obscene !! It is the Islam of enlightened reformers such as Qassem Amin ,Sheikh Ali Abdel -Razeq and Dr.Taha Hussein.
    I am really shocked and appalled by the West’s linking the Brotherhood with democracy and calling for its inclusion in the political process. Why didn’t Germany include the Bader-Meinhof and the Red Brigades groups in its political process? Why didn’t Spain include Eta in its political process? Why didn’t Britain include the Irish Republican Army in its political process?
    There is no disagreement about democracy. But , please don’t bemoan the overthrow of the Brotherhood in the name of democracy. The Brotherhood was not creating democracy in Egypt. It was creating a theocracy and pulling Egypt back to the darkness of the Middle Ages. Why didn’t the West criticize the sacking of journalists and media people during Morsi’s rule and their replacement with Brotherhood puppets ?Why didn’t the West denounce the laying siege to Egypt’s Constitutional Court by Morsi’s thugs to prevent it from being convened ,so that it wouldn’t rule Morsi’s infamous Presidential decree unconstitutional , the decree that placed Morsi’s policies and the formation of the brotherhood’s Constitution Committee above criticism ?
    Just what kind of democracy that the Brotherhood was creating in Egypt is the west shedding tears over??!! Not to mention the economic ruin that Brotherhood rule wreaked over Egypt.And not to mention their parceling out of Egypt’s national soil to Hamas , their fellow ideologues ,to establish a Palestinian state on part of northern Sinai.
    How would the West have dealt with a Morsi-like president if they were ever plagued with one??!! what would have been left of Egypt if Morsi had been allowed to continue in rule for 3 more years. Surely ,not the Egypt we have all loved or cherished ,but maybe a Taliban-like Egypt .and one in economic tatters. Is that what the West would have liked to happen ,in the name of democracy??!!

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  • Al Masry

    Your double standards. where you were when those criminal fanatics kills innocent people ? there were more killing in Europe during the transition from Dark Age to modernity. Egypt is going thru this hard time too.

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