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An older and shorter version of this essay first appeared in OpenDemocracy – Arab Awakening on the 13th of August, 2014.

1. In Search of Justification

On the 30th of June 2013, the President Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president was deposed by the military. Among the more surreal events of those tumultuous days, was that the very revolutionaries who had been at the forefront of the Egyptian revolution that led to the downfall of President Mubarak were either calling for military intervention to depose the increasingly embattled Morsi, or cheerleading the coup from the sides. During the Western post-mortem analysis that followed, it was notable how quickly the activists were no longer designated as liberals, but now suddenly described as anti-Islamist instead. How do we make sense of the speed with which many Western analysts dismissed the liberal credentials of the activists—so much so that they were no longer considered worthy of the name?[1]

One explanation may be that the Western media became infatuated with the demonstrations held at Tahrir Square and became guilty of romanticising a revolution without having understood the nature of the society from which the protests emerged. This however would fail to account for the swiftness in dismissing any liberal justifications as hollow rhetoric. Presumably the operating assumption behind such thinking would be that no ‘true’ liberal would have supported a coup and therefore any liberal justification can be safely ruled out of hand. But would such an assumption be vindicated by the liberal tradition?

In what follows it will be shown that a closer examination of the tradition will reveal that liberalism is in fact more than able to justify the military coup on its own terms, and not on ‘realist’ reasons alone. Without inconsistency or casuistry, it will be argued that not only does liberalism fail to provide a doctrinal constraint in safeguarding democracy, it can even advocate its removal if the need arises.

Of course such ‘repugnant’ actions can only be justified with great regret and under great stress; clearly certain conditions will have to come into play for such justification to be compelling. The case for this will be made in an account adapted from Brookings Fellow Shadi Hamid’s recently published book The Temptations of Power,[2] that suggests that the fear and paranoia of the liberal classes in Egypt is not entirely baseless. Such an account will be qualified by arguments presented by New Centurion Fellow Michael Wahid Hanna’s blistering essay ‘God and State in Egypt’.

It is notable that for all their differences, both Hamid and Hanna seem not to entertain the coup as ‘valid’ liberal option available to the activists. But this would be a mistake. To explain away support for the coup, for example, as, say, evidence of the regressive tendencies prevalent within Egyptian society would be to fail to understand the activists. Setting aside for a moment the disturbing suggestion that the West understands the rationale for their actions better than they do themselves—if we are unable to accept liberal justification we may fail to appreciate and understand how Arab Liberals perceive events as they occur, correct or otherwise. Given the complexity on the ground in Egypt, the least we must do is to exert every effort to understand the reasons driving actors, bearing in mind that a failure in doing so, may lead to policy actions with grave consequences for Egypt’s volatility.

Before we begin our discussion, I want to make clear, we are not examining whether the liberal justifications offered were sincere, or even if any liberal justification was given at all. Such questions are concerned with the ‘real’ and ‘purported’ motivations of actors, and are questions that occupy political scientists and historians. We will instead primarily concern ourselves with ‘liberal reasons’ rather than ‘reasons for actions’.

I distinguish between them by noting that people are motivated by many things; hatred, material interests, power, religion, hatred of religion, liberalism, God, even truth, and so on. The coup’s supporters may have been motivated for all these reasons, and others beside. This would not exclude whether in fact that there are truly liberal reasons to justify the ‘coup’ in particular,  or liberals supporting authoritarian regimes more broadly. It should not be forgotten that one can have material interests as well as philosophical ones ‘mingled together’, (I appreciate ‘ideological reasons’ has its own Marxist connotations which I want to avoid). There may even be a convergence between two parties each with different reasons of actions but with interests that converge together. Either way I am concerned about liberal reasons, generally, and abstractly; as for the real reasons why Egyptian liberals did what they did I leave for students of political science and history. What will concern us is to scrutinise philosophically whether a liberal justification for a military coup can be provided: in other words, can the Egyptian coup be defended on ‘purely’ philosophical liberal grounds?

It is reasonable to wonder whether such a discussion would only engage in futile post-hoc rationalisations. Yet I argue that such a question is not an idle one; if liberal justification is ruled out from the beginning, then it would be no surprise that any liberal justification offered by activists would also be rejected, and instead ‘latent’ motives presented to explain their ‘real’ motivations. On the other hand if liberal justification can be found and we discover that Western liberals excluded the possibility of a ‘liberal coup’ too quickly and incorrectly, then we ought to consider whether this is an instance of myopia more widespread than we have hitherto realised. Furthermore, it will give us impetus to examine whether in the past we have ascribed motives to acts perpetrated in the name of liberalism, from which we have absolved it.

Let the reader further note, I do not claim that this is the only argument that liberalism can offer, and of these possible arguments that it’s the most preferred one, I can only say that I find it particularly illuminating. Nor should the reader think that the arguments cannot be supplemented by others, ‘realist’ ones say, to strengthen the overall case, as arguments invariably do.

And to be clear, my presentation of this argument should not be held equivalent to its endorsement. It is not presented as an absolution, nor more especially to offer approval or encouragement for any crimes subsequent committed in the coup’s name. Nor is the aim to besmirch liberalism in defence of Islamists. I feel secure that there is no need to disavow in advance any coup that may perchance use some of the arguments mentioned in what follow; I doubt very much that those willing to initiate a coup peruse philosophical arguments for inspiration.

But such an argument will not suffice; we must further explain why Western liberals were unable to recognise liberal arguments for the coup, and why they may find it difficult to recognise when such arguments can become compelling in the future. If we succeed we may find that to our surprise, not only can the coup be justified, but also that Arab liberals may have a vested interest in perpetuating an anti-democratic military regime, not solely for their material interests but consistent with their liberal beliefs. If it can be shown that liberalism indeed can and has transgressed against democracy, then this may to reveal to us the dark side of liberalism of which too many of us are unaware, and if nothing is achieved save this, then this essay has not been without success.

2. A Built-in Disadvantage: Rise of an Illiberal Democracy in the Middle East

In his recent book The Temptations of Power, Brookings Fellow Shadi Hamid argues that the Arab Spring showed that any notion of stability in the Middle East was illusory, and that West must get ready to accept the eventual emergence of ‘illiberal democracies’. Referring to Egypt particularly, Hamid presents an account that suggests that Muslim Brotherhood represents key constituencies within Egyptian society that has hitherto been suppressed or ignored. His account further suggest that for all the difficulties the Muslim Brotherhood went through in their year of power, they would still have an inbuilt advantage amongst the electorate compared to liberals. It would seem that if they were to contest in free and fair elections there could still be a sizable chance that they would win. Hamid argues that if the West truly believes in democracy, then it ought to accept that the Muslim Brotherhood would be the legitimate representative of Egypt.

Some of the concepts that Hamid’s analysis relies on were first developed by Fareed Zakaria in the essay The Rise of Illiberal Democracy’ and later elaborated in his book The Future of Freedom. Zakaria distinguishes between an illiberal democracy and a liberal one, arguing that a political community can be ‘truly’ democratic without being a liberal democracy. In doing so Zakaria denies what is for so many an unspoken foundational premise, that there can be no ‘true’ democracy unless it takes the form of a liberal democratic political community.

However Zakaria argues that even if a political community has real democratic credentials, this should not deceive us to make false equivalences. In an illiberal democracy, the majority of the electorate hold ‘illiberal’ beliefs and considers the state as an instrument for the advancement of those beliefs. This would constitute a mode of government that within a classic constitutional democracy the state would be severely constrained from doing. He adds that liberal democracy is part of a tradition that is ‘marked not only by free and fair elections, but also by the rule of law, a separation of powers, and the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion, and property.’ This ‘latter bundle of freedoms’ is, however, not only theoretically different but also historically distinct from democracy. That the difference between these two strands of democracy can only now be recognised, can be explained by the fact that for almost a century whenever a democracy was established it happened to be in the West and took on a liberal democratic form. With the world becoming increasingly democratic, we begin to recognise that these two strands of liberal democracy, interwoven in the Western political tradition, are in fact distinct and separate. Zakaria quotes the political scientist Philippe Schmitter approvingly: “Liberalism, either as a conception of political liberty, or as a doctrine about economic policy, may have coincided with the rise of democracy. But it has never been immutably or unambiguously linked to its practice.”[3]

While Zakaria’s comments are broad and general with no special reference to the Middle East, he was confident that the region would not prove an exception to his argument. Writing in 1997, he states that were these monarchies and authoritarian governments to be replaced with democracies ‘the resulting regimes would almost certainly be more illiberal than the ones now in place.’ Over 15 years later Hamid gives us no reason to think that Zakaria was wrong.

Hamid presents numerous polls that suggest that many beliefs commonly associated with an Islamist political platform are widespread in the Arab world. For example in a 2012 Pew poll held in Egypt, 60% of respondents favoured laws strictly adhering to Quranic teachings. The same question was posed in Jordan in 2012 and 72 percent was in favour of laws strictly adhering to Quranic teaching. In Egypt, 80 percent supported the view that adulterers should be stoned, and 70 percent favoured amputating the hands of thieves, whilst 88 percent endorsed death as penalty for apostasy. Responding to the same poll in Jordan the percentages were 65, 54, and 83, respectively. Hamid argues that even if the reliability of these polls can be doubted, this would still mean that more than a fair percentage of people within the Arab world espousing some seriously illiberal views. In this sense at least, Islamists cannot be considered radicals that wish to impose an extremist social order on an unwilling populace as so often presented. Instead Hamid argues that rather than leading, they reflect and often follow the conservative religious mainstream: ‘[t]he irony of Islamist victories at the polls is that they did not announce a break with the past; they confirmed something that was already there and had been for some time.’

All this suggest that within Arab societies the level of Islamisation preceded the Islamist rise of power in the Arab Spring and was in some important ways independent from them. While Egypt is well known for its level of Islamisation, Hamid says that the example of post-revolution Tunisia was striking. Given that former President Zine al-Abidene Ben Ali had virtually eradicated Ennahda in the 90’s, the remarkable ground covered by the Islamists was conspicuous. After the revolution had deposed Ben Ali, the change in the religious character of Tunisia was almost immediate. A growing number of Tunisians began to adopt an overtly religious way of life, and ‘[m]osque preachers, not accustomed to large crowds, reported rows of the devout lining up for prayer. It was almost as if the removal of a dictator allowed society to return to a more natural equilibrium.’ Whilst acknowledging that Ennahda were far more effective at campaigning in the post-revolutionary elections than their secular counterparts, it’s lack of grassroots presence preceding the revolution would suggest that their success in the elections cannot solely be explained by superior party organization. Hamid suggests that Ennahda’s quick rise to prominence and electoral success ‘reflected a seemingly widespread desire to reconnect with the country’s Islamic roots.’

Taking the long view Hamid argues that perhaps this is not so surprising. However unfashionable Francis Fukuyama’s End of History thesis may be, his argument that political liberalism is the end and culmination of history exemplifies rather than challenges the assumptions that inform academic thinking about the Middle East. Tucked away in a footnote, Hamid quotes Noah Feldman turning such a modernisation paradigm on its head: ‘[if] one notices that, for thirteen hundred years, Islam provided the dominant language of politics in the Middle East, and if one treats the twentieth century as a brief aberration … then the reemergence of Islam looks like a return to the norm, and the rise of a secular nationalism looks like the historical phenomenon in need of special explanation.’ In light of this account, its hard to disagree with Hamid’s conclusion that the ‘vast majority of Arabs have no a priori ideological opposition to Islamism as such. Most, after all, support a prominent role for Islam and Islamic law in political life.’

But where would an illiberal democracy leave Arab liberals? In a telling anecdote Hamid recalls his interviews with Egyptian Islamists ‘despite occasionally trying, they simply couldn’t bring themselves to take liberals seriously.’ This can be partly explained because liberals had previously preferred a tolerance for autocracy to Islamism as a lesser of the two evils, but also more significantly because liberal parties had obvious weaknesses. Despite their ubiquitous presence in print and media, liberal elites had a distinct lack of presence on the street, weak party organisation and limited experience in campaigning, and when elections came they were not ready. Outside of Cairo and Alexandria, liberal parties had little presence and often even less in far-flung rural areas. It’s no surprise then that the Brotherhood grew increasingly contemptuous with them, dismissing them as ‘cardboard parties’.

However, this only partially explains their disdainful attitude. Islamists and Salafists had an ill-disguised scorn for the ‘foreign’ or ‘infidel’ ideas of liberals; ultimately Islamists questioned whether liberals had any natural constituency in the Egypt. During election-time, the campaign discourse was pervaded with religious language and reference points, and Hamid suggests that this led to a built-in electoral advantage for parties campaigning on a religious platform. Liberal parties on the other hand, had trouble defining what liberalism actually meant in the Egyptian context, and because of the pressures of overtly religious discourse even avoided using the term. Hamid quotes Mustafa al-Naggar explaining, that on the Egyptian street ‘liberalism’ equates to ‘disbelief’. He quotes another liberal candidate who ran in the 2011 Egyptian parliamentary elections stating amusingly, ‘I didn’t run a political campaign; I was running a campaign that depended on me telling voters I wasn’t an atheist.’ Hamid concludes that with a muddled message, lack of organisation and built-in disadvantage, is it little wonder that when polarisation increasingly grew liberals ultimately united on an anti-Islamist platform?

While the above account may be a simplification and missing much of Hamid’s nuance, it would not be an exaggeration to say that it bears some resemblance to the account that Islamists tell themselves and others. Nor that at some level such an account embodies the anxieties that Egyptian liberals privately fears. Supposing for the sake of argument that they do, it is enough to suggest that a full blown democracy, in the short to medium term at least, could signify a perceived threat to the Egyptian liberals classes, and in the long-term possibly signal the doom of a potentially liberal Egypt. This could explain why some liberals mourned that they had ‘lost their country’ when President Morsi was elected on the 30th June 2012, and that when Morsi was deposed by the military on July 3rd 2013, some rejoiced that their country had been saved.

3. Environment as an explanation of Islamism

Michael Hanna rejects such an account in his compelling essay ‘God and State in Egypt’. He argues that such an account makes a false equivalence between a dominant religious discourse and the inevitability of Islamist political ascendance. Furthermore, the Muslim Brotherhood are far from the social moderates that Hamid portrays; rather they have been shown to be a social movement that wishes to impose its own ‘regressive’ ‘non-inclusive vision’ of a society, a vision that key constituencies have rejected. Liberals need to create a political organisation and capacity that will allow them to reconnect and galvanise support amongst Egyptians, as well as challenge the dominance of religious discourse in the ‘public square’.

Hanna rejects the assumption that a widespread adherence to religious beliefs is equivalent to an inevitable political ascendance of Islamism in a democratic Middle East. While Hanna would agree with Hamid that the discourse in the public square has become increasingly religious, there is no reason to think that this can’t change. Hanna’s largely historical account points out that only forty years ago Egypt possessed a largely secular consensus and religious beliefs were considered marginal to politics. It would seem too deterministic to rule out such a return, or to suggest that the contemporary religious discourse is here to stay and inevitable on account of Egypt’s majority Muslim country ‘reverting’ to its alleged ‘true’ character. Such an explanation too easily reproduces some of the essentialist and plainly false assumptions that riddle both Islamist analysis and its detractors that argue that a Muslim majority democracy would inevitably ‘revert’ to a government with a religious platform, and what Hamid would consider an ‘illiberal democracy’. This would be an instance of a widespread fallacy pervading much of Islamist rhetoric, that it is constitutive of being a ‘good’ Muslim that they have to be ‘Islamist’, which is not to say that it has no persuasive power. However as Hanna points out, that it was not only key constituencies within the political classes and judiciary that were offended with Islamists identifying themselves as the ‘only true believers’, but also many ordinary citizens as well. They were united in their repudiation of Islamists arrogating themselves the exclusive monopoly of religious piety as sole interpreters of Islam. Hanna is right then to argue that it would be a mistake to assume that widespread religiosity within Islamic societies is tantamount to thinking that Islamist power is inevitable.[4]

Hanna presents an alternative historical explanation of Islamist success that primarily points to the Nakba as the event that led to the slow but sure discrediting of more secular ideologies. He also indicts the failure of the liberal political classes for being disconnected from the lives of Egypt’s mostly poor population, and indulging in their own material interests. This has created a vacuum that a more religious discourse has seeped in and filled, creating a situation where certain segments of society have become thoroughly Islamist. Hanna, an unrepentant liberal, is also unequivocal in arguing that the widespread religious discourse needs to be challenged. He chides the political classes for not having done this, instead of embracing authoritarianism and hypernationalism that Hanna rejects as a false option.

Additionally, he fiercely rejects the idea of the Brotherhood as a relatively democratic and moderate organisation. Instead he considers Islamism as an intolerant force in Egyptian society and symptomatic of its more regressive tendencies. And whilst Hanna does stray occasionally into hyperbole, there is evidence that he is correct when saying that the base of the Muslim Brotherhood is largely unreformed, whatever the possible democratic character of its leadership. This then only reaffirms his opinion that liberals need to challenge the Islamists in the ‘public square’, and not to accept the inevitability of liberal failure at elections.

Instead there is much to play for; liberals must not only challenge religious discourse and organize themselves, but also challenge the political legitimacy that the Brotherhood has wrapped itself up in, presenting itself as the sole opposition to an authoritarian regime. Liberals must join and participate in this opposition, thereby challenging one of the central planks of Islamist legitimacy.

Hanna locates much of the Brotherhood’s success due to liberal weakness rather than Islamist strength; he identifies the notorious fractiousness of Egypt’s liberal parties, lack of organisational presence and ability to connect with the masses, as the main sources of liberal weakness. He argues that its important not only that liberals set about connecting with the lives of people and present solutions for their daily concerns, but also creating a political organization with the capacity that will allow them to challenge the Islamists at the polls. Hanna notes that there can be no ‘short cuts’ in replicating the ‘grunt work’ of politics that the Brotherhood have been doing for years.

One does not have to accept all of Hanna’s account to recognise some of its merits. He is surely right for rejecting the equivalence of widespread adherence of religious practice and discourse, to the inevitability of Islamist political success. It is clear that Hanna also rejects the idea that the West should stand idly by while potentially ‘regressive’ Islamists could emerge in an illiberal democracy. Instead the West ought to support liberal forces within Egypt, and by speaking advising and encouraging liberals, he is practising what he presumably preaches to American politicians and policy makers behind closed doors.

4. Democracy: What’s in it for the Liberal?

While Hanna’s account is a useful corrective to Hamid, that’s not to say that his solutions are persuasive, and more to the point it’s difficult to imagine how Hanna’s advice would help in the short-term. The question must be asked: in as far as democracy can lead to a loss or reduction of disproportionate liberal influence, is it really prudent for liberals to embrace democracy in Egypt?

Even though like all liberals, Egyptian liberals have a natural inclination for democracy, it must be recognised that in the short term given the nature of Egyptian society, the odds are stacked against them. Let us suppose for a moment that free and fair elections were held in Egypt in the next six months, despite all that’s happened it would be still difficult to imagine liberals winning. However this is not just a case of losing elections, the loss may have long-term significance. In all likelihood Islamists will attempt to manipulate constitutional arrangements that recognise their larger numbers, thereby locking in their advantage. For let it be clear one of the major ‘drawbacks’ of democracy for liberals is that it opens up the possibility of Islamists ruling Egypt by popular mandate and never getting voted out of power. Structurally weak as they may be in the beginning, it is not far-fetched to believe that as time passes and Islamists potentially increase their grip on power, this may lead to an eventual retrenchment of Islamist power that may prove permanent.

Underlying such anxieties is the extent to which those in power can impress their vision on Egyptian society. More specifically, to what extent could an Islamist government be able to do this? And just as liberals have done or attempted to do Islamists may use the state to perpetuate their own vision of society on Egypt, only with more popular support. In Turkey, so often touted as a model-country that other countries experiencing the Arab Spring should emulate, the increasingly religious and authoritarian turn that the so called post-Islamist Prime Minister President Erdogan has embarked upon seems to be ample proof of this. Liberals are then understandably anxious over what Islamists would do once they have access to the ministries of government and other instruments of the state. The liberal can then be forgiven for wondering, that given the receptivity of Egyptian society towards a more religious vision, whether Islamist voices will extinguish liberal voices altogether. It is not surprising then that some liberals argue that democracy is unnecessarily risky and the losses incurred may be permanent.

Hanna is also correct to say there is no reason for a religious majority Muslim country like Egypt to be Islamist dominated, but not in the way he intended. After all Egypt, is controlled by a largely secular liberal educated elite and only democratic elections would seriously threaten this. Even supposing for a moment that Islamists coming to power was an expression of the will of people, this can be subverted, and has. If there’s one thing we learnt in the Arab Spring, the will of the people is not enough. Why not then defer democracy, until at least liberals have a better chance to compete with Islamists?

It is not unreasonable then why some liberals fear the prospect of an illiberal democracy, and embraced military authoritarianism however repugnant they may find that choice. Confronted with such alternatives, it’s not hard to understand why liberals would not want to ‘guarantee’ their current prospects. Not forever obviously, but when Egypt is ready, – say about fifty years perhaps? -, when there is more widespread quality education, more capitalist development, and rule of law, eventually the masses will be ‘properly’ ready for democracy. However, until these conditions are a reality, why should liberals not seek out friends within powerful institutions, potential allies with converging interests such as the judiciary or the military to ‘ensure’ that Egypt does not find itself down a path it may find it difficult return from. In sum it is perfectly reasonable for liberals to consider ‘locking-in’ their advantage, an advantage democracy will only erode, especially if it would spell the end of a future modernised liberal democracy in Egypt that many educated liberals aspire for. It is not surprising for the liberal to ask what democracy offers them: ‘what’s in it for the liberal?’

Such sentiments express a means justifies the ends approach and many would consider them objectionable. More pertinent to our discussion is whether, outside such starkly ‘realist’ reasoning, can the removal of democracy ever be justified by liberalism? Or would the betrayal of democracy abandon liberalism’s core values and be sufficient proof that such persons cannot be liberals? Hamid and Hanna would probably consider it so, they both agree that having to choose between democracy and liberalism is a false dilemma, and both reject anti-democratic elements amongst Egypt’s secular liberals. Hanna for example, explicitly dismisses the liberal pretensions of it’s political classes, decrying their embrace of authoritarian government and hypernationalism, and would cite this as proof that the authoritarian and socially regressive values in the Middle East has corrupted Arab liberals, and has distorted liberal values beyond any recognisable meaning. And it is manifestly clear that many commentators agree, that such anti-democratic sentiments cannot be considered liberal.

However I will argue that such a conclusion is too quick. Care needs to be exercised to rule out reasoning like this as ‘illiberal’ out of hand. Furthermore I’m not sure that those who find such reasoning inimical to ‘proper’ liberalism appreciate the dilemmas specific to an Arab Liberal, and even if they do, whether they are aware of what options can be justified by liberalism once such a scenario unfolds.

5. The Liberal Tradition

5.1 The Progressive Prejudice and the Liberal Tradition

Before examining what liberalism actually says, we need to deal with a common objection that so often leads to the quick dismissal of Arab liberals. It is claimed that one reason why Arab liberals failed to uphold liberalism as it ought have been upheld, is that they hold values that may be considered more socially conservative, even regressive, to our more ‘enlightened Western’ eyes. Or if as the case may be that such values are not held by the Arab liberal in question, his flawed understanding is explained away as results of having had to emerge from socially and politically authoritarian societies. However, such a viewpoint is problematic, and a result of a distorted reading of the liberal tradition, a reading informed as it is by what I will call our ‘progressive prejudice’. A careful examination of the historical record will find preeminent individuals who held beliefs relating to women, class, race, and religion that would leave today’s liberals blushing. The relevant question is how can we usefully discriminate between liberal values and those individuals who live in societies that today would be considered old fashioned at best, and oppressive at worst?

An useful distinction is provided by the Christian liberal philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff in an influential essay ‘The Role of Religion in Decision and Discussion of Political Issues’. In it he argues that we must distinguish between the ‘ideal’[5] of liberal democracy’ and liberal democracy itself. Wolterstorff says that ‘no society is anything more than more or less a liberal democracy’, and he wonders whether any society may ever fully exemplify the liberal ideal, worthy as it may be to try. America and countries similar to it, have all been on a slow historical trajectory exemplifying the ideals of liberal democracy, and often having done to so in a world of ‘countervailing opinions’ and societies structured around very different ideas. For instance at one point the vote was restricted to white male landholders only and the enfranchisement of more and more segments of society was only done in a gradual process; similar examples can off course be multiplied.

In fact were we to reject all liberals for holding ‘regressive social ideals’ it would be difficult to understand how to accept, for example, James Madison –one of the Founding Fathers of America and joint-author of the Federalist Papers—as a ‘true’ liberal, who happened also to be Southern slaveholders who owned hundreds of slaves. Yet to reject his liberal credentials would be absurd as Madison is acknowledged as one of the preeminent liberal theorist, just as absurd as it would be to deny that owning another person as ‘property’ thereby denying them ‘inalienable rights’ could be considered anything other than illiberal.

Wolterstorff’s distinction is useful because it allows us to distinguish between the ‘ideals of liberalism’ as opposed to the exemplification of those values within liberal persons or societies. Accordingly the prevalence of socially conservative beliefs within an individual, socio-economic class, nation or society not having fully exemplified the ideals of liberalism would not be sufficient reason to dismiss them as liberal. This would mean that we cannot automatically exclude Egyptian liberals for their socially conservative views, whatever the repugnance that Western liberals may regard them.

One way to make sense of this is to distinguish liberal beliefs and the broader tradition of liberalism an approach favoured by the communitarian philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. MacIntyre would note that while contemporary liberals may judge our predecessors as incorrigibly reactionary they may have been considered as impossible radicals to their contemporaries. Likewise what we regard as liberal positions today may be considered conservative, even reactionary, if held thirty years from now. As multiple examples abound it’s not unusual for yesterday’s radical to evolve into today’s conservatives. What are considered ‘liberal beliefs’ are then always held to be ‘liberal’ relative to the historical moral debates of the times and how they ‘progress’. In this way what are considered to be ‘liberal’ beliefs are not fixed and may be likened to a moving target. MacIntyre’s position reminds us that it’s important to remember how often both the ‘conservative’ position and the ‘liberal’ position are part of the same broader liberal tradition even if not immediately recognized as such; in fact the conservative position may be merely an older version of liberalism critiquing a more contemporary one.

It won’t do then, to discount the liberalism of those who hold insufficiently progressive views, as some of their critics have done. In some ways Egyptian liberals may be akin to figures who held similar positions in past ‘phases’ of the liberal tradition, a tradition of politics, philosophy and culture going all the way back to Locke and Hobbes. We should not only be wary of denying the ‘authenticity’ of Arab liberals too quickly for holding socially conservative beliefs but also more crucially, be careful in dismissing liberals if they advocate intolerance and exclusion of their opponents – shocking as that may sound – opponents whom they deem to threaten the ‘proper character’ of the state, before a closer examination of their rationale.

5.2 Rawls’s ‘Decent Peoples’

So what does liberalism have to say about the situation in Egypt? A useful place to begin is John Rawls, uncontroversially the most important liberal political philosopher within the Ango-Analytic tradition in the last 100 years. In his Law of Peoples[6] he argues that it’s not for political liberalism[7] to impose its vision on other societies. Such an imposition would not be properly liberal, succumbing too easily to a means-ends approach to foreign policy from which he differentiates from liberalism. He adds that such an imposition would cause resentment amongst non-liberal societies. This would be contrary to his hope that if liberal peoples were to properly exemplify liberalism, other societies may then be persuaded to embrace liberalism and enjoy its goods as we enjoy them ourselves.[8] The only scenario that Rawls is prepared to entertain the possibility of economic sanctions or military intervention is with outlaw states.[9] He defines the latter as states that either aggress on other law-abiding states, and/or those that fail to protect the ‘essential’ human rights of its population, presumably a failure sufficiently pronounced to warrant such drastic action.

The question arises, would an Islamist inspired government still be considered an ‘outlaw state’ if it were to accept internationally agreed borders and to a sufficient degree protect essential human rights? One imagines to the chagrin of many liberals, Rawls explicitly replies in the negative. He would admit membership of, ‘peoples who do not subscribe to the tenets of liberal democracy whom he calls decent peoples’,[10] into a Society of Well-Ordered Peoples following international law, analogous to that of the United Nations. In his worked out example of what a ‘decent’ people would look like, Rawls presents an Islamic inspired state he subtly names ‘Kazanistan’[11]. He describes it as a ‘decent’ state, if not a liberal one; describing it as a state that accepts and protects a minimum of human rights, freedom of worship for religious minorities, a degree of representation with the general population including minorities even if such representation is not as total as a liberal democracy, and contentment with its country’s borders, amongst other things. Rawls argues that liberal societies should tolerate and accept ‘decent’ peoples as they are and without wishing to change them.[12] Liberal societies are encouraged to enter into international treaties with decent peoples, engage them in commerce, and actively collaborate with them for example in building military alliances to protect themselves against outlaw states, and presumably tackling global problems such as climate change.

Rawls argues then that well-ordered societies include both liberal peoples and non-liberal decent peoples, explicitly including an Islamicly inspired state amongst the latter. It would be fair to assume that any non-liberal society, and more specifically an Islamically inspired one, is precisely described as such because it would be a good example of a population aggregately subscribing to a non-liberal vision of what a political community ought to be, just as long as it would extend sufficient tolerance to minorities dissenting from such a vision, allowing them to coexist and live in peace. It would seem then, that it would be difficult to find much support in Rawls for the coup, and in return one presumes his arguments would elicit precious sympathy amongst Egyptian liberals who claimed to support the coup for ostensibly liberal reasons.

5.3 Locke on Toleration

More rewarding would instead be John Locke and his ‘Letter concerning Toleration’.[13][14] Locke argues that the purpose of government is concerned with worldly affairs and to ensure security and prosperity. The function of civil magistrates and judges is not to concern itself with matters of conscience or the ‘care of souls’.[15] Nor did Locke believe that the government’s function was to compel its subjects to believe in a religion.[16] This he argued would be futile, as men cannot be forced to believe what they do not want to.[17] Even the fact that some people’s beliefs is considered false by some or offend others, would be no reason to think that those offended have suffered a hurt that merits government intervention.[18] Locke argues that the business of laws is to provide safety and security of the state and not to busy itself with the ‘truth of opinions’.[19]

However there are limits to Locke’s tolerance; he did not extend it to atheists and Catholics and it’s worth taking a look why. While some critics have made much of this apparent inconsistency, it has been defended variously on the basis that few can transcend contemporary prejudice, proving only the necessity that philosophers are not to be read literally or as scriptural texts, but judiciously with their historical context very much in mind. While that is obviously true, Locke is arguably doing more than just succumbing to plain prejudice.

Locke considers Catholic and atheist beliefs to be inherently subversive.[20] As for atheists, they did not possess a faith in God, and Locke argued that this rendered them incapable of being trustworthy and faithful to their promises, oaths and trusts, which he considered ‘bonds of human society’ that are essential to live within any community. Yet it is Locke’s views towards Catholics that have particular relevance to our discussion.[21]

Firstly let us note a context that lent his argument a cogency they may no longer possess. Europe was convulsing with religious wars and sectarian strife. In Protestant countries including England, Catholics were under suspicion for their supposed loyalty to a foreign sovereign, the Pope.[22] Even more pointedly, a few Catholic countries were aiming to return Protestant England and transform it to a Catholic England once again. We can perhaps begin to understand why Locke felt that Catholics ought not be extended toleration if they cannot be trusted to protect and preserve Protestant England.

Even if we were to reject Locke’s conclusion, it still would not detract from its resonance. If we examine the contemporary discourse on immigration, we see similar demands of loyalty from the migrant for their adopted countries over and above the countries of their origin. As for the discourse on multiculturalism, we see analogous worries of whether minorities can be properly ‘integrated’ into our societies’ liberal and secular visions, as well as concerns on how to inculcate minorities with the ideals of citizenship that a respective society holds, leaving what are deemed ‘foreign’ or ‘alien’ ideas behind.

One way then to read Locke would be to define subversive beliefs more loosely; not only beliefs that would be in contradiction to those held by a community, but also to encompass a vision of society that may contradict what the community believes it ought to be, as well as the impulse to change and transform society accordingly. If a group then, were to hold beliefs that would ‘contradict’ the common sentiments of a community, let us say, the ‘proper character’ of Egypt, it could be regarded as tantamount to rejecting what Egypt properly is. A group’s beliefs, say the Islamists in general and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular, may render it untrustworthy if it was unable to adhere, maintain and pass on the ‘proper character’ of the community or nation. At best such a group should be treated with suspicion, and at worst, cannot be trusted to possess any loyalty to a particular vision and may even attempt to subvert it. Such a group’s beliefs, so the reasoning goes, render it ‘intolerable’ to the community and so therefore no tolerance can be extended to its members.

A rather inconvenient fact may be of course that it would be difficult to argue that Egypt’s vision is identical to what Egyptian liberals hold it to be, especially considering that liberals constitute a minority, powerful and influential as they may be. Be that as it may, if one segment of the community wishes to impose its vision on another segment, a degree of paternalism and entitlement must be taken for granted for such an argument to work.

Such a line of reasoning may partly explain the nationalism that has enveloped certain constituencies in Egypt. What appears to be a celebration of Egyptian identity, is in fact an exercise of aggressive redefinition of national identity by certain key constituencies, both narrowing as well as policing what Egypt nationhood is allowed to mean and constitute. If this redefinition exercise explicitly excludes the Muslim Brotherhood from this national identity, then without inconsistency, the Muslim Brotherhood can be said to ‘threaten’ a certain vision of Egypt. And furthermore it can be argues that even if this vision is not necessarily a liberal one, then at least it is a more freer vision of what Egyptian identity than the supposedly exclusionary and reactionary Islamist vision that Muslim Brotherhood are alleged to hold. This kind of reasoning can begin to explain how the Muslim Brotherhood has suddenly become ‘unpatriotic’ and ‘traitors’ to Egypt, that is aside from the usual ‘terrorist’ tropes, agents of America or Israel, etc., – take your pick really – that seem to populate the conspiracy theories so beloved to certain Egyptians.

It’s safe to say that the substance of arguments would be unacceptable for most Western Liberals. However we need to distinguish our repugnance toward such arguments from saying that such a reading is unviable. And to underline this further, there is a further historical context that made these arguments compelling enough for Locke to include it in his Letter concerning Toleration. Locke wrote the treatise during his exile in Holland having fled the English Civil War, a civil war that was as much about the religious character and identity of England as it was about the proper place of monarchical authority in England.[23] Our inability to relate to such a historical context may mean a failure in appreciating the potency that such arguments had amongst Locke’s contemporaries. More pertinently, these failures of recognition, either because we consider them to have no relevance to the argument, or because we dismiss them as being excessively informed by the prejudices of their age, would leave us unable to recognize if analogous historical situations emerge that lends cogency to arguments we are convinced have lost their allure. And this may lead to a further failure, an inability to recognise the dilemmas that Arab liberals may believe themselves to be in.

5.4 ‘Enlightenment Liberals’

One of the main reasons why Western liberals find it so difficult to appreciate the dilemmas that Arab liberals face, is that religion does not play the same role in society in the West that it does in the Arab world. It may be more instructive to see how liberals behaved in a historical setting where religion played a far greater role, especially when liberals feared that the devout ‘masses’ might threaten their existence. An illuminating example would be to consider the behaviour of the philosophes under ‘enlightened despotism’ or ‘enlightened absolutism’ in the Age of the Enlightenment, an apt historical equivalent to Zakaria’s ‘liberalising autocracies’ that he prefers over illiberal democracies.

The philosophes were recognisable liberals, prioritising liberal values such as freedom of expression, freedom of interference from the state and advocating a smaller role for religious institutions. What is notable is that they prioritised values associated with liberalism over egalitarianism and democracy, values that we consider intrinsically liberal today, especially if the latter were seen to conflict with the former. In these more devout times, circumstances were more precarious for liberals. They were happy to consort with enlightened despots, often to initiate, collaborate, and encourage the structural reforms they believed were needed to lead Man out of ‘ignorance’ and ‘superstitions’ into light and progress.

Liberals were fully prepared to make ‘authoritarian compacts’ with governments who held converging interests; both were frightened of the prospect of increased egalitarianism and the possibility of more democracy even if for very different reasons. The nobility dominated government feared the loss of the status quo, power and material interests, while the philosophes feared that the encroaching egalitarianism of a religious populace could potentially lead to a greater role of religion within the state and the diminishment of freedom of expression. Scorning the masses for their ‘superstitious ideas’, it is little wonder that intellectuals spent their energies privately trying to reform, educate, and ‘enlighten’ rulers. They concentrated their attempts to reform the deeper causes and socio-economic structures that were presented as, and often still are, material explanations for the causes of ‘regressive religiosity’. They would also challenge the religious discourse by indulging in polemics against organised religion or what they saw as superstitious excessiveness in religion. Hence Enlightenment philosophes were prepared make an spoken or unspoken agreement with authoritarian interests, promising obedience and loyalty as long as core liberal values such as freedom of expression over private beliefs were maintained, at least those opinions that wouldn’t trouble the security of the state.[24]

In a number of different ways then, Arab liberals find themselves in circumstances that resemble what happened to philosophes of the Enlightenment, more than the experiences of contemporary Western liberals. As the philosophes did before them, Egyptian liberals find themselves within societies that have religious majorities who view liberal ideas at best religiously problematic, or at worst foreign or infidel.

These resemblances explain why Egyptian liberals, sometimes with a remarkable ferocity, often present arguments that regard Islamists as an existential threat. It also explains why Western observers in Egypt are dismissed as foreigners who have the luxury of returning home to a society that is already liberal. As foreigners they are unable to understand what is at stake; it is Egyptian liberals who have to remain and defend their home, not only the right to live as liberals but also the possibility of a future liberal Egypt. Such justification is often for actions that Western liberals may automatically judge to be anti-democratic and therefore consider beyond the pale. Yet these refrains are clues that the circumstances that Arab liberals face are so removed from ours that Western liberals are often unable to recognise and understand the reasons that inform their Egyptian counterpart’s actions. It is little wonder that many Western liberals were unable to comprehend that a call for the military intervening to depose a democratically elected government could ever emanate from a ‘true’ liberal.

6. The Priority of Liberty

As has been argued liberalism is more than capable of justifying a coup, and due to liberal thought’s very richness and vibrancy, it is unable to supply the easy answers that some Western liberal commentators have assumed it can. Having said this, it has to be acknowledged that such an argument isn’t unproblematic in at least two regards. Firstly, such reasoning does not in and of itself condone, or justify any abuse of power, such as for example any the perpetration of any human rights’ abuses or massacres that followed as a consequence of a coup. (Of course in practice it’s difficult to extricate a coup from some of its more unfortunate consequences; after all it is the case that a coup unable to ‘guarantee’ its own success by whatever means necessary, is more likely to fail). Secondly, nor has it been claimed that liberalism as a doctrine argues for the necessity of a coup; liberalism says many things, and many thinkers such as Rawls for instance would disagree with the argument. It only to argue that it would be a mistake to think that supporting a coup would be illiberal by definition, especially when the stakes are so high, and it would be the only way to save the ‘moral character’ of a nation and secure a freer and potentially more liberal future.

Given the difficult prospects of liberalism in Egypt, it is then understandable why liberals there have embraced authoritarianism, even if we ultimately disagree with them for doing so. Bearing in mind the important qualifiers that Hanna has forcefully argued, if Hamid’s account can be said to be true, that there is ready support for Islamists in Egypt, it is not implausible to assume that a democratic Egypt would lead, all things being equal (a most curious phrase when applied to Egypt), to the emergence of an Islamist dominated government and by extension the emergence of an illiberal democracy. For many liberals such state of affairs would constitute an unacceptable threat to the ‘moral character’ of the nation, and for all the reasons argued above, it’s more than understandable why liberals would not allow such a set of circumstances to arise.

And even supposing that Egypt was a democracy that possessed a ‘liberal veto’, through ‘supra-constitutional’ provisions perhaps, the need arises for powerful institutions that would play the necessary role of the institutional guarantor of such provisions. In such a democracy, one assumes that liberals would have to continually engage with these institutions, to ensure the maintenance of such a liberal veto, and be prepared to pay the coup card if necessary.

And its worth bearing in mind, none of what has been argued is mutually exclusive to liberals challenging the contemporary Egyptian religious discourse in thought and culture, or to organize themselves politically. It is only to argue that we cannot expect Egyptian liberals to refrain from perpetuating a ‘liberal’ vision of the state, or at very least a more secular one, either through the influencing the media or the various instruments and institutions of the state if they have the means to do so. Setting aside any realist reasons, it would not be unfair to conclude that the liberal justification for a coup and an authoritarian compact needed to maintain a liberal Egypt, the relevant liberal reasons can be readily supplied.

It would seem then that despite the repugnance, even despair, of some Western liberals towards their Egyptian counterparts, it can be shown that Arab liberals have not misunderstood or misinterpreted liberalism. A closer examination of the wider liberal tradition reveals individuals emerge, whom when given a choice between liberal values and democratic ones have preferred the former to the latter. This goes to show that it is mistaken to think that the ‘goods’ of liberty and democracy are not identical nor always harmonious. And while there is little doubt that contemporary versions of liberalisms in the West are more egalitarian, this does not mean that Western liberals don’t prize core ‘goods’ associated with liberty any less. Uncomfortable as such reasoning may be, it cannot be dismissed as beyond the pale of liberalism; on the contrary there may be a robust liberal argument that if difficult choices have to be made, then certain core values have to be prioritised over others, especially if it is save the ‘liberal identity’ of a nation. It would seem that Western liberals cannot even console themselves with the satisfaction that were they confronted with a similar scenario and forced to choose between democracy and the ‘goods’ of liberalism, they would not prefer latter, hateful as such a choice may be. Ultimately, Liberals will find no consolation within liberal philosophy; they cannot absolve liberalism from the actions of Arab liberals. It may be to our surpise that on this matter, liberalism cannot carry the moral burdens that its followers assume; the justification for the coup is right there within liberalism itself.


[1] See for example an article published a year after where non-resident Brookings Fellow H. A. Hellyer whilst asking different questions, dismisses the ‘pseudo-liberalism’ of many activists in their embrace of the authoritarian military regime that followed the coup.

[2] An adapted excerpt has been published in The Atlantic. Some reviews can be found in William Barnes in Muftah.org, James Traub in the Wall Street Journal ($), Roula Khalaf in the Financial Times.

[3] I set aside the question of whether Zakaria’s distinctions hold or whether his argument is valid, wishing to explore some of the implications that Hamid draws from it. For a useful critique of Zakaria’s ideas see ‘Putting Liberty First: The Case Against Democracy’ by John B. Judis, and the searingly critical ‘The Ungreat Washed’ by Robert Kagan’s who interrogates some of the more unsavoury implications of Zakaria’s ideas.

[4] Hamid addresses ‘essentialism’ and gives a nuanced repudiation of it in a recent subtle essay ‘The End of Pluralism’.

[5] Wolterstorff in fact, refers to the ‘‘idea’ of liberal democracy’, which for purposes of clarity we will refer as the ‘ideal of liberal democracy’.

[6] The Law of Peoples, Harvard University Press, 1999.

[7] Rawls makes an important distinction between comprehensive liberalism and political liberalism; a distinction that won’t be pursued here. See Law of Peoples, II §12, in Political Liberalism, 2005, Columbia University Press, expanded ed., and see also Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article onLiberalism’ for more details.

[8] See Law of Peoples, II § 11.2.

[9] Law of Peoples, II § 10.2-3.

[10] In addition to liberal peoplesdecent peoples, and outlaw states, Rawls also introduces burdened societies, societies that are neither aggressive or expansive but lack the political and cultural tradition, the human capital or know how and material resources needed to be well ordered; and a further category benevolent absolutism, societies that honour human rights but because they do not give their members an meaningful role in making political decisions, Rawls do not considered them well-ordered. See Law of Peoples, Introduction, III §15.1.

[11] See Law of Peoples, II § 8-9.

[12] See Law of Peoples, II § 11.2.

[13] A Letter Concerning Toleration in Two Treatise of Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration, in ed. Ian Shapiro, Yale Univ. Press, 2003, references are to page numbers.

[14] My reading of Locke’s argument is largely based on Locke, Edward Feser, 2007.

[15] A Letter Concerning Toleration, 218-9.

[16] A Letter Concerning Toleration, p 219.

[17] A Letter Concerning Toleration, p 219.

[18] A Letter Concerning Toleration, p 246.

[19] A Letter Concerning Toleration, p 241.

[20] A Letter Concerning Toleration, p 246. See Feser for a more detailed examination.

[21] Feser points out whilst Catholics are not explicitly mentioned in the Letter they are on Locke’s Essay on Toleration. However pace Jeremy Waldron, Locke displays consistent animus towards Catholics throughout the Letter and there is no reason to think Locke had liberalized his earlier more hardline position against Catholics. Feser further points out that the Locke’s views were normal in his day, and Locke’s ‘exclusion of those views from toleration counts de facto exclusion of Catholics as well’ (ibid, Feser). See Waldron, Jeremy God, Locke and Equality, and his essay ‘Locke: Toleration and the Rationality of Persecution’.

[22] A Letter Concerning Toleration, p 241.

[23] See Brendan Simms Europe – The Struggle for Supremacy, 1453 – to the Present, p. 24, although Richard J Evans rejects this.

[24] See for example ‘What is Enlightenment?’ – Immanuel Kant.