Liberal Thought in the Arab Age

Egypt's election and the fatal hang-up of Arab liberals


For the past 24 years Egyptians could have any president they wanted, as long as he was Hosni Mubarak. Every six years they were asked to vote for him, a single candidate, by referendum. However, on Wednesday, for the first time in its history, Egypt held a competitive presidential election, and sure enough, voters got more of Hosni Mubarak.

The Egyptian election raised interesting questions for Arab liberals, particularly those who insist that reform must be driven "from within," as opposed to being significantly advanced by a democratically aggressive West, in particular the United States. The pessimists argued that Mubarak's shameless manipulation of the election process, his government's decision to bar independent election monitors, his endeavor to use competitive voting to deny representation while winning the appearance of legitimacy, showed that Arab despots can be maliciously creative in exploiting and undermining democratic institutions.

The optimists responded that Mubarak, by opening up the electoral process, albeit selectively, also opened a democratic Pandora's Box that the regime won't be able to close in the long run. Institutionally, competitive presidential elections have become a reality, allowing candidates to emerge in the future more popular than the nine men who stood against Mubarak this time around, so that Egyptians will have a chance to challenge disliked incumbents. The Serbian model comes to mind, where Vojislav Kostunica managed to unseat Slobodan Milosevic after the autocratic Serbian president tried to deny him an election victory. In other words, while stilted election rules give an incumbent immense power, the regime has no antidote if an outraged public revolts.

There is truth in both arguments: Mubarak has indeed been a master of ersatz democracy, but had he been able to blithely continue with a referendum system, he probably would have done so. Yes, he won this election, but given that he will be 83 when his term ends (if he doesn't expire first), there is a higher probability that in a few years' time Egypt will have a fairer contest, wherein a regime candidate lacking the experience and clout to pull off an election swindle would be more vulnerable than Mubarak.

However, the larger question for reform-minded liberals in Egypt and throughout the Middle East is whether their efforts are not just a chronicle of a death foretold in arbitrary or nonexistent electoral climates—and whether they need to rethink their resistance to western efforts at regional democratic change.

Liberal skepticism is partly a function of the type and degree of intervention. Most people welcome, for example, international election monitors or sanctions directed against specific regime figures. However, beyond certain boundaries—for example imposing broad international sanctions (as occurred in Iraq during the 1990s), adopting assertive policies to isolate leaders, or using military force—liberals become uneasy with outside pressures, though these may be precisely what is needed for success.

There is little doubt that Mubarak agreed to a competitive presidential election at least partly because of the election in Iraq. He knew that domestic voters would wonder why, despite the daily violence, Iraqis were offered a choice, when Egyptians, who live in a more or less peaceful country, were not. Egyptian liberals have been among the most vociferous critics of the American occupation of Iraq. Yet if they benefit from the competitive election process, will they admit that this resulted to some extent from that occupation?

A major obstacle to their doing so is that Arab liberals, for example those in Egypt's bourgeois Wafd or Syria's National Bloc, have historically spearheaded anti-colonial struggles. The legacy of mistrust of Western intentions (often accompanied by near impossible demands for how Western states should resolve Arab problems) has not worn off, even as the world around the liberals has fundamentally changed. Opposition to the U.S. today is often spun as anti-colonialism, or anti-neocolonialism, but the colonial narrative is no longer as relevant as it once was.

A prominent book that tried to address the Western impact on the Arab world was first published in 1962 by an Oxford professor of Lebanese descent named Albert Hourani. In his classic Arab Thought in the Liberal Age, 1798–1939, Hourani examined the development of Arab ideas after the region's first modern-day encounter with the West: Napoleon's landing in Egypt at the end of the 18th century. Hourani's book is divided into three parts: The first, covering 1798–1870, examines how the West became a model of emulation for Arab thinkers keen to embrace "progress," ironically because they were on the losing side of Western progressivism; in the second part, Hourani describes how, during the last three decades of the 19th century, Arabs saw the West as both a reference point and adversary, as European imperial powers began occupying Arab territories; and finally, he looks at the period between 1900 and 1939, when Islam and secularism, which early reformers saw as compatible in the quest for modernity, grew apart, so that (moving beyond Hourani's narrative) nationalism and Islamism became bitter adversaries.

Implicit in Hourani's book is a notion that, for a long time, thinkers in the Arab world (or what preceded it under Ottoman rule) were relatively comfortable with Western ideas and institutions, and sought to square them with Arab and Islamic concepts of governance, jurisprudence, and more. While the osmosis was stunted by European imperialism, it never stopped, so that anti-imperialist leaders were also often Western-trained liberals. Hourani's book is generally positivist in its tone, though he is hardly a preacher for the superiority of Western values over Arab or Muslim ones. Hourani wrote about liberals like himself, persons personally or intellectually caught between two worlds, hoping for some kind of reconciliation. Ultimately he would fail, as Arab nationalist politics—increasingly defined by antipathy toward the West and, specifically, its political models—became radicalized in the post-Independence period.

One is tempted to describe those liberals like Hourani—the most pronounced victims of the Arab age of ideology—in the same way that Isaiah Berlin described Ivan Turgenev in his introduction to the novel Fathers and Sons: "It was his irony, his tolerant skepticism, his lack of passion, his 'velvet touch', above all his determination to avoid too definite a social or political commitment that, in the end, alienated both sides."

There is not much irony in Hourani's writings, but there is certainly among modern Arab liberals a discomfort with ideological absolutes, a tolerance for difference, that has made them palatable neither to Islamists nor to nationalist radicals. Accused by both sides of being lackeys of the West, Arab liberals have vainly sought to counter this charge by reaffirming their hostility to foreign hegemony. Yet this has earned them few new friends at home, even as it has prevented them from exploiting outside pressures that could be to their advantage. Liberals have generally been bludgeoned into silence by a combination of regime brutality and their own hang-ups, displayed by an incessant recitation of the colonialist narrative.

American mismanagement in Iraq has surely not helped. In Syria today, for example, it's fair to say that most of the population would be delighted to see the Assad regime disappear, but only if they could be assured that the aftermath wouldn't be a new Iraq. Syrian dissident Yassin al-Haj Saleh summed up the attitude well in a Reason interview: "Outside diplomatic and public pressure can be very useful, especially when it is multilateral—American, European and Arab. Change through invasion, as in Iraq, is destructive and counterproductive."

It is certainly destructive and counterproductive if the U.S. fails to stabilize a country after booting its regime out, but nothing short of war was ever going to remove Saddam Hussein, nor make him more amenable to the nudges of domestic reformers. Yet the liberals' natural dislike of force, their coyness when dealing with most forms of outside interference (despite a taste for usually ineffective aid provided to non-governmental organizations, around which many liberals gravitate), their ability to address the West on its own terms while simultaneously criticizing it, and their penchant for cultural ecumenism, which makes them, in the name of tolerance, sometimes overlook their societies' worst abuses—all these factors help ensure that liberals are often the worst prepared to take advantage of Western actions in their midst.

The use of force should always be a last resort, but even imposed democracy in one Arab society, no matter how imperfect, can be contagious, forcing other regimes to make choices they would prefer not to make. Mubarak had to react to Iraq's election, but it's also true that Kurdish fortunes in Iraq are why the Syrian government has promised its own Kurds it will address their long-neglected rights. The U.S. military presence on Syria's eastern border was an important reason among others why the Lebanese felt emboldened to demand that the Syrians leave their country after Rafik Hariri's murder. And that's only the beginning; if Iraqis agree to a federal structure dividing their country along sectarian and ethnic lines, for all the potential problems in that system, it will prompt other minorities in the region (for example Shiites in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain) to demand their rights.

All that will be the result of an American military venture. Iraq may have been flawed, its aftermath was surely mismanaged, and many Americans now want out; but even if one admits to the difficulties, the Middle East has been deeply changed nonetheless, and it's no thanks to its insecure liberals.