Egyptian Dissident Cynthia Farahat: The Middle East Is Hungry for Free Markets and Free Speech

She started the first secular, pro-market party in Egypt. Then the government sent the secret police after her.


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In 2003, when Egypt was ruled by strongman Hosni Mubarak, then 22-year-old Cynthia Farahat co-founded the party that would become the Liberal Egyptian Party, the first secular, classical liberal political party in the country's modern history.*

"Sharia law is not friendly to women or minorities or gays," Farahat told Reason. "I wanted to fix my country. I wanted freedom. I wanted liberty."

Mubarak's government responded by sending intelligence agents and the secret police to go after Farahat.

"I was under constant, 24-hour surveillance in Egypt for almost a decade," she says. Government agents would routinely call her in the middle of the night and would sometimes play back recordings of Farahat's conversations with friends recorded in her own living room.

Other calls were more sinister, Farahat says. Sometimes she would pick up the phone to hear heavy breathing on the line. The person on the call "would start to talk about the intimate things that he wants to do to my decapitated head—that he's going to keep in his freezer if I don't stop my political work."

The key to survival was to "never show fear."

She sensed that her family was in danger and knew that the government could arrest her at any time. She was eventually placed on an Al Qaeda affiliates' hit list and banned from entering Lebanon because of her political advocacy.

Afraid for her life, Farahat sought political asylum in the U.S. in 2011, which was granted. Today she's a writer, political analyst, and fellow at the Middle East Forum. Her work has exposed secret ties between the Islamists, the military, and governments across the region, which she argues work together to subjugate citizens and uphold theocratic, authoritarian regimes.

Reason's Justin Monticello spoke with Farahat about her mission to bring a true political alternative to the region, why she vociferously advocates for the Muslim Brotherhood to be labeled a terrorist organization, how Coptic Christians in Egypt are persecuted and blamed for American foreign policy, and why she believes people across the Middle East are hungry for civil liberties and free markets.

Produced by Justin Monticello. Cameras by Meredith Bragg and Zach Weissmueller. Music by Silent Partner.

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This is a rush transcript. Check all quotes against the audio for accuracy.

Cynthia Farahat: I wanted liberty. And I knew that the way to get there was through sound ideas that have proven to work. When you look at America, and you look at the Soviet Union, and you look at Egypt, doesn't take a brain surgeon to know which fundamental ideas you need to go with.

Justin Monticello: How did you get put under surveillance in Egypt?

Farahat: So, I was under constant 24-hour surveillance in Egypt for almost a decade. And I knew this is in a very sinister and nasty way. They used to call me at two or three AM. Every single day for 10 years. To this day, I wake up at that time automatically because I'm used to being woken up at this time. One of the times, I said hello, and I heard my own voice on the other end of the line. And, it was a recorded conversation that I had with one of my best friends in my living room. That was super creeper. That's the good phone call. Bad phone calls will tell you hello in the middle of the night and some necrophiliac would be on the other side of the line. And he would start to talk about he intimate things that he wants to do to my decapitated head that he's gonna keep in his freezer if I don't stop my political work.

How would you reply to something like that? And that specific guy's just breathing very heavily. And I would tell him so unattractive to women. Maybe that's what's causing your women's issues. And I would tell them this kind of stuff because you can't show fear.

Monticello: Right.

Farahat: You can never show fear. I used to regulate my breathing before I answered the phone because I never would never let them see me in a state of vulnerability-

Monticello: And you are a Coptic Christian, right?

Farahat: Yes.

Monticello: So, you grew up a persecuted minority in Egypt. What was that, what's that like for the Copts in Egypt historically and today?

Farahat: It always goes from bad to worse because Egypt is a constitutional theocracy. So, the rules and the laws are based on Sharia Law. And Sharia Law's not friendly to minorities. And it does not provide equal treatments of women or minorities or gays. And also, if America, for example, does something that they don't like, there's a collective punishment against Copt because they're viewed as Americans are Christians, and you're Christians. So, they would get abused every time America did something that Islamists didn't like. But of course I had Muslim friends who are nothing like that. But they were in the minority.

Monticello: Is it possible for an Islamic republic to have more secular values, I guess? Because we see, in a place like Turkey, even five, 10 years ago, it was viewed as this sort of moderate Islamic republic. That they respected people's civil liberties, and now in the last few years it's really kind of descended more into the sort of autocratic rule that we see in Egypt historically. So, do you think that it's possible to maintain those values of, even Sharia if you're a Muslim, and you believe in that, but not bring that into the political sphere?

Farahat: It would not be Islamic. It would be just a secular state with the majority of citizens Muslims. And we had that before. We had a beautiful constitution in the '20s that granted absolute freedom of speech and granted all civil liberties. And it was very, very capitalist. So, that is achievable but it's not achievable in the context of radical Sunni Islamic theology or radical Sharia Islamic theology. You have to have full separation between mosque and state.

And the second thing in regards to Turkey, this will always be a threat as long as the Muslim Brotherhood, the big elephant in every single room and every single discussion about the Middle East, is now designated as a terrorist organization. As long as they're allowed to operate in any country, they always have subversive activities to destroy it from within according to their own words and not my conspiracy theory. They talk about something called Amelia Jihadia Habadia, which is civilization Jihad operation. Which is to destroy countries and militaries and educational systems, and media from within. This group is the most dangerous group of terrorists around the world, and it needs to be designated as a terrorist group. Because if they were designated a terrorist group, you would not see Erdogan in power today; you would not see Ghannouchi in power today in Tunisia; you would not have even seen Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt in 1952 in power.

Monticello: And, how specifically do you think that that would have benefited the rise of these rulers? Because like in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood was cracked down on for so long, it was illegal until the revolution happened. And then, they've obviously been organizing in secret. They came out of the woodwork, and they won the first democratic election. So, how would designating it a terrorist organization helped to actually prevent them from being effective?

Farahat: So, actually they were never designated a terrorist group in Egypt. That was the narrative Mubarek was selling to the West. Let me tell you something very interesting. The reason I dismantled my political party was because Mubarek's regime and the Muslim Brotherhood came hand in hand, approached my party, and came hand in hand together and said 'We will grant you the official establishment of the party if you say that the Muslim Brotherhood is persecuted in Egypt, and that they're not terrorists.' Isn't that interesting? They have control of the media, of the military, and of the education system. If you looked at who was really bent, I was bent. Classic liberals were bent. People that understand what values of freedom in Western Civilization were bent. The Muslim Brotherhood was never bent. And before the so-called presidential elections, I published an article intentionally to say exactly what's going to happen. And I said that there's going to be a Muslim Brotherhood member installed in power, and then he will be so horrible, and the military will come to save the people.

Because, it's like a tango. They've been dancing together since 1952.

Farahat's prediction turned out to be correct. After the Egyptian Revolution ousted Mubarak in 2011 and paved the way for the Muslim Brotherhood to win Egypt's first elections, its tenure lasted only 12 months before military General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi stepped in. He removed the Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi from power, and assumed his place as Egypt's new strongman.

Monticello: So, is the choice always between a strong autocrat, on the one hand like you have now with Sisi in Egypt, the military leader essentially, versus the Muslim Brotherhood? And if people are going to vote for the Muslim Brotherhood, is it preferable to have these autocrats in power, or what do you think is the ideal-

Farahat: Neither. This is the equation they wanted us to abide by since 1952. It's either us or the Brotherhood or Isis-style. We have a great heritage in classic liberalism in this country and that is the actual option and alternative that the regime and the Brotherhood collaborate together to destroy. If the regime stops, and the Brotherhood used to also do that when they were briefly in power. Stop raping dissidents, and stop killing liberals, and stop going after their families, like they went after my brother, there's going to be so much more.

Monticello: Okay.

Farahat: And that's where US politics can come in and say 'Okay, we'll cut aid if you continue to kill your dissidents who are speaking for nonviolent and very tolerant ideas.'

Monticello: Going back to El-Sisi, are you in favor of the US sort of propping him up because he is a force that counteracts the Islamists? Or is it just we should not be involved regardless?

Farahat: They really need to get out of this business. Not prop him up and not try to destroy him. Because these regimes would crumble by their own device if they're left on their own. They have the internal mechanisms to self destruct, like any tyranny. But as long as we're giving them arms, as long as we're giving them aid, you will never see reform. But, there's a very important point as well. That the Muslim Brotherhood and terrorists as such are a common enemy, so I believe in some collaboration.

Monticello: With sort of a longer term, struggle to win hearts and minds, and change people's views, especially when dissidents are getting tortured or getting put in jail. But if in the immediate term, the choice is between allowing people to vote in a democratic election, and perhaps they choose the Islamists, right? If that's the current status quo, what do we do?

Farahat: I don't believe in democracy. I believe in the rule of law. I believe in republic. I don't believe in the mob rule because soon the ballot box turns into a guillotine. And, that is a very, very dangerous recipe. I would never endorse it. If they vote oh, we all want to kill you because you have red hair, am I going to support it because it's the democracy and majority? I don't believe in that. That's illegitimate. It's only legitimate when it's the rule of law.

Monticello: There's an argument that a lot of Middle Eastern countries are simply not ready for democracy. They need a strongman or an autocrat in order to keep things in line to prevent massive violence, all these different factions fighting each other. Do you agree with that?

Farahat: I absolutely do not agree with that because I have been in the political process myself, and I've seen it. And I've seen how people were hungry for our ideas. I had veiled women hugging me and crying and begging me to continue fighting for the freedom of thought and freedom of religion, and to protect them from the Muslim Brotherhood. I believe that Egyptians are very ready for freedom, and if it wasn't for blasphemy laws by the way, you would see so many more of them.

Monticello: And that's what ultimately got you in trouble, right?

Farahat: Of course.

Monticello: Do you think that it's possible that what we've seen happen in Syria could play out in Egypt?

Farahat: Could play out anywhere in the Middle East. If the Muslim Brotherhood has its way, that's exactly what would happen. They're calling every day, if you look at their websites, they're calling for something similar every day. They declared against regular Muslims and Christians, something called a Nafir, Nafiriam, which is total war. That's why they need to be designated a terrorist organization. They have enough funding to start to find military and recruit military operations inside the country, yes, yes we will see a scenario similar to Syria.

Monticello: And, do you think that there is a lasting legacy of the Arab Spring that's something positive going forward? And do you think it's possible that there could actually be a secular free market-based government in the Middle East?

Farahat: Absolutely, yes. Because let me tell you something about the Arab Spring. That started in 1998. The internet, under Mubarek's regime, it was illegal for five people to sit in a room and discuss politics under emergency law. Because the government would basically come and rape you or kill you, or you'd just disappear and vanish from the face of the Earth. And, the internet allowed us peaceful assembly for the first time since 1952. And, if you go, the war of ideas, you will find every economic school is debated. Every form of government is debated in Arabic. Every religious sect. There's no blasphemy laws on the internet, thankfully. Let's hope Zuckerberg doesn't start to implement it because I think he wants to.

Because the internet is the worst nightmare for any dictatorship. And let me give you another example. I was banned from, my name was banned from mention, from being mentioned in the paper from 2006, late 2006, till 2015. In 2015, I started publishing in Arabic in one of the most important newspapers. And guess what? I publish articles with zero censorship. I say whatever the heck I want. And I'm only getting positive feedback for my values. So, I'm definitely optimistic.

Monticello: So, you think if we just kind of stripped away some of those layers of the blasphemy laws and the support for these dictators, there is sort of a hunger for these types of ideas?

Farahat: And it exists, and they're very powerful organizations that emerged, right now. And it's a very, very rich intellectual atmosphere that developed over there. So, I'm very excited about it. I'm very happy.

Monticello: Great. Well, thank you so much for talking with us today.

Farahat: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Monticello: For Reason, I'm Justin Monticello.

*CORRECTION: The original version of this article stated that Farahat was 22 when she co-founded the Liberal Egyptian Party in 2006. She was 22 in 2003, when she co-founded the political party that then became the Liberal Egyptian Party in 2006.