FP: Instead of instilling its values in the Arab/Muslim world in the long run, the West is projecting its values on it in the short run. It will take several generations of such instilling for liberal democracy to have a chance in the Arab world. The immediate result of the Arab “spring” will be similar to Turkey’s: when the military control on the political system was weakened the country became more Islamist and less democratic. The major obstacles are (1) Islamism’s raison d’etre is precisely to eliminate Western ideas not just in Egypt, but in the West too and (2) Western decline and its pumping of funds into Islamists, preventing them from failing.
But Rezkalla—along with a small band of other young Egyptian liberals whom I’ve met—has no time for the discredited ideologies of the past like Arab nationalism. Grouped around a relatively new non-governmental organization, the Egyptian Union of Liberal Youth (EULY), they look to the classical liberal thinkers of Europe and America—to John Locke, not Gamal Abdel Nasser. What the Arabs lack, he tells me, are the ideas necessary for the construction of a decent, prosperous and truly democratic society. “What Reagan did for Eastern Europe, no one did that for the Middle East. Don’t give money”, he implores me when I ask what the West can do to help Egypt. “Give ideas!”
When I explain the skepticism of these Egyptian liberals to other secular Egyptians who took part in the protests, I am told that these individuals must have connections to the Mubarak regime, as there could be no other possible explanation for an Egyptian to oppose the revolution. This curt retort, this immediate resort to the ad hominen, this hesitance to entertain any doubt about or second-guess what’s transpired in Egypt since Mubarak left the stage, is indicative of the populist mentality that Rezkalla and other Egyptian liberals fear.
Most frustrating to Bargisi over the past year has been what he considers the naive and overly optimistic coverage of the international media, which could not help but fall for the hundreds of thousands of young people in Tahrir Square. “What the Western media has been calling the ‘secular opposition’ consists mostly of naive pseudo-activists alongside many opportunists, mediocre thinkers and madmen”, he wrote. I encountered this reality for myself when I attended one of the raucous protests outside the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, two weeks prior to the riotous demonstration that would force the Israeli Ambassador to evacuate. Most astonishing to me was that the vast majority of the protestors were not bearded, outwardly religious Muslim men, but smartly dressed, secular youth. The very people whom the Western media lauded for their courage in standing up to Mubarak were the same ones chanting “Death to the Jews.” In 2009, Bargisi and his EULY colleague Samuel Tadros co-authored an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal entitled, “Why Are Egypt’s ‘Liberals’ Anti-Semitic”, which named and shamed several prominent political figures—some of whom have been the recipients of grants from Western NGOs and all of whom have been the subject of fawning international press coverage—for their public statements and writings. The piece earned the pair the undying enmity of a significant portion of Egypt’s secular political class.
Egypt’s young liberals believe that the reason their ideas have so few adherents is because they have been given precious little opportunity to disseminate them. “They haven’t rejected liberalism”, Tadros says of his countrymen. “They haven’t been given a proper liberal discourse.” While the Arab world may not seem like fertile ground for classical, European-style liberalism, Tadros says that, with time and effort, a sizeable number of Egyptians will come around to recognize the failings of the other ideologies on offer (Islamism, nationalism, and socialism, or some combination of the three), not least due to these governing ideologies’ implicit endorsement of the statism and incompetence of the widely loathed Egyptian bureaucracy. “The Egyptian peasant is limited in what he can grow on his land, because bureaucrats in Cairo think Egypt should be self-sufficient in wheat. I tell the peasant, ‘it’s your land, grow on it what you want.’”
This is a tall order, of course, and the Egyptians of EULY have no illusions that their free-market, individualist, secular creed will catch on soon, if at all. The track record of revolutions is far from pleasant, and given the penchant in Egypt for populism, it’s unclear how much room exists for classical liberalism. And so Bargisi is left ruminating over the same lines of Burke that immediately came to his mind upon his first visit to the Tahrir Square protests: “But what is liberty without wisdom, and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice and madness, without tuition or restraint.”