"Egypt’s Secularized Intelligentsia and the Guardians of Truth," in Egypt and theContradictions of Liberalism: Illiberal Intelligentsia and the F

Egypt’s Secularized Intelligentsia and the Guardians of Truth

By Khaled Abou El Fadl



Initially, I was tempted to write an essay wrestling with the question of why the liberal and secular intelligentsia betrayed the Egyptian revolution.  There is an extensive list of Egyptian intellectuals such as Sa‘d al-Din Ibrahim, Ibrahim Eissa, Bassem Youssef and many others who have carefully constructed themselves into emblematic figures standing for secular and liberal values.  But what has transpired in Egypt from January 25, 2011 to date has cast serious doubt about the meaning and extent of both the secular and liberal commitment among the vast majority of the country’s intelligentsia.  There is little doubt that Egypt’s intelligentsia betrayed the revolution that they claimed to celebrate and support.  And there is no doubt that those who betrayed it the most are those who built entire careers bawling and orating about the modern nation-state, the citizenry, civic society, secularism, and democracy.  But this intelligentsia ended up helping to uproot a budding revolution that still retained some degree of promise, replacing it with an inveterate condition of dreadful despair and wretchedness.  Whatever one might say about the political order in Egypt before the military coup of 2013, at no point did the military regime of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi embody the promise of liberal democratic values. 


When it comes to Egypt today, one can speak of a mass of secularly-minded or secularized intelligentsia whose thinking on democracy and constitutionalism is hopelessly opportunistic and muddled.[1]  The most significant and all-pervasive reality about Egypt since 1952 and to this very day is that it is, as the political scientist Amos Perlmutter once described it, a “Praetorian State.”[2]  This means a state in which the military has become part of the bureaucratic state and a substantial force in creating and maintaining the middle class. In Egypt, the military is the only true sovereign and the de facto possessor and negotiator of legitimacy.  The military has become as if an octopus that has tentacles in every aspect of society, and as such, it has become the ultimate arbitrator of wealth and legitimacy.  Through the colonial era, a class of officers have ruled Egypt with mandatory powers, and charged with administering the country for the good of its natives, they empowered themselves with a mythology akin to manifest destiny.  In the name of progress and modernity, the colonial military administrators acted as a mandatory power charged with the advancement and civilizing of native peoples that are treated as if too immature to rule themselves.  In 1945, the British Colonial Office wrote: “We are all in favour of freedom, but freedom for many of these territories means assistance and guidance and protection…What we can give them is liberty and free institutions.  We can gradually train them in the management of their own affairs so that, should independence eventually come, they will be ready for it.”[3] The paternalistic sentiment reflected in the above quote perfectly describes the attitude of so much of the Egyptian military, and as we will see below, also the secularized intelligentsia, towards shepherding the masses towards eventual self-rule and democracy. It is as if British colonialism had succeeded in creating certain modalities of thinking in which the Egyptian military and secularized intelligentsia were thoroughly indoctrinated since 1882.  


The combination of colonialism and military rule established epistemic mindsets towards legitimacy, progress, nativity, culture, and religion.  The one intransigent and interminable constant fact is that legitimacy is retained by those who have power and can yield coercive influence.  This brutish proposition is completely at odds with the development of civic values or virtues.[4] The secularly minded or secularized intelligentsia, whom I will further discuss below, found itself in an onerous position.  Armed with Western epistemological outlooks, they saw themselves as embodying the progressive forces of society—the avant garde leading their cultures toward modernity—and fending off the forces of reactionism and backwardness.[5]   The prevalence of the logic of brute power and the persistence of the patriarchal logic of mandatory and supervisory roles over the citizenry created a true crisis in legitimacy.  To be precise, the crisis was in articulating a coherent conception of legitimacy before a populace that had just made very costly sacrifices for a dignified life that would afford them the rights of citizenship.     


The extent to which there was a real crisis of legitimacy was clearly evident in the pivotal days right before the military coup in Egypt.  President Mohamed Morsi’s last public speech focused on nothing but legitimacy, and the secularized intelligentsia did not seem to tire of defining, explaining, and expounding upon this key word.  The amount of philosophizing that flowed endlessly from the pens and mouths of Egyptian intellectuals was truly dizzying, but it was also mostly incoherent and opportunistic.  According to the pundits that filled every media outlet and journal, revolutionary legitimacy is different from electoral legitimacy but there is also constitutional legitimacy, which is different still from supra-constitutional legitimacy.  The legitimacy of constitutions can be trumped by meta-principles, grund norms, or preemptory principles.  But there is also legitimacy created by expectations and promises made during the electoral race, and conversely, the loss of legitimacy because of the failure to uphold those promises.  Moreover, there is the legitimacy conferred and withdrawn by the guardians of legitimacy who are also the ultimate protectors of Egypt’s sovereign state interests.  But then there is the legitimacy of the streets and the legitimacy of the manifest destiny of Egypt in human history.  There is also a lost legitimacy of an elected president who dared infringe upon the sanctity of the judiciary—something like the religious idea of mortal sin.  And then there is also the legitimacy of a judge, who remains a member of the judiciary, but is granted executive, and legislative powers all at once.  There is the legitimacy granted by a sincere commitment to democracy, and the illegitimacy of parties that should have never been allowed to form a political party because they are religiously-based. There is the legitimacy of the social contract and the illegitimacy of those who are insincere in their commitment to the contract because they do not believe in the civic state and its legitimacy.  There is the time-tested legitimacy of the guardians of liberal values—a legitimacy that trumps the illegitimacy of those who might believe in democracy but do not truly believe in liberal values.


The short of it is that after a revolution that overthrew one of the oldest dictatorships in the Middle East, and after six different popular elections, the Egyptian intelligentsia seemed to be hopelessly chaotic in their understanding of what legitimacy is, and how one goes about acquiring it in a democratic system.

The truth is that the revolution of January 25, 2011 promised a complete paradigm shift in the way the Egyptian intelligentsia thinks about political legitimacy.  The revolution created a hope, which now feels like a defunct dream, that Egyptians could learn the lesson taught by so many tragedies in human history.  This lesson quite simply is that sovereignty belongs to the citizenry, and that the only source of legitimacy is the integrity and sanctity of the democratic process.  No group and no person, whatever the imagined urgency or ultimate wisdom, has the right to short change or overrule the process.  One truly hoped that the Arab Spring was the beginning of a new era in which it would be finally understood that sovereignty belongs to the people, and that the exclusive and sole way that the sovereign will can be expressed—and hence, the only way to gain legitimacy—is through the integrity of the process.  The integrity of the political process must be defended above all.  Civil society needs civic values, and civic values are upheld through a civil discourse that does not exclude or marginalize the other.  Civic discourses cannot be navigated if the participants of the discourse get into the habit of using language to eradicate the other’s worth, value, or dignity.  Civic discourses try to search and achieve consensus over shared values, and strive to respect and tolerate values upon which people cannot agree.  It had become all too common for liberal secular forces to refer to Islamists as traitors, murderers, fascists, and hoodlums, and on the other side, for Islamists to question the faith, piety, and loyalty of their opponents.  But in principle, regardless of how polarizing the discourse might have become, respecting the process was the only guarantor that there would be a non-violent and reliable way to challenge power, hold officials accountable, and establish legitimacy.  If all else failed, civil disobedience would be the last resort because it can correct procedural deviations while remaining within the bounds of the civic order.  Violence and forced military interventions de-legitimate the very logic of a civil order.  The Egyptian military has practically colonized the country since 1952, and one did not need to be possessed of much probity to foresee that once the military is called upon to save the country from a civilian government, the praetorian order would be bolstered and augmented more than ever before.


Even if it came in response to widespread grievances, the military coup was a fatal blow to the Egyptian Revolution.  It was a fatal blow because it reaffirmed the politics of the old guardians in Egypt.  It confirmed the traditional polarized, mutually exclusivist, and equally supremacist politics that has prevailed, not only in Egypt but also throughout the Middle East, since the colonial era. Unfortunately, the military coup and the return of the repressive security forces in Egypt came as a natural conclusion to the elasticity of the claims of legitimacy made by so many parties after the revolution.  But more than anything else, it is the Egyptian secularized intelligentsia and the revolutionaries themselves that forced the revolution to commit suicide.  This secularized intelligentsia—not only in Egypt, but also in the Arab world in general—has locked the region into a near perpetual circle of self-defeatism because they appear incapable of understanding that nothing kills lofty ideas quite like the pragmatic hypocrisy of their bearers.  


Hence, it is critical to understand that the failure above all else is the defeat dealt to the ethics of legitimacy.  It speaks volumes that the grievances against Mohamed Morsi were that he tried to monopolize power, he failed to respect the rule of law as embodied in the judiciary, and he infringed upon the rights of dissenters.  Yet the representative of the judiciary sitting as Egypt’s interim president was blissfully not troubled by the unlawful closing of opposing media outlets, by the mass arrests and even murder of pro-Morsi advocates, nor by his own monopolization of legislative and executive powers deposited in him by the military.  The secularized intelligentsia that presented itself as the upholder of civic and democratic principles during Morsi’s rule celebrated the appointment of Mohamed El Baradei, who had not gone through a single electoral test of his legitimacy, and had been superimposed upon the sovereign Egyptian people through military will.  One cannot miss the paradoxical irony that the interim President Adli Mansour, sitting as a judge on the Constitutional Court, could not tolerate any degree of political intervention by a civilian president, but was not troubled by receiving his marching orders from the military.


The paradoxes and ironies that surrounded the theatrical days of interim President Adli Mansour pale in comparison to the atrocities and tragedies that followed when Sisi, who happened to be the leader of the coup, became firmly settled in power.  It is no exaggeration to say that every offense that President Morsi was accused of has been blatantly, and often shamelessly, committed a hundred times over by President Sisi.  After the horrifying massacre of hundreds of peaceful protestors in Rabaa al-Adawiyyah and Al Nahda Squares on August 14, 2013—a massacre that is unparalleled in modern Egyptian history—the Sisi regime put into motion a campaign of terror in which all dissenters were either liquidated or imprisoned.[6]  Kangaroo trials, extreme penalties, censorship, and many other human rights abuses reached levels that rivaled and even exceeded the most repressive leaders known to Arab history.[7]  At the same time that the revolutionary youth who once supported Sisi’s coup were processed before military tribunals, convicted, and sent to prison as a matter of course, the most notorious figures of the Mubarak regime and Mubarak himself were all acquitted in farcical trials.  The Sisi regime not only achieved complete and total control over state owned and privately owned media outlets, but a sustained campaign was launched to de-legitimate and demonize the revolution of January 25th and to elevate and sanctify the so-called revolution of July 3rd (i.e. the date of the military coup).  But the incongruities and anomalies do not end here.  While Sisi spoke at great length about the threat of political Islam, and the evil of religiously based parties competing in the political process, not only did Sisi repeatedly invoke the support of the Grand Shaykh of Azhar Ahmed al-Tayeb and the Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II, but the Salafi-Wahhabi Party El Nour was also recognized and allowed to compete in the parliamentary elections.  In the midst of this universe of tragic oxymorons where a people are systematically degraded and abused in the name of a gradual ascension to the bliss of true liberty, what happened to the secularized intelligentsia?  A few protested and suffered the ire of the repressive state; a few more fell silent; but most, accompanied by atonal narratives about the many shades of legitimacy, continued to support the Sisi regime.          


All of this begs one basic and essential question: Why did the Egyptian secular intelligentsia betray their revolution?  Why have they fallen into such profound and blatant contradictions such that they killed the infant revolution?  To answer this question, we must go back in time and understand what can be described as the time-honored traditions of Egyptian politics.  Long before the military coup, the secularized intelligentsia and some of their revolutionary partners destined the revolution to a painful suicide by indulging in what has now become an often-repeated offense.  They imagined themselves as the one and only true possessors of legitimacy, not because they represent the sovereign will, but because they and they alone possess the civilizational and intellectual values necessary for a progressive order in which true democracy, unhampered by reactionary forces, can be achieved. 


Since the age of colonialism, legitimacy has become an elastic word that is exploited to invent and repress history; to construct and de-construct identity; and to uphold and deny rights.   Legitimacy is possessed by no one but claimed by everyone, and it is enforced only through sheer power.  In the absence of a transparent and accountable civil process, those who believe that they are the de facto possessors of legitimacy massacre in cold blood, torture, maim, and commit every possible offense in the name of defending the existing legitimacy.


It is paradoxical, but very telling, that long before the military coup, the secularized intelligentsia, whether on the right or left, adopted and promoted the claim that the Islamists were brought into power by the United States to implement an American agenda in the region.  According to countless published articles and intellectuals appearing on privately owned television stations, the Muslim Brotherhood was but a pawn for American interests in the region.  This conspiratorial framework was set out in great detail in numerous articles published in the opposition papers in which it was alleged that the United States brought Islamists to power in Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt and planned to bring Islamists to power in Syria so as to keep Arabs backwards and underdeveloped.  Although no country has done more to undermine the Brotherhood in Egypt than Saudi Arabia, and no country celebrated Sisi’s ascendancy to power more than Israel, Egyptian secular intellectuals blissfully continued to claim that there is an Egyptian, Turkish, Qatari, and Israeli conspiracy to augment the United States’ hegemonic power in the Middle East and to end any semblance of independence in the region.  This conspiratorial view was repeated so incessantly and persistently to the point that one is reluctant to dismiss it as a propaganda ploy or simple rhetorical flare.  Is it possible that the secularized intelligentsia truly believed that Sisi, who was trained and educated in the United States, and the likes of El Baradei, who served under Hosni Mubarak and who is more at home in the West than in Egypt, are capable of setting an independent course for Egyptian foreign policy?  Is it possible that this secularized intelligentsia could not have noticed that as soon as Morsi was overthrown, Saudi Arabia and UAE came forward to save the Egyptian economy with an unprecedented lucrative aid package?  Shortly after Sisi came to power, Egyptian public television stations broadcasted state sponsored public awareness messages in which Fox news and well-known Islamophobes were regularly quoted on political Islam and Islamists.  Even more, well-known Islamophobic politicians were welcomed by Sisi in Egypt in highly publicized visits in which one of them compared Sisi to George Washington![8]  Is it conceivable that the secularized intelligentsia failed to understand that the coup was very plainly and openly supported by pro-Israeli politicians and publicists on the far right and that this support in and of itself speaks volumes?


I am confident that the secularized intelligentsia had indeed noticed all of the above, however, the conspiratorial accusatory framework is a poorly intellectualized way of making a very important point, and that is: not just the Brotherhood, but all Islamists in the region, lack real legitimacy or at a minimum should lack legitimacy.  Portraying the Islamists as part of a foreign conspiracy is driven by the indulgent need to cast the Islamists as outsiders to society.  Accordingly, Islamists do not represent any type of traditional or native authenticity, but are agent-provocateurs manipulated by outsider forces.  They exploit native symbols, but only to serve foreign agendas that have nothing to do with the material interests of the people they claim to represent. The tactic of claiming that Islamists are agents of foreign interests is not new.  It has been used by every Arab dictator who has repressed Islamic groups since the 1950s.  The secularized intelligentsia was forced to resort to it not only because they were incapable of galvanizing the electoral vote, but also because they themselves are alienated and poorly rooted in the cultures for which they claim to speak.   


The colonial era witnessed the rise of a largely Western educated class that was trained and weaned to form the necessary bourgeoisie that would service the state bureaucratic apparatus necessary for servicing colonial interests in the region.  However, at that time, many of the Western-educated intelligentsia still enjoyed close ties to influential reform-oriented religious figures such as Muhammad Abduh (d. 1905).  These religious figures worked to reconcile traditional Islamic values with the modern nation-state, democracy, and constitutionalism.[9]  They also represented a symbolic link to historical continuity, and the legitimacy of tradition.  The ability of the Westernized intelligentsia to negotiate grounds of commonality with religious intellectual forces granted them a relative degree of native legitimacy.  Typically, this Westernized intelligentsia was thoroughly grounded in post-renaissance European thought, but knew precious little about the pre-colonial Islamic epistemic tradition.  Indeed this intelligentsia saw its own native tradition largely through Western eyes.  In other words, what they understood or believed about Islamic history and thought came largely from the writings of Western orientalists.  Even to this day, the general outlook of the secular intelligentsia—their understanding of the progression, trajectory, contributions, and the very worth of the Islamic tradition is derived practically exclusively from the writings of Western scholars on Islam.  In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the secular intelligentsia played a critical role in translating orientalist literature into Arabic and taught these sources in urban universities throughout Egypt.  As such, they acted as a persistent bridge to transplanting and transforming Western views of Islamic history and thought to an internalized self-view in the consciousness of the urbanized elite.


The cooperative and friendly relationship of the Westernized intelligentsia with the reform and liberal-minded Islamic scholars did not last.  With the rise of Pan-Arab nationalism, and ideological movements such as Nasserism and Baʿathism in the 1950s, the dynamics between the Westernized intelligentsia and Islamic orientations changed in fundamental and dramatic ways.  Arab nationalism adopted the rhetoric of religion as a fundamentally reactionary force pitted against a progressive force of national liberation.  The secular intelligentsia, which at the time was largely leftist and socialist, legitimated and defended the repressive praetorian state as necessary for achieving progressive historical objectives.  A very significant number of Egyptian intellectuals, such as journalist and political commentator Mohamed Hassanein Heikal (1923-2016), saw religion as a private and personal matter that should play no normative role in the public sphere.  In reality, however, religion was not excluded from the public sphere, but it was allowed to exist only within the narrow space allowed it by the Arab secular state.  The secular state created officially sanctioned podiums for religion, and in effect, created an official state religion that rubber-stamped and legitimated state politics.  At the same time, this state sponsored religion lost its legitimacy on the ground, as the clergy of Azhar became salaried employees of the state.  With the domestication of the native Azhari clergy, critical Islamic thought drifted into stale apologetics that placated and satisfied only the most uninspired and unchallenging intellects.  This helps explain the powerful symbolism invoked when Sisi placed the Shaykh of al-Azhar and the Pope of the Coptic Church on either side of him when he announced his coup.         


The 1967 defeat and the rise of Saudi funded Wahhabi-Salafi movements in the 1970s heralded the death of pan-Arab nationalism, and challenged the privileged status of the Westernized Egyptian intelligentsia.  While intellectually unsophisticated, Wahhabi-Salafi movements achieved something that the Westernized intelligentsia was no longer capable of doing, and that is to appeal to and galvanize the masses.  After the cooptation of the scholars of Azhar by the state, and the death of the pan-Arab socialist dream, what captured the imagination of the masses was the impassioned rhetoric of the Islamic groups who recalled in the imagination of their audiences a time of glory when Muslims were powerful and respected, and when justice reigned.


The uncomfortable truth is that the Westernized intelligentsia continued to rely on the repressive state to continue in a privileged status.  While Islamic groups appealed to the masses on the street by embracing many of their social and economic problems and by capturing their imagination with the promise of a regained glory, the secular intelligentsia had a very different path.  For over four decades, the secular intelligentsia relied on the praetorian state to placate and repress the Islamists.  But embracing the evolving language of the age, this intelligentsia adopted the Western language of democracy, pluralism, civil society, and human rights.  While failing to understand or engage the aspirations of the masses, the secular intelligentsia adopted an increasingly elitist and even supremacist attitude towards Islamists. They borrowed the language of modernity, post-modernity, globalization, and the international community as a self-assuring and self-congratulatory discourse about their own ability to understand the complexity of the modern world, to rise up to the challenges of the globalization, and to move Egyptian society towards development and progress.  Meanwhile, the gap between the rich and poor grew ever larger, and the economic problems of Egypt became more complicated.


The secularist and Islamist discourses grew ever more polarized.  The secularists saw the Islamists as reactionary forces often describing them as ẓalamiyyūn (of the dark ages or living in the dark ages), and the Islamists saw the secularists as essentially alien to the society they claimed to represent.  The irony is that both parties spoke the language of democracy and civil rights, and both continued to believe that they represented the true and legitimate public good.  In the name of democracy, Islamists won elections, and in the name of democracy the secular intelligentsia continued to rely on the repressive state as their guarantor against the reactionary Islamist forces.


A new emerging reality, however, had overtaken Egyptian society and marginalized all else.  The military and security forces continued to enjoy the patronage of the United States, and control the institutions of the state.  But Egyptian society was flush with Gulf money, and this created an odd and painful dynamic.  Saudi Arabia continued to fund Wahhabi-Salafi movements, and eventually, funded a number of privately owned satellite stations.  However, other privately owned media sprung up that belonged to a class of investors with a complex web of interests involving Gulf money and Mubarak’s state apparatus.  Significantly, a large segment of the Egyptian secular intelligentsia relied on these profitable cultural venues for their very survival.


The Mubarak regime balanced the Islamist media with a secular media.  The same balancing act is played by the Saudi government, which owns secular channels such as the rather racy MBC and plays them off religious channels such as Iqraa.  Importantly, the Mubarak regime had a complex network of incentives, rewards, and punishments for journalists, writers, media personalities, and everyone who could affect public opinion.  Most of the secularized intelligentsia became clientele of the state in which they played the role of the loyal opposition.  Their measured and domesticated opposition legitimated the repressive state apparatus that had become increasingly savage and brutal.

The Egyptian revolution was sparked by an idealistic group of youth who had lost faith in all the institutions of power.  This youth was defiant, innocent, idealistic, and uncorrupted.  But it was successful because the destitute masses had suffered enough.  Once the alienated revolutionary youth took to the streets, they were joined by the destitute masses and the Muslim brotherhood.  Initially, Saudi Arabia had its muftis issue a refrain to the Wahhabi-Salafi groups against rebelling against Mubarak.  However, with the revolutionary fervor becoming like a tidal wave, especially after the resignation of Mubarak, the Wahhabi-Salafi groups had no choice but to go along with the pretense of being a part of the revolution.     


The Egyptian revolution presented the arrogant and domesticated secularized intelligentsia with a true challenge.  Suddenly, for the first time, they were presented with the task of practicing what they preached, and of speaking for the populace without the mediating role of the repressive state.  Even when at times, they defended the rights of a member of the Brotherhood or of an Islamist, the repressive state stood as an ultimate guarantor that the Islamists would never become too powerful.  For decades, this intelligentsia theorized about the sovereign will, reactionism, progressivism, and the place of Egypt in world history, but for the first time, they were forced to come face to face with, deal with, and explain themselves to the Egyptian people.  For the first time, they could not simply dismiss the Islamists with contempt and arrogance, and they would have to figure out a native language—a language that did not simply transplant Western concepts, ideas, and historical movements but that would actually empower these ideas with meaning to the Egyptian people.  Would the secularized intelligentsia be capable of working through the will of the people without guardian state institutions such as the army, police, or judiciary to package this will and present it in a palatable fashion?    


Why did the secularized intelligentsia fear the Brotherhood so much? The Muslim Brotherhood had been the perpetual victim.  Since 1954, there was no significant time that passed without the Brotherhood being persecuted and repressed in some fashion or another.  Unable to depend on the powers of the state, the Brotherhood developed a network of charitable projects, and lived and preached among Egypt’s disappearing middle class and impoverished masses.  Like all wealthy Egyptians, the Brotherhood relied on Gulf money, but it was capital amassed when their members were forced to escape to Gulf countries during Nasser’s regime (r. 1954-1970).  Under Sadat and Mubarak, many of those who lived in exile in Gulf countries returned to Egypt and focused their energies on entrepreneurial projects that capitalized on their Gulf connections.  However, the Brotherhood had an odd love-hate relationship with Saudi Arabia.  They clearly accommodated Wahhabi-Salafi Islam and benefited from Saudi largess in some contexts, but at the same time, their brand of Islam was different.  Unlike the Wahhabi-Salafi movement, they sincerely believed in democracy as the inevitable and Islamically acceptable system of government.  They also rejected the infamous Wahhabi practice of takfīr (or of calling their Muslim opponents infidels).  Although Saudi Arabia had given quarter to the Muslim Brotherhood during the period of Nasserist persecution, Saudi’s close ties to the Mubarak regime, Egypt’s military, and the United States militated against this relationship.  More critically, Saudi Arabia could ill-afford the success and the inevitable spread of the revolutionary fervor of the so-called Arab Spring.  Nothing could be more risky to the Saudi supported brand of Islam and to the Saudi regime than an Islamic movement that would have successfully negotiated democracy.  An Islamically-inspired movement that could manage to adapt itself to a democratic political system would threaten to undermine the very ideological foundations that have sustained the Saudi regime since coming to power.


Because of its effective grassroots efforts in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood was well positioned to appeal to the electoral ballot.  The secularized intelligentsia tried to put off an electoral showdown with Islamists for as long as possible.  They openly complained that they had not had a chance to work with the masses, while the Islamists were adept at tricking and cajoling the simple-minded public that could not understand complex ideas such as constitutionalism and limitations on power.  They tried in every way to dissuade the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) from holding a referendum that raised the ultimate question of the Islamic identity of the state.  Many of them tried to convince the SCAF that true democracy requires the banning of religiously-based parties, and the prohibition of religious symbolism in elections.  However, at that point, the military wanted a real sense of the pulse of the masses, and did not want to be dragged into a violent showdown with Islamists.  The Islamists won the referendum of March 19, 2011, with 77 percent of the vote.  The parliamentary elections of November 28, 2011, was a landslide in favor of the Islamists, with the Brotherhood winning 43.4 percent and other Islamic alliances winning 25 percent.  The Shura Council elections were also a landslide win with the Brotherhood capturing 58.3 percent of the popular vote.


Not only were the secularized intelligentsia and the SCAF itself now worried, but the elite class of petty capitalists, who for decades had thrived only through a parasitical relationship with Mubarak’s corrupt state apparatus, were worried as well.  On June 14, 2012, the SCC (Supreme Constitutional Court), staffed by Mubarak appointees, dissolved the entire parliament because purportedly the election laws discriminated against independent candidates.  However, the Egyptian judiciary, which had gained a largely undeserved reputation for independence and integrity, could hardly be counted on as a neutral arbitrator between the Islamists and their opponents.  The judiciary itself is but a part of the secularized elite that perceives itself as part of the progressive avant garde, protecting a native population against its own reactionary proclivities.  After the scare of the parliamentary elections, on June 18, 2012, the SCAF passed the infamous Revisions to the first Constitutional Declaration, insulating the armed forces from civilian oversight or accountability and granting the army veto power over the act of declaring war.  A few days later on June 25, the SCC challenged the legality of the Shura Council, giving a clear indication that it too was likely to be dissolved.


The last remaining hope for the Islamists was the presidential elections, which were begrudgingly held by the SCAF after repeated demonstrations and protests. Just in case the Islamist-dominated parliament would not be dissolved by the SCC, the SCAF and the judiciary allowed General Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s last prime minister, to run against the Islamists despite the numerous corruption charges pending against him.  Moreover, the old regime with its full network of petty capitalists put all its weight behind General Shafiq, who was reinvented by the privately owned media into a revolutionary figure who fervently believed in the rule of law.  Considering that General Shafiq was given the full support of the Egyptian state and that the privately owned media launched a full fledged attack on the Brotherhood, the real surprise was that President Muhammad Morsi was still able to eek out a narrow victory of 51.7 percent against Shafiq’s 48.3 percent. The presidential elections presented the secularized intelligentsia with a stark choice: they could support the old order or they could swallow the bitter pill of supporting an Islamist candidate. Most chose to do neither.  But their sense of grievance and belief that the masses were not mature enough to decide the fate of the country through free elections was only reaffirmed.   


Morsi and the Brotherhood gave their secular opponents a golden opportunity with his poor performance as Egypt’s first freely elected president.  Comforted by the repeated electoral victories, he moved against two bastions of privilege and power in Egypt—both secular, entitled, elitist, and deeply offended at having to limit their power.  Egypt is the only purported democracy where it is a criminal offense to criticize the military or judiciary, and it is impossible to penetrate through the veil of immunity behind which corruption takes place.


Although the Islamists were able to pass the New Egyptian Constitution by a 63.8 percent vote on December 25, 2012, this was the last straw.   The old regime with its unholy and somewhat psychotic alliances returned.  The secularized intelligentsia once again manned all of the podiums provided by the privately owned media, the SCC kept rejecting draft after draft of the revised electoral law that was intended to save the Shura Council from being dissolved, and the military started negotiating with Washington, D.C. to remove Morsi from power.   Most importantly, in my view, panicking from the new breed of democratic Islam, the Saudis waged a campaign of economic sabotage against Morsi’s government, causing repeated power outages and gasoline shortages all over Egypt.  And, they opened their coffers to numerous writers and journalists for waging an incessant and sometimes irrational campaign against the Brotherhood.  


The massive turnout of protestors against Egypt’s elected president on June 30, 2013, came as nothing short of a real gift to the Brotherhood’s opponents.  Weeks before, the secularized intelligentsia had been openly calling upon the old guardians, i.e. the military and judiciary, to intervene to save Egypt’s revolution.  Reminiscent of the role they have consistently played since the colonial era, they called upon old guardians to save the country from the follies of its natives.  The guardians of truth needed to reset the revolution on its proper course by undoing the results of all six elections, and by turning over the revolution to its rightful owners—the rightful owners being the possessors of the secular truth, that religion has no role in the public sphere, and that the masses need to be shepherded into a democracy rather than be treated as true sovereign agents.


The actual coup was a mere formality.  The secularized intelligentsia, however, felt more empowered than ever before.  Now, they badly wanted to believe that in one year of Morsi’s rule, they had finally achieved what they had failed to achieve since the colonial period, and that is mass appeal.  This is why they jumped on the figure of thirty million people demonstrating in Tahrir as proof positive of the legitimacy of the secular project.  It is this group in Tahrir Square and no other, so they believed, who were the indisputable source of legitimacy, and of what the intelligentsia knew all along, that Islamists should return to the periphery of power where they belong, and should be prevented by the old guardians from misleading the masses.  This is why the secularized intelligentsia did not have a problem with the unlawful closings of the media outlets owned by Islamists and with the unjust arrests that included the speaker of the dissolved parliament and even the attorneys who represented the Brotherhood before the SCC.  Paradoxically, it is the secularized intelligentsia that unwittingly admitted the empty circle in which they keep revolving.  According to them, 1952 and 2013 were legitimate revolutions in modern Egyptian history—in 1952, the army rose against injustice and the people backed it up, and in June 2013, the people rose against injustice and the army backed them up!   But the secularized intelligentsia fails to note that in both 1952 and 2013, the army remained the ultimate arbiter of power and also the only force that invents and destroys constitutions, rights, and institutions at will.  Indeed, it did appear that they were determined to repeat history once again.  By celebrating the coup of 2013 just as they celebrated the coup of 1952, the Egyptian secularized intelligentsia demonstrated that they had learned nothing.  This time, however, the folly of the secularized intelligentsia was far more serious.  Nasser was a charismatic despot who sold the Egyptian people exciting visions of a bright future that never materialized.  Sisi tried to do the same.  He made a great deal of promises that could not be fulfilled, even with the full support of the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Israel, and the United States.  But Sisi is no charismatic leader, and in a short period of time, he over-taxed his allies with endless financial demands, while appearing unable or unwilling to control the bottomless pit of corruption that miraculously swallowed up all foreign aid given to the country since Sisi took power.  Shocked by the ferocity and unrestrained brutality unleashed by his regime, some secularized intelligentsia fell into dejected but complacent silence and others tried to exit the country leaving the regime to its fate.  The majority, however, continued to do what they have always done—no matter the level, scale, or degree of the repression, they continued to defend Sisi as an ambassador of peace who was left with no choice but to confront terrorism with decisive and overwhelming power.  Not only the world, but also the average Egyptian understood that Sisi compensated for his lack of charisma and modest leadership skills with the infliction of unabashed violence against all those who dared to disagree or dissent.  For all the talk about lofty principles, the secularized intelligentsia was, at best the apologists, and at worst the conspirators in mass human rights violations that rise to the level of crimes against humanity.   What perhaps came as a real surprise was that not only did Sisi lack charisma, but also he appears to be a woefully incompetent ruler whose best moments were still worse than the performance of the elected President Morsi.    


The Napoleonic invasion of Egypt in 1798 brought to the region an archetypal repetitive model.  Inspired by the lofty ideas of Locke, Montesquieu, and Comte de Mirabeau, Napoleon and his savants made soaring oratory about the rights of man, and liberty, equality, and fraternity.  The Napoleonic army and its savants felt that their civilizing mission was their call to destiny and their just cause.  Because, in their eyes, their cause was so just and compelling, they reinvented life in Egypt, and invaded Palestine and Syria, all while committing atrocity after atrocity as if this was but a reasonable price to be paid for the sake of civilization and its lofty ideals.  The French brutally put down an Azhari insurrection bombarding the Azhar mosque, and executed so many of the rebels to the point that eventually a guillotine was imported from France to dispatch the heads of the condemned more efficiently.  Purportedly, the use of a guillotine was against French law, and was also an affront to French sensibilities that associated the hated instrument with the trauma of the Age of Terror in France.[10]  The genesis of the grievous plight of the secularized intelligentsia can be traced back to the dynamics that started to take shape after the French occupation of Egypt.  An elite group of individuals were so taken by the marvels of French culture, and the discoveries the French savants introduced into Egypt, that they internalized the perspective and outlook of the colonizer.  They did so to such an extent that while thoroughly enthralled by the ideals of the culture of the colonizer, they became desensitized to the sufferings of their own native populations.  It was not too long before they saw themselves as the inheritors of the elevated principles of the rights of man charged with the most sacred duty of becoming the guardians of civilization.  These early guardians would uphold and protect the truth of civilization until their people matured enough to become worthy of the trust.  A couple of centuries later, the guardians of civilization became the secularized intelligentsia of today.  The reality is that instead of being the progressive avant garde calling upon the people to change, the secularized intelligentsia has only succeeded in becoming part and parcel of the institutions and instrumentalities of despotism.  I strongly suspect that democracy will never find its way to Egypt unless both the secularized intelligentsia and the Islamists recognize that there are invariable constituent elements to all democratic orders: The place of the military is in the barracks; individual rights are inviolable; the process is sacrosanct; and the people are the only true sovereign and the masters of their own destiny.      




[1] On the particularities and peculiarities of secularism in the Arab world, see Tariq Ramadan, Islam and the Arab Awakening (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 75-79, 85-89.


[2] See Amos Perlmutter, Egypt: The Praetorian State (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1974), depicting Nasser’s regime, where the political leadership of the ruling class emerges from the ranks of the army, against the backdrop of praetorian political systems generally.


[3] Quoted in A. W. Brian Simpson, Human Rights and the End of Empire: Britain and the Genesis of the European Convention (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 292.


[4] This is precisely why the minute two strangers quarrel in Egypt, instead of deferring to law, justice, or ethics, they will immediately claim to have connections in high places—connections that can yield the kind of compulsory power that considerations of law, justice, or ethics can only submit before.


[5] Remarkably, some of the secularized intelligentsia refer to the days of the Islamic civilization as ʿuṣūr ẓalamiyyah (dark ages)!


[6] See Human Rights Watch Report, All According to Plan: The Rab’a Massacre and Mass Killings of Protesters in Egypt (August 2014), available at:



[7] See Amnesty International Annual Report, Egypt 2015/2016, available at: https://www.amnesty.org/en/countries/middle-east-and-north-africa/egypt/report-egypt/; Human Rights Watch World Report 2016, Egypt: Events of 2015, available at: https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2016/country-chapters/egypt.


[8] Representative Louie Gohmert (Texas), Representative Steve King (Iowa), and Representative Michele Bachmann (Minnesota) were the Islamophobes who visited Sisi and Louie Gohmert pushed the bounds of absurdity by comparing Sisi to George Washington. See David D. Kirkpatrick, “Visiting Republicans Laud Egypt’s Force,” New York Times (Sept. 8, 2013), http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/09/world/middleeast/three-us-lawmakers-visit-egypt-to-praise-crackdown.html?_r=0 ; Shazia Arshad, “‘My enemy’s enemy is my ally:’ For Congress delegation to Cairo, that enemy is Islam,” Middle East Monitor (Sept. 10, 2013), https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/articles/americas/7308-qmy-enemys-enemy-is-my-allyq-for-congress-delegation-to-cairo-that-enemy-is-islam.


[9] See Albert Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1798-1939 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983); Afaf Lutfi Sayyid-Marsot, Egypt’s Liberal Experiment, 1922-1936 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977); Abdeslam Maghraoui, Liberalism without Democracy: Nationhood and Citizenship in Egypt, 1922-1936 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006).


[10] Paul Strathern, Napoleon in Egypt (New York: Bantam Books, 2007), 385.


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