Thoughts on June 30th, Tamarod, and the future of liberal democracy in Egypt

Protesters opposing Egyptian President Mursi wave Egyptian flags and shout slogans against him and members of the Muslim Brotherhood during a protest in front of El-Thadiya presidential palace in Cairo

I haven’t blogged in a while, but events in Egypt have been too dramatic and thought provoking to let pass by without comment. If you’ve been following events there, you know that yesterday, June 30th, was an incredible day not only in Egyptian history but in the history of democratic and revolutionary struggles in general. Literally millions of Egyptians came out into the streets in Cairo, Alexandria and other cities, heeding the call by the protest movement Tamarod, to express their opposition to Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood government and to demand that he resign from office. At the same time, the MB also mobilized their supporters who came out in massive pro-government rallies throughout the country. As I’m writing this, the protests continue, the violence has picked up, and Tamarod has issued an ultimatum for Morsi to step down by Tuesday evening or face a massive campaign of civil disobedience.

Yesterday’s events have caused me to reflect on the Egyptian opposition and on the road they’ve taken since the overthrow of Mubarak in early 2011. A lot has happened since then, and it’s possible to draw at least something of a balance sheet of how Egypt’s liberals and democrats have fared.

The first thing that needs to be said is that the heart of anyone who’s a liberal democrat, whether secular or religious, has to be with the Egyptian oppositionists and the many millions of ordinary Egyptians, men and women, who have come out to protest the MB’s disastrous rule and call for Morsi’s resignation. Like most of the people reading this blog, I’m not an expert on Egypt. But I watched and cheered the fall of Mubarak and the determination and bravery of the protestors as they took to the streets in the revolution of early 2011. At the time, I recoiled at the near-racism and xenophobia, if not outright Islamophobia, of some on the right who crowed that the protesters were just a bunch of thugs and Islamists, that Egyptians weren’t ready for democracy, and that it was better to back Mubarak. I’m far from the leftist I once was, but as a democrat and an internationalist every single fiber of my being rejected that viewpoint.

My view was best summed up by the neoconservative statesman Elliott Abrams, who testified before Congress as the revolution in Egypt was still underway that it was “exciting proof that the thirst for freedom is indeed universal,” and that “we must always find attractive the demand that governments must rule for the people, and that tyranny must end. There’s danger ahead to be sure, but the cause of freedom compels our support.”

Egypt 2011

But it’s precisely because our hearts are with the protestors, with Egypt’s secular and liberal democratic opposition, that our minds have to remain engaged, and that we have to resist the temptation to be swept along mindlessly and support whatever demands are put forward–or whatever strategy is enacted–by the opposition. Much less do we need to adopt that awful and condescending left-liberal stance of not criticizing Egypt’s opposition because they are from the third world, or because they are Muslim, or because they are [fill in the blank], etc. etc. No. It’s exactly the opposite. Our most basic, elemental duty of support and solidarity as democratic internationalists is to engage, debate, discuss, and critique, with the aim of supporting Egyptians’ fight and doing all we can to aid, in whatever way we can, the ongoing struggle there for liberal democracy. No lessons to be taught–but ideas and experience to be shared.

And here’s what needs to be said: It’s unfortunate, but I think incontrovertible, that the Egyptian opposition has been saddled with the poorest democratic-revolutionary leadership since Alexander Kerensky walked God’s green earth. Or at least since the South Korean democratic opposition failed to unite around a single candidate in 1987. I’ve written a couple of times on this blog (see here and here) about the disaster that Mohamed ElBaradei, Amr Moussa, and the other leaders of the National Salvation Front have been. What’s still striking to me is how utterly unaware they seem to be of the need to instill liberal democratic values in a population that has not grown up with them, and the conscious will, patience, and perserverence needed for that undertaking. The Bush administration was often criticized (unjustly, by the way) for assuming that democratic values would just spring forth among the Iraqi people once Saddam Hussein was toppled, but that mentality truly seems to be the National Salvation Front’s calling card. It’s the only thing I can think of to explain why they’ve been so incompetent in developing an electoral strategy and uniting around a single candidate. In the Trot-speak of my younger days, they haven’t led the masses, they’ve tailed them! And now, as legitimate popular anger against the MB and Morsi has grown, the “Tamarod” campaign led by a younger generation of more dynamic revolutionaries has taken the initiative right out from under their feet, and deservedly so.


As I see it, the biggest failing of Egypt’s liberal democratic leaders has been precisely this failure to foster liberal and democratic values amongst Egyptian activists and ordinary citizens. I recognize how difficult that task is–my point is not that it’s easy or quick, or that by itself it would have led to an Egypt without any of today’s problems. But such a project needs to be at least begun, and the way to begin it is by encouraging political participation, encouraging voter registration, encouraging peaceful  demonstrations, encouraging debates and discussions-and encouraging this within the framework of the existing system, i.e. with an acceptance that the MB won democratic elections and that the focus must be on winning parliamentary elections and the next presidential election. As one Egyptian writer put it, what’s needed is not “salvation now” but “the unsexy world of politics which entails going door to door, canvassing, campaigning and actually showing up to the polls on Election Day.”

Without such a moderate, democratic, election-oriented perspective, particularly in the wake of a revolutionary struggle, both activists and the masses retain an “all or nothing” mentality and the system never acquires legitimacy or stability. Thus the constant calls for Morsi to “step down” and the opposition’s refusal to participate in any attempt at reconciliation. This has culminated in today’s massive protests–led, it needs to me made clear, by Tamarod and not by ElBaradei & Co.–and Tamarod’s threat that Morsi has until Tuesday to step down or else face massive civil disobedience. Unless, of course, by Tuesday Egypt has already descended into a bloody maelstrom of violence and full-scale civil war has become the order of the day.

Lost amid all this noise is the fact that Morsi’s government is an elected government. To be sure, Morsi and the MB bear most of the responsibility for Egypt’s current sorry state. An entire post could be devoted to that. But the opposition has so far not provided the Egyptian people a democratic option, it has not offered Egyptians a democratic way out of the impasse. Ousting the democratically elected Morsi is not the same as ousting the dictator Mubarak–and today, that seems to have been overlooked and forgotten by all the opposition, emboldened by the massive numbers that have turned out to protest but also reflecting a lack of even the most minimal respect for the democratic election that took place in May-June 2012.


Overthrowing a democratically elected government, whether through a military coup or a more traditional uprising that splits the army, may sound appealing in the face of Morsi and the MB’s second-rate would-be totalitarianism, but it would be a massive setback for liberal democracy in Egypt. Even worse, it would allow the MB to cynically drape themselves in the mantle of democracy. And technically… they would be right. Along with the lesson that revolutions usher in many more problems than they “solve,” one of the key lesson of the 20th century is that democracy is more than just elections, but elections are nonetheless the heart of democracy. Throw those out or dismiss them lightly, and anything goes. A democratic, electoral transition remains the only road to follow after a dictatorship.
For a democratic transition to succeed, however, a leadership committed to fostering liberal, democratic values (among other things) has to exist. Egyptians don’t have that in the MB, and sadly, they don’t have it in the leadership of the democratic opposition either, at least so far. A best-case scenario emerging out of Tamarod’s campaign would be that the incredible mobilization that we saw yesterday leads Morsi to make some concessions, that the energy of the millions of protestors is channeled into political parties, existing or new, and that the patient, difficult, but necessary work of building a solid, united electoral opposition to the MB begins in earnest.
I can’t say I’m too optimistic at the moment, though. While my heart is with them, my gut tells me that If the opposition’s “all-or-nothing” strategy continues, and if the violence and instability increase, it’s only a matter of time before the Egyptian Pinochet emerges from the wings to restore order out of the chaos…. And then everyone loses.


3 thoughts on “Thoughts on June 30th, Tamarod, and the future of liberal democracy in Egypt

    • Still writing away. I’ve had a number of events over the past while slow me down. But thanks for the comment! By the way, I’ve been reading about some of the controversy over Manning’s Malcolm X book. I haven’t read it yet but I’d be interested in your thoughts. I was really disappointed with “Black against Empire” but haven’t had a chance to post on it.

      • I have not read either book. Too much on my plate with other stuff: family, teaching, research. The BPP is more of a personal interest and relates to my previous life as an activist but does not relate to my academic work, which, if you are interested, send me a message and I would more than glad to discuss. If not, that is totally cool too. I try to avoid getting into specifics about my work online/at blogs.

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