by Michael Neumann

The following are two afterthoughts to “Freedom versus democracy in Egypt“. The first is a regretful reconsideration of whether Egyptian secularists want either democracy or freedom. The second concerns the role of anti-Islamist sentiment.


The revolutionaries fought bravely for freedom and democracy. Since they knew that Egypt had become a conservative Islamic society, they must have been disappointed, not surprised, when the country – the people – voted in an Islamist. Well, no matter, there’s still freedom – maybe the revolutionaries were really fighting for civil liberties, fair judicial procedure, an end to torture and military rule.

It turns out that isn’t true either. The first priority of the revolutionaries appears to be the protection of their un-Islamic life-styles from the stifling sanctions and, frankly, lower-class displays of the Moslem Brotherhood. And, in the face of a majority, the best way to secure that objective is to restore the old régime, in the form it has taken, more or less, since 1952 – army rule, or a puppet civilian administration under the patronizing tutelage of the military. No wonder you hardly ever hear secularists worrying about military rule if the No vote wins the referendum.

The proof of this unappetising pudding is in the following news item. When the army stepped back into politics to call a ‘reconciliation conference’, who played along? According to a Reuters report, “Moussa also said he would attend the army’s unity talks, along with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, leftist Hamdeen Sabahy and the liberal Wafd party leader Mounir Fakhry Abdel-Nour”. So it is not just the right wing of the opposition that finds it cute to ally with the army against Morsi: it is practically the whole opposition, the whole spectrum, left to right. They will not sit down with the Brotherhood but they will gladly lend their stamp of legitimacy to the murderers and torturers of the old régime. This after claiming – mysteriously – that the army and the Brotherhood are hand in glove!

Why? Perhaps it has to do with an unwillingness to take on the Brotherhood at its base, which would mean trying to doing more for the the poor than the Brotherhood has done over all these years. That would be a lot of work for a movement that seems to care more about its own graffiti than about the lower classes. There are many complaints that Morsi has done nothing for the disadvantaged, yet Morsi doesn’t even have a government yet. The ‘revolutionaries’ could be in the poor quarters right now, organising about something a little more immediate than the constitution. Where are the marches when yet another house collapses in the slums? Where are they when the poor cannot get urgent medical care at free hospitals, or afford the private ones? Where are they when the Ministry of Housing, Utilities, and Urban Development ignores pleas to fix a burst sewer pipe? Where are they when people go hungry?

This is not, in the final analysis, about altruism or sincerity; it is about self-interest. There is no reason why better-off Egyptians should be any readier than the rest of us to dedicate our lives to others. But if the revolutionaries don’t want an Islamist state, shouldn’t they expand their constituency? Mightn’t it be better to gain the support of the poor than to cozy up to the generals?


The concern among Egyptian liberals about what Egypt would become under the Brotherhood has puzzled me. Isn’t Egypt an Islamist society already? Since Islamist norms put little constraint on men and great constraint on women, it’s easiest to address the question in the context of women’s situations.

In Egypt today, the overwhelming majority of women wear the veil. Dressing as you like on the street invites nightmarish experiences; typically your life is one of submission in which you may or may not be complicit. Liberal-minded but nominal Muslims have found the atmosphere stifling for decades now. Why fear what seems to have happened already, not because of but in spite of politics? Mubarak’s secularist régime was powerless to stop the spread of an Islamist social movement.

But then I realised that class plays a role here. It is the relatively wealthy women who have reason to dread an Islamist state. If you are well-off, you can travel, you can even move abroad for long periods of time, you can always escape. You have a good education. This induces strong expectations of a free and equal existence. And in Egypt, your expectations are partly fulfilled. You can live in wealthy quarters where there is a measure of personal freedom. You may have, or can aspire to, a job in a workplace where you are respected. You have something to lose. Not so among the less privileged working and rural classes. A Muslim woman from those classes has had no choice, for a long long time. She has no rational basis for expecting an improvement in her situation which, after all, was forged within a secular state. The choice in Egypt is not whether or not to have an Islamist society. It is whether or not to force the upper classes to conform to Islamist norms.

The oppressiveness of an Islamist state makes no difference to the poorer classes, who already feel the full force of an oppressive Islamist society. A genuine belief in freedom – not just ‘freedom for me’ – involves a commitment to make a difference at all levels of society. If that isn’t going to be at the top of the agenda, arguing about shari’a in the constitution is just selfishness. Why then is so much attention devoted to likely futile constitutional battles, and so little to working for social change?