When Egypt's military moved to violently disperse massive sit-ins by supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi this week, it had the backing of most of the country's liberal activists and politicians. (Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, who quit as interim vice president in protest, was a notable exception.)
Just two years ago, many of these same liberals were lighting up Twitter and risking their lives in Tahrir Square to topple the authoritarian regime of Hosni Mubarak. How did they so quickly wind up offering their full-throated support for what amounts to a return to military rule?
It's no secret that non-Islamists — secular Egyptians, Coptic Christians, and others — felt threatened by Morsi's anti-democratic policies. So in Western eyes it may seem curious that Egypt's pro-democracy reformists would be okay with a violent crackdown that has killed hundreds of people who were demanding the return of an elected president. "But," says Lee Smith at Tablet, "for some observers in the Middle East, the strange bedfellows that Egyptian liberals seem to prefer are not so shocking."
Arab liberals understand themselves as members of an elite class that shares little in common with the unwashed masses. If the ruler can't modernize the masses, at least he must protect the advantages that the state lavished on the liberals. This dynamic explains why Egypt's current crop of liberals has turned from Mubarak's regime to a democracy that empowered the Brotherhood and back to the military regime that they hope will protect them from the Brotherhood. [Tablet]
Two months ago, the liberals had a solid claim to the moral high ground as they filled the streets calling for Morsi to step down. They accused him of focusing more on pushing through Islamist policies than fixing the country's economic and other problems.
Now, many observers say, Morsi's opponents have thrown the cause of democracy under the bus in the name of tearing down the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists who dominated elections after Mubarak's fall. Dan Murphy at The Christian Science Monitor says this bargain will prove to be shortsighted.
While there has been much talk in Egypt about democracy and the "will of the people," it's hard to see the ground that's currently being shaped as one that favors anyone more than the military, which now seems determined to decapitate the Brothers.... While many of course support neither the Brothers nor military rule, Egypt's officer class now has the wind at its back, and appears to be intent on returning Egypt to the status quo of three decades under Mubarak. [Christian Science Monitor]
At this point, perhaps we shouldn't even be thinking of them as liberals, says scholar Samuel Tadros at Christian Post:
Egypt is caught between democrats who are not liberals (Muslim Brotherhood) and liberals who are not democrats, goes the popular saying. The first half is problematic. The Brotherhood's understanding of democracy is flawed and had no room not only for minority rights and press freedom, but for such basic concepts such as separation of powers and the rule of law. But the second half is false. Those supporting a military coup that rejoice at the repression of their political opponents and engage in the worst display of ultranationalist discourse against the U.S. are hardly liberals. Egypt's liberals are not flawed democrats. They are illiberal to begin with. [Christian Post]