In Egypt, with Liberals

By Michael J. Totten
Wednesday, October 19, 2011

American relations with the Arab world have been strained for decades; Israel's relations with the Arab world barely exist. But the Arab world itself is not all of a piece.  The outright enemies of Israel and the West—preeminently, Syria and Iran—are political totalitarians, using the terrorist proxies of Hamas and Hizballah to engage in or threaten open war against not only their publicly defined adversaries but everybody around them. Most of their victims, indeed, are themselves Syrians and Iranians, followed by Lebanese and Palestinians.

Egypt is different, and has been different since the death in 1970 of the nationalist hero-tyrant Gamal Abdel Nasser. When Anwar Sadat took the helm from his predecessor, Cairo's government de-radicalized itself to a degree—much as China's did after the death of Mao, even though neither one underwent a formal regime change. Ruled for decades by the authoritarian Hosni Mubarak, a military man, today Egypt is governed by a military junta—the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Throughout this post-Nasser period, and again like the modern Chinese Communist party, the establishment has not only tolerated but promoted a certain amount of ideological diversitylimited, but miles away from the norm in the region's worst regimes and movements. This policy has undoubtedly helped save Egypt from either reverting to full-blown despotism or smashing itself up in yet another doomed-to-lose war against Israel.

Among the beneficiaries of the regime's tolerance is Gamal Abdel Gawad Soltan, director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. This government-sponsored think tank has managed, incredibly, to remain somewhat independent of the state it purportedly serves. Unlike the Al Ahram newspaper, with which it shares office space, the institute is no government tool. How has it preserved its autonomy? "Mubarak was corrupt and authoritarian," Soltan explained when I asked, "but he was not Saddam Hussein, Hafez al-Assad, or Muammar Qaddafi."

I could vouch for this. I had been to Mubarak's Egypt, Qaddafi's Libya, Iraq shortly after Saddam Hussein finished wrecking the place, and Lebanon while the Assad family waged a terrorist war in Beirut against the elected government there. Egypt under Mubarak was hardly a free country, but it certainly wasn't totalitarian. For the most part, if people stayed out of the state's way, the state left them alone.  

Still, why issue paychecks to scholars who spend every working day writing and publishing thoughtful essays that regularly cut against the grain of government policy? The center, Soltan told me, was established in 1968 "after we lost the war with Israel. The rationale behind it was to create a place where we could analyze our reasons for failure. The government needed a second opinion, and it needed people who could think freely. A few think tanks were created around town for this purpose, and this is the one that survived." The ground rules, moreover, have remained clear from the beginning: "We can conduct our research and publish it, but we can't mobilize activists. We are allowed to say what we want as long as we don't oversay it, or act on it."

Soltan's political views line up, more or less, with those of other Egyptian liberals whether inside or outside the establishment. He wants the army to loosen its grip and hold free elections. He distrusts the Muslim Brotherhood. He doesn't much care for Israel, but he has no interest in terminating the peace treaty or gratuitously antagonizing Jerusalem. As for the activists in Tahrir Square, he finds them immature, naïve, and emotional. In short: a political liberal with the temperament of a conservative.

Much more outspoken than Soltan is his colleague Hala Mustafa, a borderline revolutionary who also works at the Al Ahram Center and edits her own magazine, Democracy. Mustafa's vociferous denunciations of the regime, and of the Islamist movement that she sees as its evil twin, appear not only locally in Arabic but also in English in the Western press. She, too, favors maintaining the peace treaty with Israel, but unlike Soltan she wants normal relations with the country, a position supported by only a very small number of her fellow Egyptian liberals (not to mention ordinary Egyptians).

Not surprisingly, Mustafa has gotten herself into trouble. She made headlines around the world after the regime mounted a fierce public campaign against her for meeting with the Israeli ambassador in her office. Not that she had done anything unusual—Israelis visit the Al Ahram Center on a fairly regular basisbut the government seized the opportunity to cast suspicion on her and, no doubt, to intimidate her. "This was the first incident of its kind since the [1978] peace treaty," she said to me. "The press syndicate is working under the control of the security services. I didn't do anything wrong. It just gave them an excuse to put pressure on me." She was certain her office was being bugged and that somebody was listening to every word of our interview.

Like many Egyptians who think as she does, Mustafa believes that the military regime and the Muslim Brotherhood will work together to build a new political order. "The military depend on the Muslim Brotherhood, which has some popularity," she observed. "When [the two] clash, it's over the issue of sharing power. It's not an ideological dispute. So sometimes the army puts them in jail, and other times the army coordinates with them." Although these two "conservative" forces, as she calls them, are very different, they have enough in common—especially in what they oppose—to enable them to function together at least temporarily.  

"The regime and the Islamists hate liberalism and Westernization," she elaborated. "This has been the problem since King Farouk was toppled [by the Nasserists]. Egypt's liberal bourgeoisie and the liberal thinkers are associated with the imperial power of the moment, so they are rejected. Leftists and Marxists, however, overlap ideologically with the regime because they are anti-liberal and anti-American." This is also, in her view, part of the reason why Israel must be demonized: "Not because it's Jewish, but because it's Western and liberal."

Perhaps the strangest thing about Mustafa's story is that she actually tried to resign and the government wouldn't let her. Her relationship with regime officials had become so poisonous and acrimonious that she thought it no longer made sense for her to continue on their payroll, yet they told her they needed her and insisted that things remain as they were. Perhaps they reasoned that they could keep a better eye on her that way, but they certainly could have put her in jail if they wanted to. This sort of behavior is unimaginable with the Syrians or the Iranians—or with the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, or Hizballah. Somewhere in the back of the government's collective mind, illiberal though it may be, the conviction is lodged that the radical days of pre-1967 Nasserism were a disaster that must not be repeated.

Another liberal who has much in common with Soltan and Mustafa, though he doesn't work at the center, is Ezzedine Choukri Fishere.  A novelist and a professor of political science at the American University of Cairo, he was appointed in the aftermath of Mubarak's ouster as the secretary general of the Supreme Council for Culture, a part of Egypt's Ministry of Culture. The current minister himself, Fishere pointed out to me, "is a former political activist who was arrested and spent time in jail. His appointment came as a result of pressure from the protestors, and he appointed me in turn. I too am not known as a state person. We're trying to move the ministry away from the old model, but it will take time. It's a heavy bureaucracy, a heavy machine."

Fishere—an opponent of Mubarak who was never shy about making his opinions known—is exactly the kind of person needed by a government that wants to reform its sclerotic institutions. "If North Korea and the former Soviet Union are a ten on the scale of social control," he said, "Egypt under Mubarak was probably a six. I published my first novel in 1995. It was very critical of the government. I was working in the foreign service at the time, so I wondered if I should write under my own name. But I went ahead, and nothing happened. No one in the government reads," he laughed.

Even more astonishingly, not only was Fishere in the official employ of the regime at the time, he was working at Egypt's embassy in Tel Aviv. As a result of this posting, his view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and of Egyptian-Israeli relations is exceptionally nuanced and sophisticated. "I had never been to Israel before I worked for the embassy," he said. "It was like landing on the moon. It's very close, but it's also very far. When I got there I thought, 'Oh, damn, this is Ben-Gurion airport.' And there was a statue of Ben-Gurion. How was I supposed to relate to that? He's an absolute 'other.'

"But then Israel became my daily life. It was a great experience because I learned things that I couldn't possibly learn otherwise. I got to understand how Israel really functions, how people really think. It's a complex story. Egyptians and Syrians have the most fantastic views of Israelis because there is no interaction whatsoever. For us, our view of Israelis comes from our imagination rather than from people we deal with. I saw the complexity of the relationship between the Palestinians and the Israelis, and complexity teaches you things."

None of this means Fishere is pro-Israel. He's not. One of his complaints about the Mubarak regime centers on its policy toward Israel. Even while cooperating with the Jewish state, Mubarak and his state-run media denounced the Israelis in terms hardly less extreme than those used by Syria. To Fishere, Egypt's policy should be somewhere between the two poles, denouncing Israel less but also cooperating with it less.

"The state will have to face the public," he told me, "and say yes, it's true, we've had good relations with Israel for the last thirty years. At the same time, Egypt has to be frank with the Israelis, and the Americans, and say we can no longer help you in keeping the Palestinians where they are. In short, Cairo has to reformulate its foreign policy and make it more open, transparent, truthful, and reasonable, meaning Egypt should be more like Turkey than like Iran."

Soltan, Mustafa, and Fishere share the view that Egyptian culture is slowly becoming a bit more pluralistic, if not necessarily more democratic, and that most of the leaders of the various factions and parties, except for the Muslim Brotherhood and the even more radical Salafists, do not aim at imposing their own version of a top-heavy, one-party state. I think they're probably right. Egypt does feel more pluralistic to me now than it did just a few years ago, and a few years ago it was more pluralistic—if still authoritarian—than during the early days of Nasser's rule. At the same time, the country is terribly weighed down by despotic traditions and habits that go back thousands of years. Which means that these three figures, who are among the more sober of Egypt's liberals, are probably correct in declining to characterize the country's nascent culture as democratic. It is not so easy to pitch 7,000 years of heavy history over the side.

Politically disgruntled professors who write novels don't tend to do well in governments anywhere, least of all in regimes like Egypt's. It is thus no surprise that Fishere recently departed the Ministry of Culture to return to teaching and writing. He was not, however, purged. If ever the likes of him are purged by the military junta, an Islamist government, or some diabolical hybrid, we'll know Egypt has re-crossed a dangerous threshold, and is becoming more like Iran than like Turkey.

Michael J. Totten is a contributing editor at City Journal and author of In the Wake of the Surge and The Road to Fatima Gate. Visit his blog at

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