Liberalism and Democracy: Shaping Egypt’s Political Future

Protests in Egypt led to the resignation of President Mubarak in February 2011. Picture: wikimedia user Mariam Soliman, CC BY-SA 2.0.

In Western and Middle Eastern relations, Egypt has long played a vital role as a mediator between the two worlds. When the wave of revolutions started in 2011, liberalism and democracy set the focus for future political developments. However, it is often forgotten that both concepts were established under Western influence and thus carry definitions that need adaption to an Arab context. This is not because of religion, as is often believed, but rather because of cultural reasons.

In 2011, a wave of revolutions emerged in several cities of the MENA region, fighting for democracy, human rights and the end of authoritarian regimes. In Egypt, protestors were able to free themselves from Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship and were hoping to achieve much needed economic and social changes under a new government that would respect liberalism and democracy. Commonly linked to the Western view of prosperity and peace, liberalism and democracy are seen as the two concepts that countries should strive for – they focus on fair and open elections, non-discrimination and secularism, and it is often believed that the lack of these is why the Middle East continues to be a global centre of conflict. However, even though on a larger scale, liberalism and democracy have proven themselves successful in most parts of the Western world, it cannot be said that they will have the same effect in Middle Eastern countries.

The history of the Middle East has shown on many occasions that the ideas of democracy and liberalism are different to that of the West. There seems to be a wide consensus amongst scholars that the majority of Middle Eastern Muslims see the West as incorporating principles that are supposedly incompatible with Islam, the majority religion of the region, especially when it comes to secularism, capitalism, individualism and nationalism. According to Jean Leca, there are six main principles that are seen as ‘Western’ and are thus rejected by Muslims, four of which are: 1) people’s sovereign will in contrast to God’s sovereignty, 2) secularity of parliaments in contrast to the perfection of the sharia, 3) equality between believers and non-believers, and the tolerance of the latter, and 4) equality between men and women, which is seen as predominantly Western. In general, it is indeed true that religion plays a major role in these developments, and throughout the region’s history, religion has often been used as a means of legitimizing political rule. However, it is too easy and unsatisfactory to simply blame Islam or the rejection of Western values for the lack of democracy in Egypt. There are many other elements that need to be taken into account, such as socioeconomic factors, specifically the growing gap between rich and poor and the diminishment of the middle class, as well as Egypt’s long history under military and authoritarian rule.

Religion and Democracy are not exclusionary

Two surveys conducted by Gallup and the Pew Research Forum in Muslim countries have demonstrated that a majority of people living in these countries actually do wish for Islam to play a vital role in politics. The Arab Human Development Report (AHDR) of 2016, which focused on the Arab youth, came to similar results. The Gallup poll, published in 2007, concluded that the majority of its respondents support democratic freedoms and gender equality, and if they had to draft a constitution for a Muslim country, they would prioritize freedom of speech. For most Muslims, democracy is widely associated with free elections and their participation, so when they were asked about Islam and democracy, a majority of them claimed that a separation of Islam and politics is not a necessary prerequisite of democracy. Contrary to common belief, they actually view Islam as a mean of democratic progress.

The Pew Research Forum poll from 2013 concluded that 74% of Egyptian Muslims believe that the sharia should be the official law of the country and believe that religious leaders should have some influence over political matters. Even though a vast majority holds a conservative perspective on sex outside marriage, drinking alcohol and homosexuality, viewing these behaviours as morally wrong, they still strongly support and prefer democracy to authoritarianism. One part of the AHDR further looked at the differences between the age groups in the Arab countries and concluded that the younger generation supports democracy more than their elders. The same is true for the more well-educated. The survey further showed that richer people are less favourable of democracy, which is quite interesting in the Egyptian case, as the wealthy elite holds a significant amount of power in the country.

The results of these surveys thus show two tendencies in popular opinion regarding religion and politics in the contemporary Arab world: first, people view Islam as a legitimate political source, and second, they further support individual human rights and freedoms. This shows that the Arab population’s understanding of democracy significantly differs from the Western viewpoint. It is thus more appropriate in this context to talk about ‘Arab democracy’ or ‘Islamic democracy’ in order to successfully distinguish between the two meanings. This type of democracy was also what the Egyptian people were asking for during the revolution: a democracy that is linked to Islam but also provides human rights and liberties.

Democracy in Egypt can only be fostered by the Egyptians themselves

After the success of overthrowing Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, the first round of the country’s first democratic elections was set for September the same year. The victory of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) meant the loss of the liberalists and youth activists that started the revolution, mainly because they were not able to compete with the Islamist party. Whereas the MB had had a fully established and organized party for years prior to Mubarak’s fall, there was not enough time for liberal parties to establish an equally organized party and political campaign from scratch themselves. In any other democratic country, a party strongly affiliated with any religion would probably not be considered democratic. However, as was shown in aforementioned surveys, for many Muslim Arabs, the separation of religion and politics is not a prerequisite for what they consider a democracy. The election of Mohamed Morsi was thus not necessarily seen as an undemocratic setback in Egypt.

In the election’s aftermath and the radical Islamic dictatorship of Morsi, many questions were raised about the absence of the West during these developments, especially that of the US. One theory established by John Rawls argues that illiberal states require the assistance of developed nations to achieve democracy. However, if the US, or any other Western nation, had offered to help Egypt during its democratic development, it would have been in their own interests because of Egypt’s important role as a mediator between Western and Arab countries. The protestors were definitely not oblivious to this fact. Egypt has held regional leadership for a significant amount of time, and its democratic and economic prosperity could have a considerable impact on the rest of the region. With their support, the US would have a reliable ally that could further serve as a conversational partner in Arab-Israeli affairs and as a counter-power to Iranian superiority ambitions. In this case, Western help or supervision would not have been appreciated, simply because the Egyptian nation would have felt as if they were being overpowered again. In other words, Egypt needed to write revolutionary history by themselves. Yet, even though there have been many setbacks, especially now with Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, another military officer, as president, Egypt is not a hopeless case.


Bianca Saad is a current postgraduate student of International Relations at the University of Bristol. With undergraduate degrees in English and American Studies and History from the Karl-Franzens Universität Graz, her focus has always been on political developments and cultural studies with a particular interest in the MENA region due to her own Egyptian background.