Kirkpatrick and the Myth of Egypt’s “Liberals”

 If you would like to read a perfect example of a monochromic simplification of the complex Egyptian political scene, take a look at David Kirkpatrick’s piece in the New York Times: Egyptian Liberals Embrace the Military, Brooking No Dissent.

 His opening paragraph begins with, “In the square where liberals and Islamists once chanted together for democracy, demonstrators now carry posters hailing as a national hero the general who ousted the country’s first elected president, Mohamed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood.”

 Like many western analysts, Kirkpatrick has redefined the various shades of non-Islamism in Egypt as liberalism. It has become a lazy way to lump together anyone with the slightest unease about the Muslim Brotherhood’s failed policy within one broad, simple definition. In a rather absurd way it labels in one big condescending swoop both ex-regime supporters and army supporters as “liberals.”

 He continued by saying, “Liberal talk-show hosts denounce the Brotherhood as a foreign menace and its members as “sadistic, extremely violent creatures” who are unfit for political life.” He went even further to mention a “leading human rights advocate,” who allegedly blames “the Brotherhood’s “filthy” leaders for the deaths of more than 50 of their own supporters in a mass shooting by soldiers and the police.”

 Although Kirkpatrick openly mentioned some by name, such as Khaled Montaser and Esraa Abdel Fattah, it is interesting that he chooses not to mention others (the talk show hosts or the so-called human right activist) by name. Nor does he provide a link to their quotes. In this new world of hyper information, this lack of information begs the question: Why? Is it done to hyper inflate the story and to give a sense of a widespread pattern? Since when have Egyptian talk shows become a beacon for impartiality and balance?

 More importantly, how does Kirkpatrick determine and judge the liberal credentials of these people?  As I have written before, the so-called liberals in Egypt are, at best, an eclectic mix of leftists, socialists, and even anarchists with no coherent solid goal or strategy. Not a single politician in Egypt disapproves of Article 2 of the Egyptian constitution that enshrines Sharia as “the” main source of laws in the country. In fact, part of the tragedy in Egypt is the absence of a true, liberal project that counters Islamism and provides the public with a reliable alternative.

 It’s telling that Kirkpatrick cites Muslim Brotherhood narratives without even the slightest challenge. He notes the following: “ Brotherhood leaders say their organization has not condoned violence in Egypt since the days of British rule. They say private media outlets have worked for months to stir up nationalist sentiment against them.”

 While tossing out this quote without any further elaboration, Kirkpatrick is not providing some crucial perspective for the reader. He does not mention other Morsi supporters, the non-Muslim Brotherhood Islamists who engaged in a long history of violence, including the assassination of Sadat in 1981. Many of them were later embraced by president Morsi, and even invited to the 2012 October war celebration. How does Morsi later appoint an ex-Gamaa Islamya (an ex-terrorist group) as governor of Luxor, a move that drew worldwide criticism.

Just quoting snippets here and there really fails to describe how private media, both pro- and anti-Morsi, pushed their own media platforms and both were guilty of spreading unconfirmed reports before June 30. It may be trivial, still it is worth mentioning that only a few weeks before (June 30), the Minister of Information banned the song of the singer Amal Maher, allegedly because it was deemed as supporting the rebel movement, Tamarod. Further, Islamist private channels were waging a campaign against June 30, labeling the anti-Morsi rebels as infidels. Commenters at a distance can easily fail to properly convey the narrative on the ground.

Ironically, Kirkpatrick inadvertently highlighted the biased, (and undemocratic) perceptions of some of the pro-Morsi supports, “Mr. Morsi ‘should have been tougher with the media…they were disrespecting him all over the place.’” Disrespect? I guess the partial amnesia, make many, not just Kirkpatrick forget that Morsi was tough with the media; remember Bassem Youssef’s arrest for disrespecting president Morsi?

 Finally, who are “the euphoric hyper nationalists”?  A look at the photo attached to Kirkpatrick’s piece gives us a clue. The photo was taken at a juice bar in Cairo with two men posing by a photograph of Gen. el-Sisi. A quick glance at the photo reflects the real fans of the army leader; mainly apolitical ordinary Egyptians, who witnessed the crumbling of state institutions, and view the military as the only united and efficient body who can rule the country at the moment. Are these really hyper nationalists?

 Can this broad mainstream group really be so simply labeled as ‘liberals.” It is a tragic reality that the army is viewed as the placenta that can secure their livelihood, but this is not a sign of their liberalism or a worshipping of autocracy. It is a sign of distress. Many instinctively triaged the situation, and have decided to choose stability as their main priority. As one friend from Cairo aptly explained to me, “If you are starving, you don’t check how clean is the available food.”

 Kirkpatrick is indeed right to expose the bigotry of illiberal forces in Egypt, but to label them as liberals is preposterous to say the least. He naively or deceptively fails to challenge the Islamist narrative. Surely, the American readers, most of who are unfamiliar with Egypt, ought to be aware of reports of torture and detention of activists during Morsi’s tenure, just as most journalists, rightly, mention virginity tests when writing about General Sissi.

To clarify, in Egypt, the anti-Morsi camp is composed of roughly three loose groups:

  • Anti-Morsi, pro-coup: Few, but loud illiberal elite, and a wide apolitical public
  • Anti- Morsi, but ambivalent about the coup
  • Anti-Morsi, and anti-coup; Egypt’s true liberals

 This last group includes the only true liberals in Egypt; not just Hamzawy, Ahmed Maher. Many others are raising the alarm, including the satirist Bassem Youssef  who openly uses his popular appeal to campaign against the demonization of the Islamists.

Egypt is in crisis. Undoubtedly, irrational actions abound. There is blame, counter-blame, and yes, bigotry. There are many on both sides of the fault lines that are neither democrats nor liberals. The vociferous debate among non-Islamists is as old as the January 2011 revolution, and it is a clear indication of their unharmonious nature.  A fact that was consistently missed since January 2011 revolution.

 In short, the problem with Kirkpatrick’s dispatch is the missing wider perspective of events that is inextricably linked. Egypt is in desperate need of balanced journalism; readers from both camps take each published piece as if it is solid evidence to incriminate the other side. It is about time for western journalists to revise their inaccurate terms that create inaccurate conclusions about one side of the conflict, while treating the other side with a biased orientalist lens. Let’s do better.

Also published in French. Click here

About nervana111

Doctor, blogger and Commentator on Middle East issues. The only practising doctor who write in Middle Eastern politics in UK.
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16 Responses to Kirkpatrick and the Myth of Egypt’s “Liberals”

  1. Amr says:

    In my opinion the term secular, ie the ones who want separation of politics form religion and vice versa is more accurate than liberal for Egyptian who stood against MB, I am against separating people who stood against Morsy into camps, that would be falling in same system of “no values’ of Islamist and non Islamists in Egypt since Jan25 or so,,,
    Regarding the less privileged citizens who look for the army as the ony remaining solid institution in Egypt after implicit attempts of MB of sabotage, is normal,they look for their daily life’s and want simple things for now
    As Mr.Kirkpatrick and his legions of “orientalist” working from so called “Think Tanks” reall name should be “Paid to influence Tanks”, their analysis and his in particular are not anymore for me worth reading,,,
    Thank you for your usual good analysis dear Nervana,


  2. “Anti-Morsi, and anti-coup; Egypt’s true liberals. This last group includes the only true liberals in Egypt”. Although, I myself belong somewhere between the second and the second group, I do not find it fair to state that only one of the three groups is the only group that deserves to be called “true liberals”. In the one hand, you just stated that the term liberals in Egypt is an eclectic mix of leftists, socialists, and even anarchists with no coherent, solid goal or strategy, and for sure within this mixture there are individuals with various stances from Morsi and/or the coup. On the other hand, even if we use Roosevelt’s 4 freedoms as an identifier of liberalism, including the freedom of having free and fair elections. Even then, you have those who favour the coup as a mean of achieving this goal later on.


  3. nedhamson says:

    Reblogged this on Ned Hamson Second Line View of the News and commented:
    Send this to the New York Times


  4. Tahar-LSW says:

    “Not a single politician in Egypt approves of Article 2 of the Egyptian constitution that enshrines Sharia as “the” main source of laws in the country.”

    Well, you almost bemoan (way more than criticism) Kirpatrick’s lack of providing links to the quotes listed in his article, and yet you drop the above quote with divine certitude without providing one single survey or poll. I can point you to at least 10 Pew research center’s polls that contradict your affirmation.


    • nervana111 says:

      Dear Taher-LSW:

      So why you did not provide them? but before you do,please read; surveys always search the public and NOT formal political parties. I stand to be corrected, but I am aware all Egyptian formally registered political parties parties accepted ( even with reservations) article 2. this is not new, article 2 existed since 1971 constitution. Also David Kirkpatrick, who replied on Twitter to my piece, did not challenge this point.


      • Tahar-LSW says:

        These are some golden nuggets from the Pew Research Center survey on Egypt of March 2013.

        Neither El-Baradei, nor the National Salvation Front party (NSF) nor al-Nour are regarded favorably by the Egyptian public. 54% regarded El-Baradei unfavorably, 40% favorably. The same for the NSF, 52% unfavorably to 45% margin, and al-Nour unfavorably by 52% to 40%.

        Now, the MB: 63% favorable, 36% unfavorable. The Justice & Development Party 52% favorable, 44% unfavorable. Morsi 53% favorable to 43% unfavorable.

        Moreover, to the question about the role of religion as the basis for law: 58% of Egyptians believe that Egypt’s laws should strictly follow the Quran. Among those, 72% have a favorable view of Morsi.

        I call these solid numbers, and having worked in politics, i can tell you that any American politician would kill for numbers like these.

        As for Kirkpartrick not responding to you, i think he is just being polite.

        And here is the link to the survey for more internals:

        So, for you to vehemently state that “No one favors article 2 of the Constitution” is just not correct. Your statement is based neither on any empirical data, nor is it based on anecdotal data.


      • Mahmoud Rateb says:

        Nervanaa,its weird that u support you views by those of David.The Problem with article 2 is not Sharia but who interprets it.In addition as u r well aware,Polls in Egypt are at the infancy stage and no one reviews the questionnaire, size of the sample or the composition of the sample before generalising the conclusion.
        Also I do not agree with the 3 sub-divisions u created.People lost confidence in both NSF and MB.They looked at their last resort which is the Army.Please note that Morsi’s legitimacy eroded with the Ismailia court verdict before June 30th .The verdict accused him of not only being an escaped prisoner but conspiring with foreign forces to free him and other MB members from 11 Jails +the indirect involvement in the killing of the guards.June 30th was the vote of No confidence in Morsi & his administration.If u want to call the Military Involvement as a coup its ur prerogative .So please lets stop the true Liberals Jargon etc.No Party in Egypt is Liberal or Islamic its just a marketing ploy to attract voters


  5. nervana111 says:

    You clearly do not comprehend what you just wrote.
    1- Egyptian public does not equal Egyptian politicians. I clearly specify “political parties” stance towards article 2, and NOT Egyptian public views
    2- popularity of parties was NOT part of the debate.
    You are just one example of many who write what they do not comprehend.
    Shame and frankly disappointing.


    • Tahar-LSW says:

      I was quoting you Ms. Nervana, if i am not mistaken, saying that no one supports that constitutional article. By no one, you are talking, and i can safely assume that, about the public, not political parties.

      Moreover, if you know how to read a poll (and please tell me that you do know how to read the internals of a survey), you see that the favorables of the MB and the Justice & Development Party are in the positive territories. Meaning that the most popular party in Egypt advocating for a clear position has the support of the majority of the folks in Egypt.

      Furthermore, in a democracy, the stance of a political party is derived from its favorable position among the people, the not the way around. No one in the history of public opinion surveys polls parties; everyone in the history of public opinion surveys polls the people. That’s how it works usually and in most countries. Unless things in Egypt are exceptionally different.

      I think i just caught you stating something that was clearly a hyperbole and you should just admit it. Sorry, numbers and mathematics usually are pretty solid.


  6. nervana111 says:

    If you equate ” No political parties” with “no one” then you need basic english teaching. Numbers are always solid, but their interpretation need someone to be precise. You are shamelessly inaccurate. Finally, for your informations, American politicians receive Pew researches once published, so they are not the gem that you just discovered. It is actually common knowledge.
    I trained to be precise and specific. If I wanted to describe the public, I will write the word public. You want to collect every thing in one basket. Shame. Good bye and good luck


    • Tahar-LSW says:

      The original text was “No politician”, it was not “no political party.” Now, if you went back and corrected it and edited your text, that’s another thing.

      Having said that, I have never seen any poll (and i worked in them, conducted them, compiled them, designed the questions etc etc) takes political parties as an indicator of the mood or the political attitude of the nation. Usually, we ask the people to have an idea about the mood of the nation or the popularity of given policies advocated by a given party.

      So, if you really want to be precise (oh which believe me, i have the highest training for precision) and accurate, then you should look at public opinion, not the opinion of the politicians or institutions such as political parties. In fact, we actually collect public opinion to know more about political parties; we don’t collect the opinion of political parties to know more about the people. You should, as we say in our language, turn the causal arrow around. You basically, from a methodological perspective, looked at the wrong variable–or in our parlance, you committed a research design mistake, and that’s not really the hallmark of precision and accuracy, which you accused Kirkpatrick of. So, you might want to apply some (or a lot) that criticism to yourself Ms. Nervana.

      “American politicians receive Pew researches once published, so they are not the gem that you just discovered.” As for this, I am totally not sure what this means and/or why you even wrote this. Most politicians get the numbers once public polls are published, unless the politicians themselves put the poll in the field. So, i am confused by this, but nevermind.

      Ms. Nervana, you keep on repeating “shame” and “shameful” as if i am accused of public lewdness and indecency. We are debating whether or not your criticism of Kirkpatrick’s piece was a valid one since you accused him of being very inaccurate or imprecise while you were very inaccurate and imprecise in the first place. One of the tenets of talking to people and debating and arguing about things to improve things is not to throw what could be misconstrued as epithets. But nevermind, this is becoming redundant.


  7. Amr says:

    Nervana this guy sound like Gehad Hadad, yiu shouldn’t even waste time
    Building and development party,isn’t that the party of terrorist org Gaamm Islameya?


  8. Thank you, Nervana, for this interesting text. There is a horrible misuse of the well sounding term “liberal” not only in the USA, but unfortunately also in most countries of the Arab world, including Egypt. Have you ever wondered why there is not a single party which uses the term “liberal” in this part of the world? In the USA, home of the NYT, the denigration of “liberalism” has a long (and sad) tradition. There, “liberals” are those who want big government and are – indirectly – considered enemies of personal freedom. A democratic political culture is in need of clear political terminology. My foundation strives to promote this regarding the term and concept of “liberalism”. For a recent example of this effort, I invite you (and everyone else) to check out our new essay writing contest where we ask young people to share with us their thoughts on “When Egypt would be liberal”. –


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