What Happened to Egypt's Liberals After the Coup?

Among the most visible backers of Morsi's ouster have been non-Islamist parties and politicians. Mohamed ElBaradei, the renowned reform advocate who was supported by many revolutionaries in 2011, was an important figure in the overthrow of Morsi. He appeared next to Sisi on the day of the coup and served as vice president of international affairs in the interim government, his reputation a source of legitimacy for the military-led transition.

While ElBaradei did not condemn the incommunicado detention of Morsi in an undisclosed location, nor the closure of sympathetic Islamist television channels, he was among the few politicians — and certainly the most prominent — calling for a political solution rather than forcible dispersal of the pro-Morsi sit-ins in Rabaa al-Adeweya and Nahda squares in Cairo. ElBaradei's proposals were met with a vicious reaction in the state and private media, with pundits accusing him of being a traitor and a double agent.

Barely an hour after security forces brutally cleared the sit-ins, ElBaradei resigned. "It has become difficult for me to continue bearing responsibility for decisions that I do not agree with and whose consequences I fear," he wrote in his resignation letter. "I cannot bear the responsibility for one drop of blood." Four days later, facing a growing demonization campaign against him, he boarded a plane to Vienna and left the country.

"ElBaradei put us in a very, very difficult position," says Hussein Gohar, the international secretary for the center-left Egyptian Social Democratic Party, commonly viewed as the most substantial political party for liberals. "By ElBaradei being the one who is pro-peace and the one who doesn't want any Egyptian blood to be spilled, it makes all the others look like blood suckers, vampires who want to kill the Islamists. I think we have to respect his decision, but I don't agree on the timing or the reasons."

Gohar, a prominent gynecologist with a successful practice in Manial, an island on the eastern bank of the Nile in Cairo, says his party has experienced a shift toward an increasingly hardline, pro-military, anti-Islamist stance, mirroring the sentiment in much of the country. "I think the army was forced to do what it did on July 3 and on August 14, with the breakup of the sit-ins," Gohar says. "But I think the whole thing was handled in the wrong way. And if you say you're against what has happened, you're branded a traitor."

A leading member of Gohar's party, Hazem El-Beblawi, was tapped as prime minister of the military-backed interim government. Beblawi showed no such ambivalence in his public remarks. He strongly defended the violent dispersal of the sit-ins and praised the security forces for what he called their "self-restraint." It marked a significant turnaround from the position he'd taken less than two years earlier, when he submitted his resignation as finance minister in the army-led government in protest over the killing of twenty-seven demonstrators, mostly Coptic Christians, by the military in what is known as the Maspero massacre of October 2011.

Meanwhile, groups like the Wafd Party, the standard-bearer of Egyptian liberalism, and Al-Tagammu, founded as a leftist party, have strongly backed the military-led transition and applauded the crackdown. Both parties welcomed a recent harsh court ruling dissolving the Brotherhood and banning all of its activities, as did the Popular Current, the movement founded by Nasserist politician and former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi.

Amr Moussa, another former presidential candidate and the former secretary general of the Arab League, is now chair of the fifty-member constitutional committee that includes just two Islamists and no Brotherhood members. Both Moussa and Sabahi have vocally backed the military and have publicly supported the idea of army chief Sisi running for president, a move that would eradicate even the slightest pretense of civilian democratic rule.

"Strategically in the long-term, pacting with the military is a matter of political survival for the non-Islamists," says El-Ghobashy. "They can have the military extinguish their political rivals for them because, as they've shown over and over again, they can't compete with them on the electoral playing field."

Precious few political parties have spoken out forcefully against the military-led transition or the assault on the Brotherhood. The Popular Socialist Alliance — which was formed after the 2011 uprising and has gained traction as a genuine leftist party, despite limited resources and membership — recently accused the interim government of "sabotaging" the transitional period, citing "extralegal security measures, failures to manage the issue of social justice and failure to issue necessary laws of transitional justice," while blaming the influence of the "old network of interests still controlling the country."

Meanwhile, Amr Hamzawy, a political scientist and founder of the Egypt Freedom Party, who was elected to Parliament in 2011, has proven himself to be a liberal in the truest sense of the word. In a July 31 column in the daily Al-Shorouk titled "The crisis of Egyptian liberals and its re-establishment," Hamzawy blasted the so-called "liberal" parties for repeatedly calling on the military to intervene throughout Morsi's presidency and accused them of applying a double standard with regard to the human and political rights of Islamists. Other figures, including renowned political satirist Bassem Youssef and columnist Belal Fadl, have also criticized the military-led crackdown and the wave of chauvinistic nationalism behind it, though they remain minority voices.

The labor movement, which helped pave the groundwork for the revolution that toppled Mubarak, enthusiastically supported the June 30 demonstrations against Morsi. The two main independent trade union organizations, the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions and the Egyptian Democratic Labor Congress, collected signatures for the Tamarod campaign. The official Egyptian Trade Union Federation, which has functioned as an arm of the state since its founding in 1957, also backed the anti-Morsi protests.

"The Brotherhood basically failed, especially on the economic and organizational questions that workers care about," says Joel Beinin, a professor Middle East history at Stanford University who has closely studied the Egyptian labor movement. Beinin points to the Brotherhood's decision — while it had a plurality in the legislature — to spurn a draft law that would have guaranteed the right to form independent unions; Morsi's government did the same.

Shortly after the military deposed Morsi on July 3, the presidency of EFITU issued a statement praising the armed forces and their role in what it called the "June 30 revolution." EFITU's founding president, veteran unionist Kamal Abu Eita, then urged that "workers who were champions of the strike under the previous regime should now become champions of production." His statement was harshly criticized as a capitulation to the new military-backed regime, with Fatma Ramadan, a prominent council member of EFITU, insisting that "Egypt's workers must never sacrifice their right to strike."

Tags: egypt, morsi, mubarak, muslim brotherhood

    • Sharif Abdel Kouddous
    • Sharif Abdel Kouddous is an independent journalist based in Cairo. For eight years he served as a senior producer, co-host, and correspondent for Democracy Now! and he remains a frequent contributor to the program. Originally from Cairo, he returned to Egypt in 2011 to cover the Egyptian revolution. He has written for The Natio...

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