Liberalism in Egypt

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Liberalism in Egypt or Egyptian liberalism is a political ideology that traces its beginnings to the 19th century.

Liberal Experiment[edit]

Egypt's "Liberal Experiment" took place between 1924 and 1936.

The Wafd Party saw independence and constitutional government linked. While the British did not agree with full independence, they certainly liked the idea of European-style constitutional government. The country's first elections for parliament were held in January 1924. Saad Zaghlul, the leader of the Wafd party, was elected Prime Minister of Egypt.

Egypt's only attempt to establish parliamentary institutions along European lines was short lived. Reasons suggested for the failure of the Liberal Experiment include:

  1. Nature of the constitution: It awarded extensive powers to the king, including the right to appoint the prime minister and dissolve parliament, and so created a weak legislature.
  2. British Interference: They continued to undermine the integrity of the parliamentary government.
  3. No compromise: Neither the Wafd nor any of the smaller parties adopted the principles of compromise and respect for the opposition that are essential for the proper conduct of constitutional government.
  4. Continual struggle: Politics was not focused on the nation but on the struggle between the Wafd, the monarchy, and the British.


British rule[edit]

Mustafa Kamil, a Nationalist Leader Famous for coining the phrase, "If I had not been an Egyptian, I would have wished to become one", 1874–1908.

Egyptian self-government, education, and the continued plight of Egypt's peasant majority deteriorated most significantly under British occupation. Slowly, an organized national movement for independence began to form. In its beginnings, it took the form of an Azhar-led religious reform movement that was more concerned with the social conditions of Egyptian society. It gathered momentum between 1882 and 1906, ultimately leading to a resentment against European occupation.[1] Sheikh Muhammad Abduh, the son of a Delta farmer who was briefly exiled for his participation in the Urabi revolt and a future Azhar Mufti, was its most notable advocate. Abduh called for a reform of Egyptian Muslim society and formulated the modernist interpretations of Islam that took hold among younger generations of Egyptians. Among these were Mustafa Kamil and Ahmed Lutfi el-Sayed, the architects of modern Egyptian nationalism. Mustafa Kamil had been a student activist in the 1890s involved in the creation of a secret nationalist society that called for British evacuation from Egypt. He was famous for coining the popular expression, "If I had not been an Egyptian, I would have wished to become one."

Egyptian nationalist sentiment reached a high point after the 1906 Dinshaway Incident, when following an altercation between a group of British soldiers and Egyptian farmers, four of the farmers were hanged while others were condemned to public flogging. Dinshaway, a watershed in the history of Egyptian anti-colonial resistance, galvanized Egyptian opposition against the British, culminating in the founding of the first two political parties in Egypt: the secular, liberal Umma (the Nation, 1907) headed by Ahmed Lutfi el-Sayed, and the more radical, pro-Islamic Watani Party (National Party, 1908) headed by Mustafa Kamil. Lutfi was born to a family of farmers in the Delta province of Daqahliya in 1872. He was educated at al-Azhar where he attended lectures by Mohammed Abduh. Abduh came to have a profound influence on Lutfi's reformist thinking in later years. In 1907, he founded the Umma Party newspaper, el-Garida, whose statement of purpose read: "El-Garida is a purely Egyptian party which aims to defend Egyptian interests of all kinds."[2]

Both the People and National parties came to dominate Egyptian politics until World War I, but the new leaders of the national movement for independence following four arduous years of war (in which Great Britain declared Egypt a British protectorate) were closer to the secular, liberal principles of Ahmed Lutfi el-Sayed and the People's Party. Prominent among these was Saad Zaghlul who led the new movement through the Wafd Party. Saad Zaghlul held several ministerial positions before he was elected to the Legislative Assembly and organized a mass movement demanding an end to the British Protectorate. He garnered such massive popularity among the Egyptian people that he came to be known as 'Father of the Egyptians'. When on March 8, 1919 the British arrested Zaghlul and his associates and exiled them to Malta, the Egyptian people staged their first modern revolution. Demonstrations and strikes across Egypt became such a daily occurrence that normal life was brought to a halt.[3]

1923 Constitution[edit]

The Wafd Party drafted a new Constitution in 1923 based on a parliamentary representative system. Saad Zaghlul became the first popularly-elected Prime Minister of Egypt in 1924. Egyptian independence at this stage was provisional, as British forces continued to be physically present on Egyptian soil. In 1936, the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty was concluded. New forces that came to prominence were the Muslim Brotherhood and the radical Young Egypt Party. In 1920, Banque Misr (Bank of Egypt) was founded by Talaat Pasha Harb as "an Egyptian bank for Egyptians only",[4] which restricted shareholding to native Egyptians and helped finance various new Egyptian-owned businesses.

King Farouk I, Queen Farida and their first-born daughter Princess Ferial ca. 1940

Notables of the liberal age[edit]

Under the parliamentary monarchy, Egypt reached the peak of its modern intellectual Renaissance that was started by Rifa'a el-Tahtawy nearly a century earlier. Among those who set the intellectual tone of a newly independent Egypt, in addition to Muhammad Abduh and Ahmed Lutfi el-Sayed, were Qasim Amin, Muhammad Husayn Haykal, Taha Hussein, Abbas el-'Akkad, Tawfiq el-Hakeem, and Salama Moussa. They delineated a liberal outlook for their country expressed as a commitment to individual freedom, secularism, an evolutionary view of the world and faith in science to bring progress to human society.[5] This period was looked upon with fondness by future generations of Egyptians as a Golden Age of Egyptian liberalism, openness, and an Egypt-centered attitude that put the country's interests center stage.

When Egyptian novelist and Nobel Prize laureate Naguib Mahfouz died in 2006, many Egyptians felt that perhaps the last of the Greats of Egypt's golden age had died. In his dialogues with close associate and journalist Mohamed Salmawy, published as Mon Égypte, Mahfouz had this to say:

Egypt is not just a piece of land. Egypt is the inventor of civilisation... The strange thing is that this country of great history and unsurpassed civilisation is nothing but a thin strip along the banks of the Nile... This thin strip of land created moral values, launched the concept of monotheism, developed arts, invented science and gave the world a stunning administration. These factors enabled the Egyptians to survive while other cultures and nations withered and died... Throughout history Egyptians have felt that their mission is to tend to life. They were proud to turn the land green, to make it blossom with life. The other thing is that Egyptians invented morality long before the major religions appeared on earth. Morality is not just a system for control but a protection against chaos and death... Egypt gave Islam a new voice. It didn't change the basic tenets of Islam, but its cultural weight gave Islam a new voice, one it didn't have back in Arabia. Egypt embraced an Islam that was moderate, tolerant and non-extremist. Egyptians are very pious, but they know how to mix piety with joy, just as their ancestors did centuries ago. Egyptians celebrate religious occasions with flair. For them, religious festivals and the month of Ramadan are occasions to celebrate life.[6]

After 2000[edit]

Following the 2011 Revolution and election of Muslim Brotherhood leader Muhammad Morsi to the presidency, the term "liberal" was used loosely in Egypt to refer to those who rallied around opposition to Morsi and the 2012 constitution. On November 22, 2012, Morsi had issued a decree granting himself "extraordinary, unquestioned authority". He had also "rammed" a new constitution through the constitutional assembly which included "expanded presidential powers, protections for the military, and a highly illiberal social agenda". The constitution was passed in a December 2012 referendum with low 33% turnout.[7] This liberal bloc has been described as "really a coalition between genuine liberals, socialists, and some of the less objectionable Mubarak loyalists",[7] or as "the flock of non-Islamist political parties and figures routinely lumped together as `liberals,` despite the fact that many of them have rejected any notion of political pluralism, a defining characteristic of liberalism."[8]

Following the 2013 coup that overthrew Morsi, there was a shift in Egyptian public opinion away from Liberalism of the revolution towards "an increasingly hardline, pro-military, anti-Islamist stance".[8] The old liberal opposition became split between supporters of the coup (such as Tamarod), and "true" liberals who thought the military crackdown – particularly the August 2013 raids on Brotherhood protest camps that killed hundreds – went too far (such as Mohamed ElBaradei).[8] Opponents of Morsi who "stood by the military as it ousted the president, but eventually broke away in the face of mounting state violence and mass arrests of Islamists under the guise of a `war on terror`”, became a minority attacked on state and private media.[8]

Current liberal figures in Egypt include television comedian, Bassem Youssef, who has been attacked by television salafi shiekhs for their "outlandish allegations" against liberal protestors,[9] and also opposed the crushing of the Muslim Brotherhood.[8]

Liberal political groups[edit]

Historical liberal parties[edit]

Active liberal political groups[edit]

In the Mubarak and post-Mubarak era some of the contemporary Egyptian liberal parties are the Democratic Front Party (Hizb el-Gabha eldimocratia), the Tomorrow Party (Hisb el-Ghad), and the New Wafd Party (Hizb el-Wafd el-Gedid). The latest liberal party that came to prominence, "Hizb El Ghad", was founded in November 2004. A split headed by its original founder, Ayman Nour, formed the Revolution's Tomorrow Party (Ḥizb Ghad el-Thawra) in 2011. After the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 many liberal parties came out to light such as the Free Egyptians Party and the Egyptian Social Democratic Party.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Vatikiotis, p. 189
  2. ^ qtd. in Vatikiotis, p. 227
  3. ^ Jankowski, p. 112
  4. ^ qtd. in Jankowski p. 123
  5. ^ Jankowski, p. 130
  6. ^ Salmawy, Mohamed. 'Dialogues of Naguib Mahfouz: Mon Egypte'. Al-Ahram Weekly. 10–16 August 2006.
  7. ^ a b Masoud, Tarek. "Will Egypt's Liberals Ever Win?". December 4, 2012,. Retrieved 10 April 2013. 
  8. ^ a b c d e Kouddous, Sharif Abdel (October 1, 2013). "What Happened to Egypt's Liberals After the Coup?". The Nation. Retrieved 3 October 2013. 
  9. ^ KIRKPATRICK, DAVID D.; MAYY EL SHEIKH (December 30, 2012). "For Liberals in Egypt, a Champion Who Quips". New York Times. Retrieved 3 October 2013.