Liberalism Remains a Foreign Concept in the Arab World Political Ideology

Article excerpt

BYLINE: Ronald Meinardus

Egypt's selection of a new strongman, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who is likely to take over as the country's new president and who espouses far less "liberalism" than even Hosni Mubarak did, certainly does not augur well for a future of more individual freedom in Egypt.

In fact, his rhetoric demands that people sacrifice for Egypt. A recording of an off-the-record conversation caught the former general saying: "People think I'm a soft man. Sisi is torture and suffering."

Promoting liberalism in the Arab world is a Herculean task. It is no exaggeration to say that liberalism has an image problem here. Many, if not most, Egyptians have a negative view of all things liberal.

Many perceive liberalism as against their heritage and culture and in contradiction with religious teachings.

The allegation that liberals and their ideas are inspired by outside forces and have no home-grown roots is probably the biggest challenge for liberals and liberalism in the Arab world today. It is crucial that Arab liberals confront this allegation. To assert that the idea of individual freedom is foreign and, therefore, not compatible with Arab cultural and religious beliefs, borders on racism.

Anyone who holds this view suggests that the people living in this region are either not ready for liberty or - even worse - not capable or unwilling to live as free men and women.

Promoting the ideas of freedom in Arab lands is not made easier by the confusion about the very definition of liberalism. Importantly, this uncertainty is not limited to this part of the world.

In Europe, liberalism is understood as a set of (political) principles that aim at curbing the intrusion of the state into citizens' personal lives (and consequently also in the economy).

In the US, liberalism has become a synonym of exactly the opposite. It stands for advocacy of state-sponsored spending and big government.

Some North Americans even push liberals into one corner with leftists - socialists and communists.

Most Arabs today have, at best, a limited exposure to liberal conditions as they grow up and live in a different environment. In most parts of the Middle East, the only "tangible" experience of liberalism is "economic liberalisation".

In many cases, however, the declared market reforms have failed to improve living conditions, which have remained far below the expectations of the masses. Today, many Egyptians blame "market reforms" for the perceived widespread corruption and nepotism. That gives liberalism a bad name.

What they are not able - or not willing - to appreciate is that it is not the market system that has failed. The main reason for the absent "trickle-down" of wealth is a lack of the rule of law and accountability. These are essential preconditions for the markets to set free their beneficial power.

There are various other reasons for the weakness of liberalism in the Arab world. They are sociological, cultural and political. It is well established that many, if not most, political parties claiming to be liberal are elitist and find it hard to have their message resonate "on the street".

It is also no secret that many of these parties lack organisational clout and unity. Disunity and factionalism remains the Achilles heel of Arab liberalism. As long as this malady prevails, the liberal forces will remain far away from popular success and political power.

In the Arab world, as in other cultural environments, "liberal" is not an attractive brand name. It is no surprise that not a single political party in the Arab world uses this word in its name.

To help rectify this unfriendly image and promote a rational debate about liberal ideas and policies has been the main focus of my work in this part of the world. …