Egypt coup: A decade on, liberals must do some serious self-reflection

Drawing lessons from the tumultuous events of the past decade, they should strive to rescue the country from the grip of authoritarianism. 

On the night of the 3 July 2013 coup that ousted Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected civilian leader, I called a well-known Egyptian liberal figure to express my dismay and frustration. But I was astounded when he expressed his support for the coup and elation with the turn of events. He described what had just happened as a “new revolution that would revive Egypt’s glory”, calling coup leader General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi a modern-day Muhammad Ali Pasha, tasked with “rebuilding Egypt”.

His reaction left me stunned, arguably even more so than the coup itself. It was challenging for me to comprehend what I had just heard, especially considering this figure’s staunch critiques of the Mubarak regime and his active involvement in the 2011 uprising that ultimately brought it down. Yet, he was not the only one. Many of Egypt’s self-proclaimed “liberals” also rallied behind the coup and endorsed Sisi once he formally assumed power in 2014. Their disdain and rejection of the Muslim Brotherhood overshadowed their initial commitment to establishing a democratic state in Egypt.

The political schism between Egyptian liberals and Islamists reached a critical inflection point on 30 June 2013, which ultimately paved the way for the coup on 3 July 2013. Their inability to reconcile ideological and political differences prompted the military to intervene and assume power. Notably, several Egyptian liberals lent their support to the coup, believing that the military would safeguard the nation from the Muslim Brotherhood and reinstate the trajectory of democratic transition. But their perspective was profoundly naive. Egypt’s military, akin to many other militaries worldwide, intervenes to assume power, rather than to empower civilians. Egypt’s historical trajectory is emblematic of pervasive military rule, particularly during the republican era that began in 1952. To entertain any notion to the contrary implies either a lack of historical understanding or a novice comprehension of political dynamics.


Human rights violations

Moreover, it is deeply perplexing that certain liberal figures went on to endorse and validate the regime’s use of brutality against the Muslim Brotherhood. This stance, with a few exceptions, extended to support for the regime’s grave human rights violations, notably exemplified by the tragic Rabaa massacre that unfolded on 14 August 2013, killing more than 800 pro-Morsi protesters. This stance not only exposes the moral bankruptcy of some Egyptian liberals, but also underscores their complicity in endorsing state violence against their ideological and political adversaries. Such actions run counter to the basic principles and commitments of liberalism, which are firmly rooted in values of pluralism, tolerance and acceptance.

Even a decade after the coup, many Egyptian liberals vehemently oppose the notion of political reconciliation with the Muslim Brotherhood. Khaled Dawoud, a prominent liberal figure and spokesperson for the Civil Democratic Movement, a coalition of liberal and leftist opposition groups, opposed the idea of incorporating the Muslim Brotherhood into the national dialogue process initiated by the regime last year. The deeply entrenched divisions between these factions and the Muslim Brotherhood have endured, hindering any prospects for constructive dialogue or a potential resolution of their ideological differences. This persistent rejection of reconciliation demonstrates the enduring animosity and ideological rigidity that exists within segments of the Egyptian liberal community towards the Muslim Brotherhood.

In fact, most Egyptian liberals failed utterly to uphold the liberal principles and democratic values they purportedly adopted. A decade has passed since the coup, and the prevailing sentiment among Egyptian liberals is one of exclusion, despair and fragmentation. Numerous prominent liberal voices have been silenced, marginalised and imprisoned. The regime that emerged after the coup launched a relentless campaign against political opposition and activists.  This crackdown extended beyond Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, to liberal activists, intellectuals and journalists who had once stood in support of the 2011 revolution. Repression and constraints have been imposed upon various liberal and pro-democracy groups and individuals. Many have been arrested, charged with various offences, and handed lengthy prison sentences. 

Silencing dissent

Alaa Abd el-Fattah, a well-known liberal figure, has been in prison for most of the past decade. Shortly after Sisi assumed power, he was sentenced to five years in prison for his participation in protests. He was released on probation in 2019, but re-arrested six months later as part of a crackdown amid rare demonstrations against Sisi. Adding to his ordeal, in December 2021, Abd el-Fattah received a five-year prison sentence for charges of spreading false information – an accusation that is commonly used against government critics and activists who share their views on social media. Protesting his detention and treatment in prison, Abd el-Fattah embarked on a hunger strike in April 2022. It lasted more than seven months before he was forced to end it.

Civil society organisations that championed liberal causes have also been targeted and heavily regulated. The coup marked a shift in Egypt’s political trajectory towards increasingly authoritarian rule. Many liberals who initially supported the ousting of Morsi amid dissatisfaction with his governance have since become disillusioned with the subsequent crackdown and consolidation of power under Sisi. As Egypt finds itself in one of the most challenging and sombre periods of its history, it is crucial for Egyptian liberals, along with all other political factions, to reassess their stance and reassert their commitment to democratic principles. 

Drawing lessons from the tumultuous events of the past decade, they should strive to rescue Egypt’s future and emancipate its people from the grip of authoritarianism. This pivotal moment demands united efforts and a renewed dedication to the fundamental values that uphold a flourishing democracy. Failure to do so would risk perpetuating the same exclusion, repression and divisions that plagued the country a decade ago.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Khalil al-Anani is a Senior Fellow at the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies in Washington DC. He is also an associate professor of political science at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. You can follow him on Twitter: @Khalilalanani.Khalil al-Anani is a Senior Fellow at the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies in Washington DC. He is also an associate professor of political science at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. You can follow him on Twitter: @Khalilalanani.