A genuine Egyptian liberal – and a very lonely voice

For Amr Bargisi, the country’s self-styled liberals are not worthy of the name.

Amr Bargisi 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Amr Bargisi 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Amr Bargisi is the kind of Egyptian whom Washington and Jerusalem can love.
Fiercely intelligent, articulate and committed to his country’s well-being, he is also the increasingly rare Egyptian who harbors no ill-will toward America, Israel or the West writ large. All he needs is someone who will listen – and deposit a few Egyptian pounds in his organization’s bank account.
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Bargisi, 28, is director of programs at the Egyptian Union of Liberal Youth, or EULY. At first glance the group seems indistinguishable from a bevy of similarly named groups to have cropped up in the nine months since president Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, all of which seem to include the word “youth” in one formulation or another.
But Bargisi is unique in that he is most critical not of the military council that has run Egypt since Mubarak’s February resignation, nor the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamists who appear almost certain to be the biggest winners in parliamentary elections. Instead, he reserves his most devastating scorn for other self-styled Egyptian liberals – the vast majority of whom he says know little, and care less, about the liberal principles they claim to espouse.
“I despise both the Islamists and Mubarak,” he said in an extended phone interview from Germany, “but my main reason for concern is the liberals.
In Egypt we don’t have real liberals – we only have people who are not Islamists.
“What has been made clear over the past few months is that Egyptian liberalism is just an incoherent mix of groups that aren’t clear about what they want,” he said. “They’re quite clear about what they don’t want, but they have nothing to offer the Egyptian people.”
Bargisi was born and raised in Cairo, and in 2007, moved to the University of Chicago for a year of study in a social sciences Master’s program. EULY was founded that same year by Mahmoud Farouk, a fellow activist, but took its current shape on the arrival of Bargisi and his colleague, Samuel Tadros, a fellow at Washington’s Hudson Institute, two years later. Today the organization – Bargisi insists it’s a thinktank, not a political party – remains small, numbering only about 20 members, and without any major source of funding.
Not that Bargisi’s work has gone unnoticed. In 2007, he was granted the Bartley Fellowship for young journalists at the Wall Street Journal, and in June was chosen for the Albert Einstein Fellowship, a German state-run grant awarded to promising young thinkers pursuing innovative interdisciplinary research. The Einstein Fellowship allows him to spend the year living in the famed physicist’s own summer home, near Potsdam.
Bargisi criticizes Egypt’s selfappointed liberals for what he says is their resistance to honest self-criticism.
“They blame everything on the wrong things – the repression of the regime, or Saudi money and Wahhabism,” he said, referring to the strict school of Islamic theology widely promoted abroad by the oil-rich kingdom.
Moreover, he says, in today’s Egypt, politicians and parties are
classified more than anything by what they are not.
“In the current Egyptian definition, anyone who is not an Islamist is considered a liberal,” he said, “but I would never call a Nasserist, or a communist, a liberal.”
EULY, for its part, prides itself on going beyond rhetoric in outlining specific policy goals.
“EULY adheres exclusively to the classical interpretation of liberalism grounded in the values of individual liberty, minimal government and free market,” says its website, Euly.org.
The site lists EULY’s policy positions on matters as diverse as property rights, freedom of expression and assembly, rule of law, taxation and privatization.
It also addresses many of Egypt’s most insidious social ills: a deficit of individual liberty, sectarian hatred and anti- Semitism.
The pervasive anti-Semitism of Egypt’s politics and media is an issue EULY has tackled more aggressively than any other Egyptian group.
“Anti-Semitism denies any possibility of a genuine transformation to Liberalism,” its website says. “The Egyptian people will not embrace Liberalism until it becomes clear to them that there never has been a Zionist conspiracy and that the failures of the past are to be blamed on none other than themselves and their leaders.”
In 2008 and 2009 Bargisi and Tadros co-authored a pair of op-eds in The Wall Street Journal on anti-Semitism in Egypt, focusing on Jew-baiting by the country’s would-be liberals.
They noted that the newspaper run by Al-Wafd, Egypt’s oldest self-described liberal party, routinely runs columns dripping with traditional anti- Semitic motifs. In 2009, its columnist – now the party’s vice chairman – Ahmed Ezz al- Arab chided US President Barack Obama for depicting the Holocaust as a historical event in his Cairo address to the Muslim world.
The same year, a column by Sekina Fouad – vice president of the putatively liberal, secular Democratic Front Party – approvingly cited forged remarks attributed to Benjamin Franklin that described Jews as “locusts, never to get on a green land without leaving it deserted and barren.”
Even Al-Masry Al-Youm, which Bargisi and Tadros describe as “Egypt’s largest independent newspaper and widely regarded as the country’s only serious tribune for Liberalism, ran a column...
Show[ing] that ‘the Jews withdrew $400 billion from Lehman Brothers a couple of weeks before it collapsed,’” and rehashing the falsehood that thousands of Jews failed to show up for work at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
Anti-Semitism, the coauthors wrote, is a relatively recent arrival to Egyptian cultural life.
“Until Egypt’s Jews were expelled by Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s and ’60s, Egypt had a millennia-old, thriving Jewish community. As late as the 1930s, Jewish politicians occupied ministerial posts in Egyptian governments and participated in nationalist politics,” they wrote. “But all that changed with the rise of totalitarian and fascist movements in Europe, which found more than their share of imitators in the Arab world. When Egypt’s monarchy was overthrown in 1952 by a military coup, anti- Semitism became an ideological pillar of the new totalitarian dispensation.
“Anti-Semitism remains the glue holding Egypt’s disparate political forces together. This is especially true of the so-called liberals, who think they can traffic on their anti-Semitism to gain favor in quarters where they would otherwise be suspect.”
The op-eds were published before Mubarak’s fall, but regrettably little has changed since. Last month, Tawfiq Okasha – a presidential candidate for the avowedly secular, liberal Democratic Peace Party – assured a television audience that “only” 60 percent of Jews are evil. A clip of the remarks was distributed by the mediamonitoring organization MEMRI.
A smattering of small, new Egyptian parties do claim to uphold the same liberal values Bargisi cherishes – in particular, the Free Egyptians Party of telecom tycoon Naguib Sawiris and the Egyptian Social Democratic Party led by the physician and activist Mohamed Abou El-Ghar. Some independents, like the TV personality and activist Bothaina Kamel – a Muslim woman who pushes for equal rights for Coptic Christians – have also garnered attention in Western media.
Their support, however, is minuscule and in any case, Bargisi dismisses them as uncommitted to some of the most fundamental of liberal ideals.
Bargisi says there is no escaping the fact that Islamists are poised to emerge on top in the current elections – by his estimate, they will win at least half of all votes cast.
“Our only hope is to sober up and realize the Islamists are going to win anyway, that they’re going to be in the seat of power and we need to be able to confront them on every single issue and to rally public support as much as we can,” he said.
A committed democrat, Bargisi has little love for the authoritarian nature of the Mubarak government. Still, he says, Egypt was reforming economically in the final years of the ousted president’s rule, even if political reforms were slow in coming.
With Mubarak now gone, however, any thought of what might have been is water under the bridge. What Egypt needs now, Bargisi says, is to nurture a political culture that upholds classical liberal values like rule of law, a dynamic civil society, private enterprise and limited government. Ultimately he hopes to see representative, democratic rule carry the day in Egypt, but says elections should be the last step in that process – not the first.
Bargisi is deeply worried about the direction his country is headed, but he refuses to despair.
“As a liberal, I’m a firm believer in human nature, and I believe all people are the same everywhere,” he said. “If we address the right issues, the issues that matter, and if we’re not condescending but are willing to listen, I think we can be successful.”