Liberalism in Egypt
Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 28th June, 2008
We had an excellent day seminar in Cairo today, on the challenges facing Liberal values in Egypt, organised by the local Democratic Front (a newly registered Liberal party, which is an observer member to Liberal International), with financial assistance and participation from the UK Liberal Democrats, with assistance from the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. Among the approximately 100 Egyptian participants were not only members of the Democratic Front, but also representatives of the venerable El Wafd party and the much newer (and currently somewhat besieged) El Ghad, as well as academics and journalists.
I gave two presentations: on the history of the British Liberal Party, and on the question of whether values of human rights, freedom and democracy are universal. The latter is something I often lecture on at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), and it’s a burning issue in the Middle East. George W Bush has been trying to export an American template which, as I said, is not wholly accepted in Europe, let alone elsewhere in the world. Democracy, in particular, has to be fashioned in a way that corresponds to the specific realities of each individual country, though the broad principle of bottom-up legitimacy of power is something that can be generally valid.
Of course, it is much more difficult to promote Liberal values in developing countries with high levels of poverty and illiteracy, where the prime concern of most people — including in Egypt — is day-to-day survival. So it is likely that Liberalism has quite a long haul in Egypt, even though the country actually had a rather vibrant Liberal political environment before the British squashed it in 1882. The country is very much in transition, however — even if most people appear to be unsure of where that transition is going.