An illiberal people

By Razib Khan | December 3, 2011 2:36 pm

Over the past few days the American media has reacted with some consternation at the fact that it seems likely that Islamist political forces will probably control around two-thirds of the Egyptian legislature. This bloc is divided between a broad moderate element which emerges out of the Muslim Brotherhood, at around ~40 percent, and a crazy and savage Salafist component, at around ~25 percent. Terms like “moderate” need to be standardized though in their cultural context. The Muslim Brotherhood is moderate in an Egyptian framework. But it is not moderate in, for example, a Tunisian context, let alone a Turkish one. Egyptian American journalist Mona Eltahaway has pointed out that while the Tunisian Islamist party, Ennahda, has women in substantive positions (e.g., 42 or 46 women in the Tunisian legislature are members of Ennahda) the Muslim Brotherhood gives women only token representation, with no leadership role. And, as I have observed before the Islamist prime minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was greeted with great anger by North African Islamists when he proposed the shocking idea (to them) that all religions be treated equally. My point is that what is moderate in Egypt is going to be very reactionary in North Africa, and what is moderate in North Africa is going to be very reactionary in Turkey. In fact, what is moderate in Turkey is going to be very reactionary in the West. To a great extent, this is common sense, but for some reason this sense is lacking from our broader discussion on these issues.


This is one reason why I think that the Western media is reacting with stupefaction at the fact that reactionary elements are so much more powerful in Egypt than liberals. They presume to judge all societies by a common metric, when the reality is that that’s not feasible. You can’t compare a tribal society like Libya with one like Egypt, which has a more coherent national self-conception. But you can’t compare a trivially Westernized society like Egypt to Tunisia, where a substantial minority of the population has a Western Francophone orientation. When I originally expressed skepticism as to the liberal fruits of the Arab Spring (as opposed to the populist ones) I received some very angry reactions (some of which I deleted or did not send through moderation). The point that my critics made was that there was very little salience of religious nationalism at Tahrir Square. In other words, that this was not an Islamic revolution, etc. Many of the individuals offering this critique were Arab or Egyptian themselves, along with liberal and neoconservative Western fellow travelers. My contention was that Tahrir Square was not demographically representative of Egypt, and, even “liberal” Egyptians held rather regressive and backward views. In the context of these realities the success of the Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood should be less surprising. Even in nations like Pakistan where explicitly Islamist parties are minor powers, the reality is that Islamist presuppositions suffuse the public space.

But another issue to bring to the fore is that the power of illiberal forces in nations like Egypt subject to democratic “shock therapy” should also be less than surprising. In the wake of the fall of the Eastern Bloc many of the successor nations “reverted to type.” The Czech Republic had a robust liberal democracy before World War II, and in the years since the fall of Communism that culture has been reinvigorated. Poland too has remained democratic, but some of its political tendencies hark back to a socially conservative authoritarian streak which was also prominent before World War II. In contrast to the former satellites Russia has not been able to create a genuinely pluralistic democratic culture. Its party system is weak, and the dominant faction is an ideologically vague vehicle for Vladimir Putin. Liberal democratic cultures often emerge organically, and it may take decades for them to properly crystallize. This is evident in the history of nations which we now label liberal democratic, such as England or the United States, which moved toward universal suffrage in a series of steps.

Finally, it must also be remembered that to some extent populism and expansion of the franchise can sometimes feed into illiberalism. Many constitutional monarchies and republics in 19th century Europe were based on a relatively narrow franchise granted to the middle class, and therefore the liberal and conservative factions arrayed themselves along culture ware issues that may seem somewhat surprising. Despite the Catholicism of the majority of Italians, the early prime ministers of the Italian monarchy were all anti-clerical and non-practicing Catholics, if Catholic at all. This was only possible due to the hierarchical and stratified nature of Italian society and politics. With mobilized mass populism the Catholic Church was able to reintroduce a minimal standard of piety and religious orthodoxy at the commanding political heights only in the later decades of the state. Something similar has happened in the United States with the decline of presidents who were famously free-thinking, such as Thomas Jefferson, and the rise of those which have to constantly exhort their own orthodoxy and piety. To some extent this is probably simply an alignment with public sentiment on the part of the political class.

In newly democratic nations which are pushed toward universal suffrage and the full panoply of democratic institutions the organic process of developing some safeguards for minorities and liberal norms has never evolved, because there was no evolution. Rather, these democracies are being created out of a box. Instead of a gradual shift toward more cultural conservatism with broader franchise, in these contexts it is a foundational aspect of the democratic system. I suspect this may have long term repercussions, as in other contexts liberal elites often institutionalized or established norms which served to check majoritarian populist impulses as they ceded much of their power over time.

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Comments (22)

  1. Darkseid

    I think a lot of libs make the mistake of assuming that others think the same way they do. most do not – and when it comes to things like universal health care and “democracy movements” this is a big factor. i don’t think they want to believe that many people actually like Sharia Law or don’t really care about being healthy (just as a couple of examples.)

  2. My point is that what is moderate in Egypt is going to be very reactionary in North Africa, and what is moderate in North Africa is going to be very reactionary in Turkey.

    You made reference to Libya’s tribalism later in the post, but I think it may make sense to distinguish between the more Francophone-influenced Tunisia and the decades-long internationally isolated (and as you pointed out, more tribal) Libya. It’s hard to know exactly how different they are because of the lack of polling data (thanks to the governing styles of Ben Ali and Gaddafi), but on an Egypt to Turkey axis, my suspicion would be that Tunisia would be closer to Turkey and Libya closer to Egypt. Of course, with Abdel Jalil’s backing of the removal of anti-polygamy laws, it may be on some of these social issues that Libya looks more extreme than Egypt.

  3. Dwight E. Howell

    I think they care about being healthy but being Islamist is for many the same as being nationalistic and anti colonial. Most of these people want to restore what they see as a golden age under the Caliphate or create a new one. The next issue is the Koran was written a long time ago; modernizing what it says is a major no go.

    The “liberals/progressives/neo-socialists” thought that because many Islamist/nationalists are college educated and talked about social justice meant they were on the same page. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

  4. Mike

    Argh! The graph looks intriguing but it is a nearly worthless waste of space without labeling the axes. What is it measuring? It seems that the y axis is percent that agrees with the statements. I have no idea what the x axis is.

  5. juan

    Probably a dumb question, but … why has the Suez Canal and Egypt’s role as a trade and maritime choke point not had a liberalizing, cosmopolitanizing effect?

    For 150 years sailors from all over the world, from practically every language, religion, and ethnicity have been sailing through the Suez.

    My general assumption is that trade tends to liberalize people. As does contact with foreigners and foreign ways. So the town is more liberal than the country, and the city more than the town, and the big city more than the small city. In a given country, I’d tend to assume a port city would be more liberal than an inland city of the same size.

    Why, despite being so heavily urbanized and having one of the primary lanes of maritime trade, is Egypt so backwards?

  6. The best explanation might lie in that historic cosmopolitanism’s association with foreign rule.

    A while ago, I read a book about the city of Alexandria. The city boomed hugely over the 19th century, attracting migrants from across the Mediterranean–Greeks, Jews, Italians, western Europeans, and more–in addition to Egyptian migrants. This cosmopolitan culture ended up disappearing after Nasser’s nationalist revolution led to nationalizations of foreign-owned property and a turning away from the cosmopolitan Mediterranean world towards state-directed and state-owned models of political economy embedded in explicitly Arab contexts. The “native” Egyptians didn’t seem to feel any particular connection with non-Egyptian Alexandrians, who lived their lives in parallel to the remainder of the city’s population and tended to interact with these people mainly in instrumental fashion (on the job market, say). Egyptians didn’t see these foreigners as Egyptians, and so …

    A counterfactual scenario, to be discussed: if Egypt hadn’t become a British protectorate but had instead managed to retain its independence, pluralism would have had a stronger history in Egypt.

  7. Karl Zimmerman


    Everyone makes the mistake of thinking other people think like they do. A classic example from the other side is how many people on the right seem to think left-wing people demonize the wealthy because they are jealous, and want to be wealthy themselves. Although I can only know my own internal state, and maybe other left-leaning people harbor said secret jealousy, I’m fairly certain this isn’t what’s going on at all. Instead, the way the left feels toward the rich, by and large, is identical to the way the right feels about people on welfare — righteous indignation at those undeserving of their easy lot in society.

    As to your post, Razib, your paragraph on the organic emergence of liberal democracy actually reminded me of something I’ve often wondered. Is the development of a left-right political spectrum all but required in order to have a functional liberal democracy? To the best of my knowledge, only Ireland has stopped from developing a left-right system. Everywhere else where parties form around other axes (ethnic groups, personalities, etc), the result is illiberal at best, and a slide into authoritarianism again at worst.

  8. Argh! The graph looks intriguing but it is a nearly worthless waste of space without labeling the axes. What is it measuring? It seems that the y axis is percent that agrees with the statements. I have no idea what the x axis is.

    I agree that it’s not well set-up, but after pondering over it for a bit, I realized that the x-axis was the percentage who agreed that adulterers should be stoned, with the y-axis being the other two: Amputate hands of robbers & Death penalty for apostates from Islam. The latter of those two (Death penalty) is represented by the points labeled with blue text, a visual cue that would have worked better if it were done in the legend, especially since the color of the points themselves is not easy to discern at this low resolution.

  9. Clark

    Razib, there are a lot of people who think forcing these various groups to have to deal with actual problems (especially the economic ones) will intrinsically liberalize them. You hear this a lot regarding both Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

    I’m curious whether you think that is true or whether you think as these groups get in power you’ll see more of a move to undermine legitimate democracy – much like you see in places like Russia. My guess from this post is that you think it a lost cause. Yet part of me wonders since even in Russia there really is a strong liberalization even if the government has certain totalitarian moves.

  10. jkm

    RandyMacDonald: Alexandria was a Greek foundation, and Greeks and Jews lived there since 300bc. They did not settle there in the 19th c. as a result of “cosmopolitism”.

  11. yogi-one

    The Military is, of course, out. The Muslim brotherhood is probably highly interested in getting the economy to prosper again. so economic liberalization is probably in the works.

    The old dream of becoming “westernized” doesn’t hold much weight in the Islamic world anymore, it’s true.

    But there are certain factors that are forcing liberal aspects, for example, women in Egypt are very strong about wanting to have access to education, and then the range of jobs that education can open up to women. This doesn’t mean that they don’t want to be Islamic women, but that they want to be educated Islamic women. I think this will necessarily force some liberalization. To vote, to hold careers on par with the men changes society in undeniable ways.

    Another is the youth. They, too are (from what I gather) proud to be Muslims, but they also value things like an uncensored internet, all their instant messaging devices, and consumer goods that are on par with what the west considers the norm, and again higher education and a wide range of possible careers. All of which tend to force at least some degree of liberalization.

    Human nature being what it is, I don’t think they are going to get rid of corruption in the government. But they should be able to enjoy at least a generation (and more, if they handle the transition to self-governance well) of corruption having far less of a choke-hold on all aspects of politics and economics the way it has for decades.

  12. Ron Strong

    Progressives like to respond to religious fundamentalism in Arab countries by claiming Christian fundamentalism in the US is no less barbaric. But somehow I doubt one would find that 84% of US Christians favor the death penalty for those abandoning Christianity.

    Your point on the danger of democratic shock therapy is well taken. And the issue is probably unsolvable. Educated opinion is so adamantly opposed to anything short of universal suffrage that it would be all but impossible to set up limited self government.

    Can you imagine the outcry from the West if Egypt were to impose property and/or education requirements for the franchise? Would probably be much stronger than Western opposition to despots.

  13. Konkvistador

    Fixation on universal and only universal suffrage as acceptable is probably one of the most obvious and perhaps in the future most puzzling superstitions of our time.

  14. Darkseid

    Karl – yeah, i know that. i’m talking about it in relation to liberals celebrating and encouraging populist movements in the Middle East without realizing what the outcome is likely to be. that’s why you see most right wingers quite muted during those events – it’s because they don’t care if a dictator is replaced by the M. Brotherhood while liberals are assuming all the rioters generally have progressive aims in mind.

  15. randy, i was focusing on the general issue, not specific ones.

    re: “north africa,” i really meant maghreb. i think would exclude libya.

    i believe there was such a restriction of franchise in hong kong after transfer of power to china.

  16. et

    juan, if you look where the Suez canal is and where the urban areas are, Cairo, Delta, Nile, they’re miles apart. The traders just sail on by and don’t have any contact with urban Egypt.

  17. H

    Randy, your counterfactual’s an interesting one. But the trend is that states which had a strong western presence tend to be more liberal than their neighbours: eg Kuwait and Oman compared with Saudi Arabia. It even works within Saudi: the remote Nadj and Eastern Province, where the Ottomans had a very light presence, are far more conservative than the Hijaz of Mecca and Medina. Perhaps a good measure of conservatism is the year when slavery’s abolished and here again Saudi is much later than it’s Gulf neighbours.

    Egypt wasn’t always this conservative – Sadat and Mubarak had a quid pro quo with the Islamists: don’t challenge our positions as the executives and you can have a free rein across society. It’s been a far more effective strategy for the Islamists than Iran’s revolution. .

  18. re: “north africa,” i really meant maghreb. i think would exclude libya.

    To me, Egypt is the only Mediterranean African country that falls outside the Maghreb, and it looks like Wikipedia agrees. Perhaps Cyrenaica would qualify as being less Maghrebi than Tripolitania, having never been under Carthaginian rule, though it is home to some Berber tribes (pretty much all Arabized).

    Nonetheless, I take your clarification.

  19. #18, my main issue is that people dichotomize into dictatorship vs. democracy. those are not the only options. this is evident even in liberal democracies, like the USA, where the democratic impulse has checks due to the bill of rights, supreme court, as well as the weirdness of the senate. the muslim brotherhood is pushing for parliamentary supremacy. even in a place like britain, which has customs and norms favorable to individual rights, this can lead to abuse (e.g., as recently as the thatcher gov. and their approach toward the problem of IRA terrorism). therefore, i think the moroccan approach is more prudent. the king is a known social liberal, and his personal power will serve as a check upon excessive majoritarianism.

  20. jkm:

    Alexandria may have been founded in the 19th century, but until Mehmet Ali took over Egypt in the 19th century the city had been declining in concert with Egypt’s foreign trade and its total population. It’s only in that century that the city began to grow again and to attract large numbers of migrants from around the Mediterranean, including Jews, Greeks, and Italians ( Classical and modern Alexandria are essentially discontinuous.


    That’s fair, but the specificities of Egyptian illiberalism and disinterest in pluralism can be extended to any number of societies where social pluralism has been discredited by its prior association with imperial rule. The example of Burma comes to mind: the capital of Rangoon once was decidedly multicultural, with an Indian plurality or outright majority, but because Indian immigration and immigrants were associated with foreign rule, once Burma became independent said population disappeared. Moving to Europe, the recovery of the idea of a multicultural central Europe in the 1980s took generations to come back after the collapse of Hapsburg rule and the formation of the new nation-states. Etc.


    I agree , but I’d note that the Saudi provinces you identify were Ottoman provinces, not European protectorates.

  21. #20, my suggestion is simply that you point to a sufficient case, but not a necessary one. e.g., the japanese evasion of colonialism makes them no more or less xenophobia than the koreans. also, i’m curious as to why being ottoman provinces vs. european ones matters. i assume that you accept colonialism can be implemented non-europeans. the ottomans did not develop racial-nationalist ideas in any way analogous to the europeans (mostly because of a late start before the collapse of the regime), but there was a clear bias in certain areas against arabs, in in favor of turks, and especially groups from rumelia like albanians (e.g., military leaders). this bias persists to this day in the way turks view the arab ability to organize modern states (skeptical).

  22. “The point of democracy is that it gives the elites an incentive not to skim *too much* off the top”
    I’ve heard that the only times post-independence Greece has been on sound financial footing was when it was under dictatorship. Possibly because there was a unified group taking the long term perspective attempting to manage a “commons” they expected to benefit from later on, rather than grab what they could in the short term.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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