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Egyptian Revolutionaries’ Unrealistic Expectations

Mohammad Fadel

After eighteen days of protests, Hosni Mubarak resigned as president of Egypt. Less than three years later, the Egyptian security state apparatus appeared to have reestablished political control of the country. Why did the democratic transition fail? Answers range widely. Some blame the poorly designed transition process, which made trust among different political groups unachievable. Others point to a lack of leadership within Egypt’s political organizations, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood. Still others focus on a devastating economic crisis that post- Mubarak governments could never address given the political divisions within the country.

These explanations are plausible and not mutually exclusive. But they all miss something important: the January 25 revolution was also a striking failure of political theory. More precisely, it was a failure of the theories embraced by the most idealistic revolutionaries. Their demands were too pure; they refused to accord any legitimacy to a flawed transition (and what transition is not flawed?), which could only yield a flawed democracy. They made strategic mistakes because they did not pay enough attention to Egypt’s institutional, economic, political, and social circumstances. These idealists, generally, were pol itically liberal. But the problem does not lie in liberalism itself. The problem lies in a faulty understanding of the implications of political liberalism in the Egyptian context—an insufficient appreciation of factors that limited what could reasonably be achieved in the short term. This chapter argues that a more sophisticated liberalism would have accounted for these realities.

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