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Egypt’s Revolution: Five Years After

All around the world, active citizenship is under attack and the space for civic engagement is closing.

January 25, 2016

All around the world, active citizenship is under attack and the space for civic engagement is closing.

The announcement that the Regional Office of Germany’s Friedrich Naumann Foundation would leave Egypt after 40 years was not unexpected. I had heard rumors. Still the news hit me like a shock.

I had spent eight years at the helm of that office and I am tempted to call those years in Cairo the most exciting and surely the most eventful in my professional career.

I had been treated to a seat in the front row of an unfolding political drama from where I would witness the ups and downs of the Arab struggle for more freedom.

Never will I forget the days and nights spent at Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo, the mingling and the uncounted discussions with demonstrators of all shades.

Never, on the other hand, will I forget the images of the massacre at Rabaa Al Adawiya where, in a blood bath, Egypt’s military ended all democratic experiments in the Arab world’s biggest nation.

At that time, I took the decision that I would leave the country I used to term my beloved Egypt, Oum al Dounia, the mother of the world.

In an act of emotional relief and effort to record in summary what I had witnessed over the years, I edited a book with personal texts and contributions of Arab friends and partners.

Not ready for liberalism

Finding a suitable title for the volume posed a challenge. In the end, I settled for “Liberalism in the Arab World: Just a good idea?” The question mark at the end was a concession, a well-meaning admission that, maybe, liberalism was more than a phantasm without political relevance at all.

Today, two years later, I would omit the question mark.

One of my biggest frustrations was that long time Arab friends and partners would publically argue that their part of the world was neither ready nor suitable for liberal ideas and practices.

Many of these people would support authoritarian rule, arguing it was by far better than giving space to the Islamists, whom they saw as the biggest threat.

The announcement of the closure of the regional office of the liberal Foundation in Cairo coincides with the fifth anniversary of what used to be termed Egypt’s Revolution of January 25.

Like most others, I also was electrified by evolving events in Egypt then. An optimist by nature, I assumed the people’s uprising could lead to change and open a new chapter of history with more freedom, more justice and better governance.

Today, I concede, that hope was naïve. It was unrealistic to assume that the entrenched order could be overcome by unruly masses of peaceful demonstrators. It was unrealistic to assume that the vested interests would allow their power to slip away.

Future chroniclers without ideological blinders will note that Egyptians enjoyed most freedoms under the brief rule of the Muslim Brothers who, not by chance, won every single democratic election they were allowed to participate in.

Moderate Islamists marginalized

Western powers share responsibility that the experiment of moderate Islamist rule in the Arab world was not given a fair chance.

Today we know that the violent marginalization of Islamist moderates fanned the exponential rise of a new form of Islamist terrorism the world had not seen before.

Unfortunately, Arab violence could not be localized, but metastasized to reach us all – at least indirectly.

Metaphorically, this new terrorism has entered Western living rooms threatening the very liberal house rules to which we, in the democratic West, had so willingly become accustomed.

Confronted with the threat of terror, many are now willing to accept less freedom for more security.

Meanwhile, illiberal regimes all over have had no qualms to curtail democratic rights and freedoms.

“All around the world, active citizenship is under attack and the space for civic engagement is closing,” observed the Open Society Foundations, which, like the liberal institute I work for, have been feeling what has also been termed “shrinking spaces.”

Valuing democracy

As a result, international programs in support of democracy and human rights are on the defensive. For a long time, these programs were considered a marvel in the toolkit of Western nations’ soft power.

Myriad such programs exist. No less than six German political foundations with strong links to the country’s political parties operate projects in all corners of the world.

While rooted in different ideological traditions, their international projects are guided by a common denominator: to promote good governance, accountability and the rule of law.

All these are conditions for economic development and wealth creation. And these are needed for the world to become more democratic and, thus, more peaceful.

The peaceful world lies in shambles, particularly the Arab part of it. Sending away one more well-meaning democracy institute may be termed collateral damage in a political drama that has not yet reached its climax.

Editor’s Note: Dr. Ronald Meinardus is the Regional Director South Asia of the Friedrich Nauman Foundation for Freedom (FNF) in New Delhi. All opinions in this commentary are only his own. Twitter: @Meinardus


Many Arabs would support authoritarian rule saying it was better than giving space to the Islamists.

Western powers never gave a fair chance to moderate Islamist rule in the Arab world.

Arab violence could not be localized but metastasized to reach us all – at least indirectly.

Marginalization of Islamist moderates fanned exponential rise of a new form of Islamist terrorism.