Sign Up

What the West Doesn’t Understand About Egypt

Have the people of Egypt succumbed to a herd mentality justifying any action by the state?

February 18, 2014

Gen. Abdul Fatah al-Sisi announcing the coup on Egypt's state television on July 3, 2013.

Looking back the past couple of years, the schism between mainstream public and publicized opinion in Egypt and the Western world has never been as deep and obvious as today. There is a widespread climate of suspicion and distrust.

Foreign correspondents have become the objects of vilification, attack, legal action and incarceration. We have witnessed perverse instances of enraged mobs attacking foreign reporters in the heart of Cairo. This is unacceptable under all circumstances.

Attacking foreigners is also highly un-Egyptian. I don’t like stereotyping people along national lines, but I assume many would agree that foreigners have fallen in love with Egypt mainly for the kindness and hospitality of her people. Recent excesses undermine this trademark image.

It is hard to explain reasonably much of what is happening in Egypt. For example, it is not reasonable to pick a fight with foreign correspondents when you are in need of foreign tourists. But that’s just one of the many mysteries.

The illiberal liberal elite

Among the biggest puzzle of Western observers is the positioning of Egypt’s mostly secular, often self-proclaimed liberal elite concerning recent political developments. With very few exceptions, this group of people has vowed nearly unconditional support to the authorities’ “fight against terror.” Every fresh attack seems to harden this loyalty.

Opposition to terrorism should indeed be a position that unifies all democrats. However, it is disheartening to see how many here look the other way when it comes to disregard for due process, proportionality, accountability of state action and human rights violations.

“Only a dead Islamist is a good Islamist.” I shuddered when I read this Facebook message by a young leader of a secular political party.

A few days earlier, a senior member of that group posted the following: “We will fight with whatever we have, we will arrest as many as we can and we will also kill as many if needed. But please don’t talk to us about inclusion and reconciliation! Don’t talk to us about human rights and Amnesty International reports because frankly we don’t give a damn!”

Words like these also reflect the deep alienation between an important segment of Egyptian society and their traditional Western allies. Never have I sensed a stronger estrangement between the two than in these times. I don’t believe turning away and stopping to communicate and cooperate is an option. There exists no alternative to dialogue.

Ideology or biology?

In my quest to comprehend what is occurring in the hearts and the minds of many Egyptians from whom I have become estranged since the events after June 30th, 2013, I saw the explanation of Lebanese columnist Rami Khouri.

After his visit to Egypt in January, he wrote: “What we witness these days in Egypt cannot be analyzed by using political criteria, but rather requires the tools of the anthropologist. There is no real political ideology involved here. There is mainly biology driving events these days, primarily the anthropological need of tens of millions of Egyptians to get on with their lives and prevent the collapse of this society that has functioned without interruption for over 5,000 years.”

The public sphere in Egypt, Khouri continues, is “overshadowed by the herd and its need for self-preservation.” In such a context, the forceful elimination of Political Islam becomes seen as a matter of sheer survival and the protection of Egypt’s identity.

This perspective opens the door to highly illiberal, if not totalitarian, conduct, as well as the maligning of certain segments of the society.

Very few Egyptian voices are heard in solidarity with the objects of defamation who have been effectively marginalized politically, or criminalized and silenced.

Will the youth really save Egypt?

These days, many analyses on Egypt end with a reference to the youth. The often expressed view and – unsubstantiated – hope all will be better once the youth gets its say, in the future.

Unfortunately, reality is more complex. Egypt’s progress is not a biological automatism of the old and corrupted elites dying out. For this country to change to the better, a real revolution – in attitude – is needed. This must begin with radical change in the minds and heads of the people.

Editor’s note: This article was adapted from a longer version that originally appeared in Daily News Egypt.


Opposition to terrorism should be a position that unifies all democrats.

It is disheartening to see Egyptians look the other way on due process, state accountability and human rights.

Egypt’s progress is not a biological automatism of the old and corrupted elites dying out.