February 16, 2014 No.

Liberal Perspectives on the Arab Spring (1) – Egyptian Philosopher Mourad Wahba: Secularism as a Prerequisite for Democracy

By: Yotam Feldner*


The Arab Spring has hurled all the political players in the Middle East into uncharted waters, and the proponents of liberal reforms are no exception. Thus, liberal intellectuals from across the Arab world have been struggling in recent years to outline a route that could still lead the region to the liberal and democratic future they envision, at a time when the greatest political upheaval in modern Arab history seemed to be towing the region in the opposite direction.

The Arab Spring was received with initial enthusiasm in liberal circles. The decades-old political stagnation was finally cracking, sparking hope that European-style liberal democracies would emerge in the wake of the crumbling autocracies, trounced by the revolutions. Soon, however, it became evident that political instability, civil wars, shari'a states led by the Muslim Brotherhood, and Al-Qaeda-style Jihadi anarchy were emerging from the ruins of the centralized regimes. The shattering of the barrier of fear – the hallmark accomplishment of the Arab Spring – did not bring a cultural breakthrough in tow, and various liberal intellectuals have begun to suspect that the Arab Spring did not herald a change in political mentality either. While Muslim Brotherhood governments were rising to power in Egypt and Tunisia, chaos was taking over other countries visited by the Arab Spring. The struggle for the liberal cause had never seemed more quixotic.

Then, the July 2013 ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt brought a possible change in the liberal fortunes with it. The rise of the charismatic figure of Egyptian Minister of Defense Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi and the removal of the Islamic regime resurrected liberal hopes; a liberal alternative no longer seemed entirely inconceivable.

Renowned Egyptian philosopher Mourad Wahba, professor emeritus at Ein Shams University, has suggested seizing the opportunity that presented itself following the July 2013 revolution, and introducing a liberal transformation upon Egyptian society from the top. He suggested abandoning the axioms of formal democracy and placing all bets upon Field Marshal Al-Sisi, who, Wahba and other liberal intellectuals believe, is capable of delivering Egypt from the clutches of the Muslim Brotherhood. Any measure that would draw Egypt away from the Islamism of the Brotherhood seemed, by definition, a step forward. Under the leadership of Al-Sisi, they suggest, Egypt may be able to take giant political strides that would pave the way to a proper democracy in the future, thus sparing the Egyptians centuries of democratic evolution.

Paving the Way to Eventual Democracy

According to a thesis developed by Professor Wahba, democracy has four cornerstones, none of which exists in today's Egyptian society:

1) Secularism. Professor Wahba has identified secularism as one of the basic elements of democracy. "There can be no democracy without secularism," he noted.[1] Not all liberal Arab intellectuals agree with this assessment. Saudi philosopher Ibrahim Al-Bleahy, for example, maintains that a society can become liberal and make progress without necessarily becoming secular, citing the USSR and Saddam Hussein's Iraq as examples of ostensibly secular societies that were not liberal. According to Al-Bleahy, secularism, like any ideology, can be distorted to the point of tyranny. Wahba, on the other hand, maintains that secularism is not an ideology but a way of life stipulated by democracy – a way of life that in Egypt is treated "as a crime." [2]

2) Tolerance. Wahba's second stipulation for democracy is the tolerance manifest in the social contract that defines the relations between the individual and the state. In Egypt, Wahba says, the religious authorities interfere in all aspects of life in an attempt to impose what they believe to be a divine social order, delivered by God.[3]

3) Enlightenment. Enlightenment and rational and relative thinking, the third precondition to democracy, are viewed in Egypt as heretic atheism, says Wahba.[4]

4) Liberalism. Without liberalism, there can be no democracy, but according to Wahba, Egyptians believe liberalism to constitute anarchy; [5]consequently, people behave "like a herd of sheep,"[6] and no room is left for individualism.

According to Wahba, so long as these four cornerstones are not accepted by Egyptian society, Egypt will not be ready for democracy.

On Evolution and Revolution

Arab philosophers have presented different perspectives on the best way to progress towards liberal democratic societies, debating the merit of slow and gradual democratic evolution, compared with giant strides imposed from the top in the context of a revolution, which would serve as a kind of evolutionary shortcut. Al-Bleahy, for example, believes that Arab societies need to evolve into liberal societies by acknowledging their backwardness and modeling themselves on Western nations, which had undergone a similar process when they emerged from the Church-led backwardness of the Middle Ages. "How much time do we need to get there?" Al-Bleahy was asked once. "It might take a million years and we still won't change," he replied discouragingly. "The important thing is to start by admitting that we are in the wrong and that we would benefit from the experience of prosperous societies."[7]

Professor Wahba is not as pessimistic. He believes that the information and technological revolutions – "the E-democracy"[8] – have spelled "death for time and place," thus expediting human thinking and facilitating social transformation. This, he says, was manifest in the February 25, 2011 anti-Mubarak revolution, "in which Facebook was transformed from a gossip utility into a vehicle for social change."[9] The Internet revolution has simplified the exchange of ideas, obstructing the regime's control of information. In Wahba's view, E-democracy is bound to accelerate the process of change and may help "to wipe out" 7,000-year-old cultural taboos, especially with regard to the Arab "sensitivity" to secularism.[10]

Professor Wahba acknowledges that democratic progress is nonetheless a lengthy process. In one interview, he recounted a friendly chat with an ambassador representing one of the Gulf states. The ambassador had told Wahba that his people wanted to achieve progress and asked how long it would take. Wahba said that it would take 100 years. The ambassador, taken aback, said that this was too long. Wahba reminded him that it had taken Europe 400 years to emerge from the Dark Ages; one century was, after all, a good deal. The ambassador, still unsatisfied, pressed Wahba to "make it less." Ultimately, Wahba said: "Fine, let's make it 50, but you will have to get rid of Ibn Taymiyyah and bring in Averroës instead." The ambassador was forced to turn down the offer. "That I can't do," he said.[11]

Averroes and Ibn Taymiyyah

Wahba admires the 12th-century Muslim philosopher Ibn Rushd – Averroës by his Latinized name – whose commentary on Aristotle had an immense impact on the introduction of reasoning into the analysis of Christian doctrines. He founded the Averroës and Enlightenment International Association, organized professional conferences in Cairo and New York in the mid-1990s on the thought and impact of Averroës, and co-edited the proceedings of these conferences. The writings of Averroës – made accessible by the Latin Averroists, a movement of Western philosophers who emphasized the superiority of reason over faith – played a major role in pulling Europe out of the Dark Ages, and Professor Wahba believes that the enlightened philosophy of this polymath from Muslim Spain could serve as a bridge between the Muslim world and the West.[12] The depth of his respect for Averroës is matched only by the intensity of his loathing for 13th-century theologian Ahmad Ibn Taymiyya and his Hanbali heritage. "Ibn Taymiyya lived in the 13th century, and was against using reason to interpret religious texts. He preferred the literal meaning over the inner meaning. Therefore, he called upon people to hear and obey," Wahba once told an Egyptian TV channel. Wahhabism in the 18th century and the Muslim Brotherhood in the 20th century based themselves on Ibn Taymiyya. "They all took us back to the context of the 13th century, and we have developed 'antibodies' against the 21st century. This is the real crisis of our society today," said Wahba.[13]

The political conflict in Egypt boils down to a struggle between the forces of political Islam and an ad hoc coalition of the non-Islamist political players over the relation between religion and state. But Wahba describes this conflict as a mythic battle between "two men from the days of yore – Averroës and Ibn Taymiyyah. Each brandishes his weapon in the face of his opponent, but time and again, Ibn Taymiyyah steps forward and fells Averroës with a knock-out blow. Then Ibn Taymiyyah struts about, all smug, among a band of his followers. This fight recurs every single day, and each time the result is the same."[14]

In Wahba's view, the sole goal of the liberal struggle is to tip the balance in favor of Averroës, come hell or high water.

The Philosophers' Betrayal

Professor Wahba disputes the popular assumption that revolutions are generated by the masses. He considers the engine of a genuine revolution to be the intellectual elite, to which he frequently refers as "the philosophers." He borrows American scientist Norbert Wiener's principles of cybernetics to explain his theory on the different roles of elites and masses in a revolution. According to this theory, two opposite forces constantly influence any system: one force tries to keep the system in order and the other to make it disorganized. According to Wiener, when the organization and structure of a system become degraded, entropy – which gauges the degree of disorder within a system – rises, and the system may ultimately become anarchic. In society, says Wahba, "organization and structure" lie with the elites, while the role of the masses, at least in the context of a revolution, is to increase disorder within the social and political system in order to bring down the old regime.[15] In other words, the role of the multitudes is an emotional one: they are expected to storm bastilles, tear down statues of Saddam Hussein or of Lenin, and engage in million-man sit-in demonstrations at Tahrir Square; however, they are of little consequence in the "mental" process of reshaping of the new order.

Indeed, explains Wahba, philosophers were the main engine of the English, American, and French revolutions, and conversely, the Egyptian revolution was marred by their absence. The Egyptian intellectuals' failure to generate a change in political mentality was nowhere more manifest than in the drafting of the 2013-2014 constitution, which purported to rectify the errors and injustices of the constitution drafted under the Muslim Brotherhood rule. A committee of fifty activists, politicians, and academics was entrusted with the mission of drafting the new constitution. In the Egyptian media, it was sometimes referred to as "the committee of the secularists"[16] because it included only a handful of Salafis and no members of the Muslim Brotherhood party, most of whose leaders were, by now, back in jail. According to Wahba, this later constitution was not that different from the one drafted a year earlier under Muslim Brotherhood rule.

The new constitution – which was approved by an overwhelming majority in a referendum vote in mid-January 2014 – reflected an attempt to compromise with the forces of political Islam. Despite their limited representation in the committee, the Islamists were very much present in spirit, and their influence on secular committee members was tangible. In addition, the Islamists enjoyed ad hoc cooperation with the three bishops who represented the Coptic Church in the Committee of 50. Wahba, a Christian by birth, commented that Christians in Egypt must also undergo a mental change and release themselves from the shackles of the Coptic Church. The Muslim Brotherhood and the Coptic Church, he said, are similar and "echo each other."[17]

According to the tacit compromise, the secular forces agreed to keep intact Article 2 of previous constitutions, which states that Islam is the religion of the state and that the principles of the shari'a are the main source for legislation. As an alternative, the secularists strived to define Egypt as a "civil state" – a vague formula, which according to Wahba, was meant to fend accusations of heresy off the secularists and accusations of extremism off the Islamists. By refraining from demanding an explicit formula of separation of religion and state, the secularists bought the salafis' approval for the new constitution, thus pulling the rug out from under the feet of the Muslim Brotherhood, who could no longer claim that it violated the basic principles of Islam.

As it turned out, however, winning the support of the salafis required the secularists to make additional accommodations. The term "civil state" was first relegated to a less-coveted spot in the preamble and was further downgraded to "civil government" in the final draft. Nevertheless, most liberal intellectuals have called to vote in favor of the new constitution, despite all its shortcomings. Novelist Alaa Al-Aswany, for example, declared that Egyptians must endorse the new constitution in the referendum, even though some of its articles are clearly undemocratic. According to Al-Aswany, the constitution referendum was, in fact, a vote on the legitimacy of the revolution and of the military support for the toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood regime. Affirming the legitimacy of the revolution is, in his view, an essential first step, which takes precedence over the drafting of a more democratic constitution, which may be postponed to the future.[18]

Wahba views things differently. In his view, no cause could possibly justify the flaws in the "identity articles" of the constitution. He claims that a state cannot have a religion, and that Article 2 of the constitution infringes upon the rights of non-Muslims in Egypt. Although the new constitution acknowledges that freedom of belief is "absolute," the right to practice one's faith and to establish places of worship is restricted to the three monotheistic religions. Moreover, says Wahba, how can freedom of belief possibly be absolute when the principles of the shari'a are stipulated to be the main source of legislation?[19] Furthermore, the constitution states that "the Egyptian people is a part of the Arab nation" – a sentence that Wahba believes isolates Egypt from human civilization.[20]

Instead of transforming Egypt from fundamentalism to secularism, the Committee of 50 produced yet another run-of-the-mill constitution[21] – "a fundamentalist constitution," as Wahba calls it[22] – mostly in an attempt to appease the forces of political Islam and avoid transgressing popular sensitivities. In Wahba's view, this is a betrayal of confidence on the part of the intellectual elite. 'He considers such a compromising constitution to be testimony of the revolution's failure to generate the necessary change in mentality.[23] The Egyptian liberals' willingness to compromise in the context of a revolution is an intellectual sin: a revolution must obliterate the old regime and embark on a new path, rather than attempt to reach a compromise with the very regime it toppled. Consequently, he declared that he deemed the new constitution unworthy of a vote of either "yes" or "no."[24]

In Need of Creative "Craziness"

Given that the liberal cause was "betrayed" by the intellectual elite, should it be relegated, at least temporarily, to the military leadership? Wahba says yes, believing that under the current circumstances, only the military is capable of saving Egypt from the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis.[25] Recently, this approach has become very appealing to Egyptian liberals, who have had an entire depressing year under the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood to reconsider the pros and cons of "free and fair elections." Professor Wahba himself had warned, even when Mubarak was still comfortably seated in his presidential palace, that the Muslim Brotherhood would use the mechanism of elections to reach power in Egypt, just as Hamas did in Gaza.[26] Ultimately, the realization that conventional democratic practices would not set the country on a liberal democratic course dawned upon most other Egyptian liberals as well.

Thus, the liberals have sought to confront the "Turkish model" of Erbakan-Erdoğan, championed by the Muslim Brotherhood, with a "Turkish model" of their own – that of Kemal Atatürk. If secularism and modernity cannot evolve from the bottom in the foreseeable future, it should be imposed from the top. Such a model is not feasible everywhere, but in Egypt – not torn by sectarian or tribal conflicts like other countries in the Middle East – Field Marshal Al-Sisi seemed suitable for the task of becoming a founding figure for a resurrected Egyptian nation. In the past, Professor Wahba was mildly critical of Atatürk, because he believed that the Turkish leader's reliance on the military was "dangerous." According to Wahba, "it would have been better if Atatürk had focused on the intellectuals."[27] In Egypt too, Wahba would have preferred the Egyptian "philosophers" to assume the cause of liberalizing the country, but since the intellectual elite had failed to rise to the occasion, the military has become the inevitable alternative, in the eyes of Wahba and most Egyptian liberal reformists.

In seeking a new, liberal, and democratic Egypt, many liberals have chosen to turn a blind eye to the violation of the axioms of conventional democracy. Women rights' activist Nawal Saadawi, for example, said that there is no point in "running after the elections," which should be held in times of peace, not when the country is torn by war.[28] Liberal poet and translator Fatima Naoot aptly conveyed that spirit. At first she opposed the election of Al-Sisi as president, because she did not think much of the idea of involving the military in civil government, but then she changed her mind, realizing that what Egypt needs now is "a gang of crazy people" and another Muhammad Ali:

"Muhammad Ali was crazy in the creative sense of the word. He did things out-of-the-box. He established an army out of thin air. He sent people to France, and brought people from France to Egypt, even though travelling was not easy back then. He engaged in brainstorming. He opened schools and universities. This was craziness," said Naoot. If Egypt tries to make progress in the conventional pace, she said, it would take forever, and this is something the Egyptians cannot afford. "We must leap over phases. We need someone who will make crazy decisions."[29]

Like Saadawi and Naoot, Professor Wahba believes that in times like this, it is wrong to stick to formal democracy. After all, without his recipe of secularism, tolerance, enlightenment, and liberalism, "democracy" does not amount to much. He was therefore critical of the U.S. insistence upon supporting formal democracy at all costs.[30] "America is doing everything wrong," he said. "They tell us that they want democracy in Egypt by tomorrow morning. That's ignorance. These people don't understand anything."[31]

Wahba says that the entire process of elections might as well be forfeited, since elections amount to very little in a non-democratic society. Under the current circumstances, the goal of tipping the scale from Ibn Taymiyya to Averroës is best served by empowering General Al-Sisi as president through a mass demonstration. Who needs elections?! As far as Wahba is concerned, the Egyptian people can go to Tahrir Square and declare Al-Sisi President.[32] Democracy should not be limited to the process of elections, which has become a matter of mere convention. "We will hold elections when the four elements of democracy are there," says Wahba.[33]


The Arab Spring earthquake has fractured the Middle East across multiple fault lines. While some countries were torn across sectarian or tribal seams, the conflict in Egypt – as in Tunisia – revolved mainly around religion and state. Professor Mourad Wahba has chosen to ignore the norms of conventional democracy, in order to ensure constitutional separation of religion and state, commanded by a strong elite – if not intellectual, then military – that would draw Egyptian society closer to the enlightenment of Averroës and away from the fundamentalism of Ibn Taymiyya. For him, nothing else matters.

Wahba and other liberal intellectuals have no desire to wait for what might take centuries – or even a million years, as Saudi philosopher Ibrahim Al-Bleahy has suggested – until a change in mentality evolves and cultural taboos are shattered. This is too little and too slow. Thus, they have chosen to place their fortunes with Field Marshal Al-Sisi, hoping that he will emerge as another Atatürk or Muhammad Ali.


* Yotam Feldner is MEMRI's Vice President of Operations and Director of MEMRI TV.





[1] Al-Ahali (Egypt), August 28, 2012.

[2] Al-Ahali (Egypt), August 28, 2012.

[3] Al-Ahali (Egypt), August 28, 2012.

[4] Al-Ahali (EygptEgypt), August 28, 2012.

[5] Al-Ahali (Egypt), August 28, 2012.

[6] Sada Al-Balad TV (Egypt), November 15, 2013.

[7] Rotana Khalijiya TV (Saudi Arabia), December 16, 2013.

[8], March 25, 2011.

[9], March 25, 2011.

[10], March 25, 2011.

[11] Sada Al-Balad TV (Egypt), November 15, 2013.

[12] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (U.K.), March 21, 2012.

[13] CBC TV (Egypt), March 8, 2012.

[14] (Lebanon), December 15, 2013.

[15] Sada Al-Balad TV (Egypt), November 15, 2013.

[16] Sada Al-Balad TV (Egypt), November 15, 2013.

[17] Sada Al-Balad TV (Egypt), November 15, 2013.

[18] Dream 2 TV (Egypt), January 13, 2014.

[19], December 18, 2013.

[20] Sada Al-Balad TV (Egypt), November 15, 2013.

[21], December 20, 2013.

[22], December 18, 2013.

[23] Sada Al-Balad TV (Egypt), November 15, 2013.

[24], December 20, 2013.

[25] Sada Al-Balad TV (Egypt), November 15, 2013.

[26] Nile Life TV (Egypt), November 8, 2010.

[27] Nile Life TV (Egypt), November 8, 2010.

[28] Sada Al-Balad TV (Egypt), December 27, 2013.

[29] Channel 1 (Egypt), December 2, 2012

[30] Nile Life TV (Egypt), November 8, 2010.

[31] Sada Al-Balad TV (Egypt), November 15, 2013.

[32], December 20, 2013.

[33], December 20, 2013.