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Hussein Aboubakr, Egyptian liberal in exile

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Hussein Aboubakr, who recently sat for an interview with the Middle East Policy Examiner, was born in Cairo in 1989. He studied Jewish history and culture at Cairo University. He was arrested by the Hosni Mubarak regime for anti-government activities, and escaped from Egypt just before Mohamed Morsi became the Muslim Brotherhood president. He now lives in San Diego.

The obvious question arises: Why would an Egyptian in Cairo want to study the Jews? Aboubakr was intrigued by the hate-filled propaganda against Jews and Christians pervading Egypt. “In the Middle East they have a mythological view of the world, a story about an eternal war between the forces of Allah and the forces of evil. This mythology is not mythology to them; it is as real as the world itself.”

So Aboubakr began reading the Bible, which was his path into Jewish history and culture. “I started to learn about human life and human history in general and how all humans are the same, with the same tragedies, hopes and pains. Jewish literature allowed me to go deeper in human awareness, thought and intellectuality, and while learning about others I started to learn more about myself. Eventually it changed my whole life, for the better as I believe, and thus I will be forever thankful for Jewish culture.”

This study occurred during the period of the Israeli-Egyptian “cold peace,” a term Aboubakr dislikes. “There has never been a peace between Israel and Egypt, and any Israeli can test that by visiting Cairo and trying to survive for a day after people know he is from Israel.” It is merely a peace between Israel and the government of Egypt. Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian president who signed the peace treaty with Israel, is hated in Egypt—although not so much for the peace with Israel but because he destroyed any chance of economic development for Egypt, confiscated all civil liberties and freedoms, and established the systematically corrupt police state which Mubarak later inherited. “Israel never had peace with the Egyptian people, but it had peace with a corrupt, hypocritical political regime which manipulated Israel for its own benefit. Both Sadat and Mubarak never sold peace with Israel to the Egyptian people as a good thing, but rather as a temporary situation till one day ‘we can finish those Jewish pigs.’”

Aboubakr was among those who tried to change Egypt during the “Arab Spring,” but he found that the liberalism he advocated didn’t really stand a chance. Mubarak had suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood, but at the same time had kept it alive. Meanwhile, Mubarak genuinely eliminated any secular/liberal opposition. This way he could say to the United States and the West that it had to support his regime—the only alternative would be the Islamists. Thus, when Mubarak fell, the only opposition organized enough to effectively contest the elections was the Brotherhood. Liberals wanted several years to prepare Egypt for elections, but the military insisted upon elections within a year.

But there’s a second, deeper reason that liberalism was doomed to failure. Even Egyptian “liberals” mostly wanted the government to have a religious basis. The ideas of Western Enlightenment figures like John Locke and Thomas Jefferson are available—in university libraries, for example—but they have not been assimilated by Egyptian society. Thus, 90% of voters in the first post-Mubarak parliamentary elections supported Islamic parties.

Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government was awful by every measure, but of most concern to ordinary Egyptians was the lack of food and security. That’s why the military, which has long had considerable prestige in Egypt, had popular support for the coup which ousted Morsi.

Since Egyptian rulers Nasser, Sadat, Mubarak and now Abdel Sisi have come out of the military, it looks like Egypt has simply reverted to the status quo ante: military rule under a veneer of civilian institutions. But while Sisi has largely restored order, Egypt’s economy remains flat on its back. If the government can’t solve the problem of bread and jobs, it could face an even greater revolt—“It could be total chaos.”

So is there any hope for liberalism and democracy in Egypt? “My Egyptian colleagues see me as a total pessimist, but unfortunately I’m proven always right. Things never get better in Egypt, but always worse. Egypt has too many hot issues boiling from underneath the society and Egypt shall see no prosperity or stability till it is all settled. Issues like: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, minority rights, Islamic extremism, religious hatred, racism (against black Egyptians, Bedouins and Copts), sexual frustration, social and economic injustice, management failure, etc. Democracy cannot be found in a society that does not honor the liberty of the individual. Egyptians can’t establish a democratic state while they do not honor the most profound concepts of democracy in their daily life. You cannot force the state to honor the people’s privacy and free will while the people themselves do not honor these rights. A society which prosecutes non-Muslims, disrespects women and glorifies honor crimes cannot give birth to a state with modern values.

“For these reasons I claim that the problem is not in the political process itself but rather in the people themselves. The military is the de-facto owner of the current Egyptian state, the Muslim Brotherhood is just a political pragmatic group backed by Islamic lunatics which tried—foolishly—to negotiate a partnership with the military. The Muslim Brotherhood failed and their political life in Egypt in practically over. As for the military, they do not have many choices; they can try and reconstruct the state of Mubarak, Sadat and Nasser, and in that case they will fail big and they will lead the country to a more violent chaotic scene, or they can try to deliver power to a secular civil political party and leave the political process to its own rules, which I highly doubt that they would do.”

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