OP-EDs on Egypt by Dr. Abou El Fadl: "The Collapse of Legitimacy: How Egypt's Secular Intelligentsia Betrayed the Revolution," ABC Religion and Ethics Website, 7.11.13

Legitimacy (shar'iyya) is a key word in the Arab world these days. In Egypt, it is the most contested word in the political language of the day. Morsi's supporters are willing to die in the name of shar'iyya, and his opponents claim that the true source of shar'iyya are the masses of Tahrir Square.

The Egyptian intelligentsia do not seem to tire of defining, explaining and expounding upon this key word. The amount of philosophizing that flows endlessly from the pens and mouths of Egyptian intellectuals is dizzying and, in my view, mostly incoherent, opportunistic and forced.

So, for instance, according to the pundits that fill every media outlet:

There is revolutionary legitimacy, which is different from electoral legitimacy, and there is constitutional legitimacy, but there is also supra-constitutional legitimacy. The legitimacy of constitutions can be trumped by meta-principles, grund norms, or preemptory principles. There is legitimacy created by expectations and promises made during the electoral race, and conversely, the loss of legitimacy because of the failure to uphold those promises. There is the legitimacy conferred and withdrawn by the guardians of legitimacy, who are also the ultimate protectors of Egypt's sovereign state interests. There is the legitimacy of the streets and the legitimacy of the manifest destiny of Egypt in human history. There is a lost legitimacy of an elected president who dared infringe upon the sanctity of the judiciary - something like the religious idea of mortal sin. But there is also the legitimacy of a judge, who remains a member of the judiciary, but is granted executive, and legislative powers all at once. There is the legitimacy granted by a sincere commitment to democracy, and the illegitimacy of parties that should have never been allowed to form a political party because they are religiously based. There is the legitimacy of the social contract and the illegitimacy of those who are insincere in their commitment to the contract because they do not believe in the civic state and its legitimacy. In short, after a revolution that overthrew one of the oldest dictatorships in the Middle East, and after six different popular elections, Egyptian intellectuals seem to be hopelessly chaotic in their understanding of what legitimacy is, and how one goes about acquiring it in a democratic system.


The revolution of 25 January 2011 promised a complete paradigm shift in the way the Egyptian intelligentsia think about political legitimacy. The revolution created a hope, which now feels like a passing dream, that Egyptians could learn the lesson taught by so many tragedies in human history. Quite simply, this lesson is that sovereignty belongs to the citizenry, and that the only source of legitimacy is the integrity and sanctity of the democratic process. No group and no person, whatever the imagined urgency or ultimate wisdom, has the right to short change or overrule the process.

One truly hoped that the Arab Spring was the beginning of a new era in which it is finally understood that sovereignty belongs to the people, and that the exclusive and sole way that the sovereign will can be expressed - and hence, the only way to gain legitimacy - is through the integrity of the process. The integrity of the political process must be defended above all.

Civil society needs civic values, and civic values are upheld through a civil discourse that does not exclude or marginalize the other. Civic discourses cannot be navigated if the participants of the discourse get into the habit of using language to eradicate the other's worth, value or dignity. Civic discourses try to search and achieve consensus over shared values, and strive to respect and tolerate values upon which people cannot agree. Yet it has become all too common for liberal secular forces to refer to Islamists as traitors, murderers, fascists and hoodlums, and on the other side, for Islamists to question the faith, piety and loyalty of their opponents.

But in principle, regardless of how polarizing the discourse might have become, respecting the process was the only guarantor that there would be a non-violent and reliable way to challenge power, hold officials accountable, and establish legitimacy. If all else fails, civil disobedience would be the last resort because it can correct procedural deviations while remaining within the bounds of the civic order. Violence and forced military interventions de-legitimate the very logic of a civil order.

The secular intelligentsia in Egypt and in the Arab world in general has locked the region into a near perpetual circle of self-defeatism because they appear incapable of understanding that nothing kills lofty ideas quite like the pragmatic hypocrisy of their bearers.

The military coup, even if it came in response to widespread grievances, is a fatal blow to the Egyptian Revolution. It is a fatal blow because it reaffirmed the politics of the old guardians in Egypt. It confirmed the traditional polarized, mutually exclusivist and equally supremacist politics that has prevailed, not only in Egypt, but throughout the Middle East since the colonial era. Unfortunately, the military coup and the return of the repressive security forces in Egypt came as a natural conclusion to the elasticity of the claims of legitimacy made by so many parties after the revolution.

But more than anything else, it is the Egyptian secular intelligentsia and the revolutionaries themselves that forced the revolution to commit suicide. This secular intelligentsia - not only in Egypt, but also in the Arab world in general - has locked the region into a near perpetual circle of self-defeatism because they appear incapable of understanding that nothing kills lofty ideas quite like the pragmatic hypocrisy of their bearers.

Hence, it is critical to understand that the failure above all else is the defeat dealt to the ethics of legitimacy. It speaks volumes that the grievances against Mohammed Morsi were that he tried to monopolize power, he failed to respect the rule of law as embodied in the judiciary and he infringed upon the rights of dissenters. Yet the representative of the judiciary sitting as Egypt's interim president is blissfully untroubled by the unlawful closing of opposing media outlets, by the mass arrests and even murder of pro-Morsi advocates, and by his own monopolization of legislative and executive powers deposited in him by the military.

The secular intelligentsia that presented itself as the upholder of civic and democratic principles during Morsi's rule is now celebrating the appointment of Mohamed ElBaradei, who has not gone through a single electoral test of his legitimacy and has been superimposed upon the sovereign Egyptian people through military will. One cannot miss the paradoxical irony that interim President Adli Mansour, sitting as a judge on the Constitutional Court, could not tolerate any degree of political intervention by a civilian president, but is not troubled by receiving his marching orders from the military.


Why did the Egyptian secular intelligentsia betray their revolution? Why have they fallen into such profound and blatant contradictions such that they killed the infant revolution? To answer this question we must go back in time and understand what can be described as the time honoured traditions of Egyptian politics.

Long before the military coup, the secular intelligentsia and some of their revolutionary partners destined the revolution to a painful suicide by indulging in what has now become an often-repeated offense. They imagined themselves as the one and only true possessors of legitimacy, not because they represent the sovereign will but because they and they alone possess the civilizational and intellectual values necessary for a progressive order in which true democracy, unhampered by reactionary forces, can be achieved.

Since the age of colonialism, legitimacy has become an elastic word that is exploited to invent and repress history; to construct and de-construct identity; and to uphold and deny rights. Legitimacy is possessed by no one but claimed by everyone, and it is enforced only through sheer power. In the absence of a transparent and accountable civil process, those who believe that they are the de facto possessors of legitimacy massacre in cold blood, torture, maim and commit every possible offense in the name of defending the existing legitimacy.

Since the age of colonialism, legitimacy has become an elastic word that is exploited to invent and repress history; to construct and de-construct identity; and to uphold and deny rights.

It is paradoxical, but very telling, that long before the military coup, the secular intelligentsia, whether on the right or left, adopted and promoted the claim that the Islamists were brought into power by the United States to implement an American agenda in the region. According to countless published articles and intellectuals appearing on privately owned television stations, the Muslim Brotherhood was but a pawn for American interests in the region.

This conspiratorial framework was set out in great detail in numerous articles published in the opposition papers in which it was alleged that the United States brought Islamists to power in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt and planned to bring Islamists to power in Syria so as to keep Arabs backwards and underdeveloped. Although no country has done more to undermine the Brotherhood than Saudi Arabia, Egyptian intellectuals blissfully continued to claim that there is an Egyptian, Turkish, Qatari and Israeli conspiracy to augment the United States' hegemonic power in the Middle East and to end any semblance of independence in the region.

This conspiratorial view is repeated so incessantly and persistently, but it is not a propaganda ploy or simple rhetorical flare. Is it possible that the secular intelligentsia truly believes that Abdel-Fattah El-Sissi, who was trained and educated in the United States, and the likes of ElBaradei, who served under Hosni Mubarak and who is more at home in the West than in Egypt, are capable of setting an independent course for Egyptian foreign policy? Is it possible that this secular intelligentsia have not noticed that as soon as Morsi was overthrown, Saudi Arabia and UAE came forward to save the Egyptian economy with an unprecedented lucrative aid package?

I am confident that the secular intelligentsia has noticed, but the conspiratorial accusatory framework is a poorly intellectualized way of making a very important point, and that is: not just the Brotherhood, but all Islamists in the region, lack real legitimacy. Portraying the Islamists as part of a foreign conspiracy is driven by the need to cast them as outsiders to society. Accordingly, Islamists do not represent any type of traditional or native authenticity, but are agents provocateurs manipulated by outsiders. They exploit native symbols, but only to serve foreign agendas that have nothing to do with the material interests of the people they claim to represent.


The tactic of claiming that Islamists are agents of foreign interests is not new. It has been used by every Arab dictator who has repressed Islamic groups since the 1950s. The secular intelligentsia were forced to resort to it, not only because they were incapable of galvanizing the electoral vote, but because they themselves are alienated and poorly rooted in the cultures for which they claim to speak.

The colonial era witnessed the rise of a largely Western educated class that was trained and weaned to form the necessary bourgeoisie that would service the state bureaucratic apparatus necessary for servicing colonial interests in the region. However, at that time, many of the Western educated intelligentsia still enjoyed close ties to influential reform-oriented religious figures such as Muhammad Abduh. These religious figures worked to reconcile traditional Islamic values with the modern nation-state, democracy and constitutionalism. They also represented a symbolic link to historical continuity and the legitimacy of tradition.

The ability of the Westernized intelligentsia to negotiate grounds of commonality with religious intellectual forces granted them a relative degree of native legitimacy. Typically, this Westernized intelligentsia was thoroughly grounded in post-renaissance European thought, but knew precious little about the pre-colonial Islamic epistemic tradition. Indeed, this intelligentsia saw their own native tradition largely through Western eyes. In other words, what they understood or believed about Islamic history and thought came largely from the writings of Western orientalists. Even to this day, the general outlook of the secular intelligentsia - their understanding of the progression, trajectory, contributions and the very worth of the Islamic tradition is derived practically exclusively from the writings of Western scholars on Islam.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the secular intelligentsia played a critical role in translating orientalist literature into Arabic and taught these sources in urban universities throughout Egypt. As such, they acted as a persistent bridge to transplanting and transforming Western views of Islamic history and thought to an internalized self-view in the consciousness of the urbanized elite.

Typically, the Westernized intelligentsia was thoroughly grounded in post-renaissance European thought, but knew precious little about the pre-colonial Islamic epistemic tradition. Indeed, this intelligentsia saw their own native tradition largely through Western eyes.

The cooperative and friendly relationship of the Westernized intelligentsia with the reform and liberal minded Islamic scholars did not last. With the rise of Pan-Arab nationalism, and ideological movements such as Nasserism and Ba'athism in the 1950s, the dynamics between the Westernized intelligentsia and Islamic orientations changed in fundamental and dramatic ways. Arab nationalism adopted the rhetoric of religion as a fundamentally reactionary force pitted against a progressive force of national liberation. The secular intelligentsia, which at the time were largely leftist and socialist, legitimated and defended the repressive praetorian state as necessary for achieving progressive historical objectives.

A very significant number of Egyptian intellectuals, such as Hussein Haykal, saw religion as a private and personal matter that should play no normative role in the public sphere. In reality, however, religion was not excluded from the public sphere, but it was allowed to exist only within the narrow space allowed it by the Arab secular state. The secular state created officially sanctioned podiums for religion and, in effect, created an official state religion that rubber-stamped and legitimated state politics. At the same time, this state-sponsored religion lost its legitimacy on the ground as the clergy of Azhar became salaried employees of the state. With the domestication of the native Azhari clergy, critical Islamic thought drifted into stale apologetics that placated and satisfied only the most uninspired and unchallenging intellects. This helps explain the powerful symbolism invoked when El-Sissi placed the Shaykh of al-Azhar and the Pope of the Coptic Church on either side of him when he announced his coup.

The 1967 defeat and the rise of Saudi funded Wahhabi-Salafi movements in the 1970s heralded the death of pan-Arab nationalism, and challenged the privileged status of the Westernized Egyptian intelligentsia. While intellectually unsophisticated, Wahhabi-Salafi movements achieved something that the Westernized intelligentsia was no longer capable of doing - to appeal to and galvanize the masses.

After the cooptation of the scholars of Azhar by the state, and the death of the pan-Arab socialist dream, what captured the imagination of the masses was the impassioned rhetoric of the Islamic groups who recalled in the imagination of their audiences a time of glory when Muslims were powerful and respected, and when justice reigned.

The uncomfortable truth is that the Westernized intelligentsia continued to rely on the repressive state to continue in a privileged status. While Islamic groups appealed to the masses on the street by embracing many of their social and economic problems and by capturing their imagination with the promise of a regained glory, the secular intelligentsia had a very different path.

Over four decades the secular intelligentsia relied on the praetorian state to placate and repress the Islamists. But embracing the evolving language of the age, this intelligentsia adopted the Western language of democracy, pluralism, civil society and human rights. While failing to understand or engage the aspirations of the masses, the secular intelligentsia adopted an increasingly elitist and even supremacist attitude towards Islamists. They borrowed the language of modernity, postmodernity, globalization and the international community as a self-assuring and self-congratulatory discourse about their own ability to understand the complexity of the modern world, to rise up to the challenges of the globalization, and to move Egyptian society towards development and progress. Meanwhile, the gap between the rich and poor grew ever larger, and the economic problems of Egypt became more complicated.

The secularist and Islamist discourses grew ever more polarized. The secularists saw the Islamists as reactionary forces often describing them as dhalamiyyun ("of the dark ages" or "living in the dark ages"), and the Islamists saw the secularists as essentially alien to the society they claimed to represent. The irony is that both parties spoke the language of democracy and civil rights, and both continued to believe that they represented the true and legitimate public good. In the name of democracy, Islamists won elections and in the name of democracy the secular intelligentsia continued to rely on the repressive state as their guarantor against the reactionary Islamist forces.

The uncomfortable truth is that the Westernized intelligentsia continued to rely on the repressive state to continue in a privileged status.

A new emerging reality, however, had overtaken Egyptian society and marginalized all else. The military and security forces continued to enjoy the patronage of the United States, and control the institutions of the state. But Egyptian society was flush with Gulf money, and this created an odd and painful dynamic. Saudi Arabia continued to fund Wahhabi-Salafi movements and, eventually, funded a number of privately owned satellite stations. However, other privately owned media sprung up that belonged to a class of investors with a complex web of interests involving Gulf money and Mubarak's state apparatus. Significantly, a large segment of the Egyptian secular intelligentsia relied on these profitable cultural venues for their very survival.

The Mubarak regime balanced the Islamist media with a secular media. The same balancing act is played by the Saudi government, which owns secular channels such as the rather racy MBC and plays them off religious channels such as Iqraa. Importantly, the Mubarak regime had a complex network of incentives, rewards and punishments for journalists, writers, media personalities and everyone who could affect public opinion. Most of the secular intelligentsia became clientele of the state in which they played the role of the loyal opposition. Their measured and domesticated opposition legitimated the repressive state apparatus that had become increasingly savage and brutal.

The Egyptian revolution was sparked by an idealistic group of youth who had lost faith in all the institutions of power. This youth was defiant, innocent, idealistic, and uncorrupted. But it was successful because the destitute masses had suffered enough.

The Egyptian revolution presented the arrogant and domesticated secular intelligentsia with a true challenge. Suddenly, for the first time, they were presented with the task of practicing what they preached, and of speaking for the populace without the mediating role of the repressive state. Even when at times, they defended the rights of a member of the Brotherhood or of an Islamist, the repressive state stood as an ultimate guarantor that the Islamists would never become too powerful.

For decades, this intelligentsia theorized about the sovereign will, reactionism, progressivism and the place of Egypt in world history, but for the first time, they were forced to come face to face, deal with, and explain themselves to the Egyptian people. For the first time, they could not simply dismiss the Islamists with contempt and arrogance, and they would have to figure out a native language - a language that does not simply transplant Western concepts, ideas and historical movements, but would actually empower these ideas with meaning to the Egyptian people. Would the secular intelligentsia be capable of working through the will of the people without guardian state institutions such as the army, police, or judiciary to package this will and present it in a palatable fashion?


Why did the secular intelligentsia fear the Brotherhood so much? The Muslim Brotherhood had been the perpetual victim. Since 1954, there was no significant time that passed without the Brotherhood being persecuted and repressed in some fashion or another. Unable to depend on the powers of the state, the Brotherhood developed a network of charitable projects, and lived and preached among Egypt's disappearing middle class and impoverished masses.

Like all wealthy Egyptians, the Brotherhood relied on Gulf money, but it was capital amassed when their members were forced to escape to Gulf countries during Nasser's regime. Under Sadat and Mubarak, many of those who lived in exile in Gulf countries returned to Egypt and focused their energies on entrepreneurial projects that capitalized on their Gulf connections. However, the Brotherhood had an odd love-hate relationship with Saudi Arabia. They clearly accommodated Wahhabi-Salafi Islam and benefited from Saudi largess in some contexts, but at the same time, their brand of Islam was different. Unlike the Wahhabi-Salafi movement, they sincerely believed in democracy as the inevitable and Islamically acceptable system of government. They also rejected the infamous Wahhabi practice of takfir (or of calling their Muslim opponents infidels). Consequently, the Brotherhood was well positioned to appeal to the electoral ballot.

The secular intelligentsia tried to put off an electoral showdown with Islamists. They openly complained that they had not had a chance to work with the masses while the Islamists were adept at tricking and cajoling the simple-minded public that could not understand complex ideas such as constitutionalism and limitations on power. They tried in every way to dissuade the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) from holding a referendum that raised the ultimate question of the Islamic identity of the state. Many of them tried to convince the SCAF that true democracy requires the banning of religiously based parties, and the prohibition of religious symbolism in elections. However, the military wanted a real sense of the pulse of the masses, and did not want to be dragged into a violent showdown with Islamists.

The Islamists won the referendum of 19 March 2011 with 77 percent of the vote. The parliamentary elections of 28 November 2011 was a landslide in favour of the Islamists with the Brotherhood winning 43.3 percent and other Islamic alliances winning 25 percent. The Shura Council elections were also a landslide win with the Brotherhood capturing 58.3 percent and al-Nour 25 percent of the popular vote.

Both the secular intelligentsia and the SCAF itself were now worried, and the elite class of petty capitalists who for decades had thrived only through a parasitical relationship with Mubarak's corrupt state apparatus were worried as well. On 14 June 2012, the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC), staffed by Mubarak appointees, dissolved the entire parliament because purportedly the election laws discriminated against independent candidates. On 18 June 2012, the SCAF passed the infamous "revisions" to the first Constitutional Declaration insulating the armed forces from civilian oversight or accountability and granting the army veto power over the act of declaring war. A few days later on 25 June, the SCC challenged the legality of the Shura Council, giving a clear indication that it too was likely to be dissolved.

The last remaining hope for the Islamists was the presidential elections, which were begrudgingly held by the SCAF after repeated demonstrations and protests. Just in case the Islamist dominated parliament would not be dissolved by the SCC, the SCAF and the judiciary allowed General Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak's last prime minister, to run against the Islamists despite the numerous corruption charges pending against him. Moreover, the old regime with its full network of petty capitalists put all its weight behind General Shafiq, who was reinvented by the privately owned media into a revolutionary figure who fervently believed in the rule of law.

Considering that General Shafiq was given the full support of the Egyptian state and that the privately owned media launched a full-fledged attack on the Brotherhood, the real surprise was that President Muhammed Morsi was still able to eek out a narrow victory of 51.7 percent against Shafiq's 48.3 percent. The presidential elections presented the secular intelligentsia with a stark choice: they could support the old order or they could swallow the bitter pill of supporting an Islamist candidate.

Most chose to do neither. But their sense of grievance and belief that the masses were not mature enough to decide the fate of the country through free elections was only reaffirmed.

Morsi and the Brotherhood gave their secular opponents a golden opportunity with his poor performance as Egypt's first freely elected president. Comforted by the repeated electoral victories, he moved against two bastions of privilege and power in Egypt - both secular, entitled, elitist and deeply offended at having to limit their power. Egypt is the only purported democracy where it is a criminal offense to criticize the military or judiciary and it is impossible to penetrate through the veil of immunity behind which corruption takes place.

Although the Islamists were able to pass the New Egyptian Constitution by a 63.8 percent vote on 25 December 2012, this was the last straw. The old regime with its unholy and somewhat psychotic alliances returned. The secular intelligentsia once again manned all of the podiums provided by the privately owned media, the SCC kept rejecting draft after draft of the revised electoral that was intended to save the Shura Council from being dissolved, and the military started negotiating with Washington, D.C. to remove Morsi from power.

The guardians of truth, the military and judiciary, needed to reset the revolution on its proper course by undoing the results of all six elections and by turning over the revolution to its rightful owners - the rightful owners being the possessors of the secular truth, that religion has no role in the public sphere, and that the masses need to be shepherded into a democracy.

Most importantly, in my view, panicking from the new breed of democratic Islam, the Saudis waged a campaign of economic sabotage against Morsi's government causing repeated power outages and gasoline shortages all over Egypt. And, they opened their coffers to numerous writers and journalists for waging an incessant and sometimes irrational campaign against the Brotherhood.

The massive turnout of protestors on 30 June 2013 came as nothing short of a real gift to the Brotherhood's opponents. Weeks before the secular intelligentsia had been openly calling upon the old guardians - namely, the military and judiciary - to intervene to save Egypt's revolution. Reminiscent of the role they have consistently played since the colonial era, they called upon old guardians to save the country from the follies of its natives. The guardians of truth needed to reset the revolution on its proper course by undoing the results of all six elections and by turning over the revolution to its rightful owners - the rightful owners being the possessors of the secular truth, that religion has no role in the public sphere, and that the masses need to be shepherded into a democracy rather than be treated as true sovereign agents.

The actual coup was a mere formality. The secular intelligentsia, however, felt more empowered than ever before. Now, they badly wanted to believe that in one year of Morsi's rule, they had finally achieved what they had failed to achieve since the colonial period - mass appeal. This is why they jumped on the figure of thirty million people demonstrating in Tahrir as proof positive of the legitimacy of the secular project. It is this group in Tahrir Square and no other, who are the indisputable source of legitimacy, and of what the intelligentsia knew all along, that Islamists should return to the periphery of power where they belong, and should be prevented by the old guardians from misleading the masses.

This is why the secular intelligentsia did not have a problem with the unlawful closings of the media owned by Islamists and with the unjust arrests that included the speaker of the dissolved parliament and even the attorneys who represented the Brotherhood before the SCC.


Paradoxically, it is the secular intelligentsia that unwittingly admitted the empty circle in which they keep revolving. According to them, 1952 and 2013 were legitimate revolutions in modern Egyptian history - in 1952, the army rose against injustice and the people backed it up, and in June 2013 the people rose against injustice and the army backed them up! But the secular intelligentsia fails to note that in both 1952 and 2013 the army remained the ultimate arbiter of power and the only force that at will invents and destroys constitutions, rights and institutions.

Indeed, it does appear that they are determined to repeat history once again. By celebrating the coup of 2013, just as they celebrated the coup of 1952, the Egyptian secular intelligentsia demonstrated that they have learned nothing.

Scholar of the House is dedicated to providing a path to peace through education and understanding. Please join our cause!