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ElBaradei and the Tragedy of the Liberal
15 August 2013

Mohamed ElBaradei resigned as acting vice-president of the government on Wednesday 14 August, after hundreds of Egyptians died when security forces violently dispersed protesters demanding the reinstatement of President Mohamed Morsi in Cairo. In his resignation letter to President Adly Mansour, ElBaradei essentially said the bloodshed had been avoidable: ‘As you know, I saw that there were peaceful ways to end this clash in society, there were proposed and acceptable solutions for beginnings that would take us to national consensus … I cannot bear the responsibility for one drop of blood’.

Many would say ElBaradei should not have been in the government in the first place. The Nobel Peace Prize-winning former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and almost presidential candidate was given the job of acting vice-president after backing the military coup/popular uprising which toppled Morsi on 3 July. ‘It was a painful decision’ he said then. ‘It was outside the legal framework, but we had no other choice.’

Like many other Egyptian liberals, ElBaradei supported the military coup because he feared that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were taking Egypt in an undemocratic direction; towards theocracy. Morsi had after all overridden the power of the courts to question his decrees and had refused to form a coalition government in a deeply divided country caught in a crisis that so clearly called out for inclusiveness.

So ElBaradei made what was in a sense a Faustian pact with the generals: they would get rid of Morsi and he and the other liberals would put Egypt back on the path of democracy.

And then on 14 August that all came horribly unstuck. Like so many liberals before him, ElBaradei had got caught in the crossfire between the hard men, the autocrats. The military were widely condemned for using excessive force to remove the Brotherhood supporters from their sit-ins in Cairo. It certainly seems from the rising death toll that excessive force was used, though the government claimed that the Brotherhood fired first.

There was a revealing moment on Sky TV the morning after the bloodbath when the presenter asked a very sad young Egyptian journalist whether she thought that the Muslim Brotherhood would go underground and resort to armed struggle now that their peaceful protest had been smashed. The young reporter went ‘off script’ in a sense, by implying the armed struggle had already begun. The Brotherhood were armed with live ammunition and used it, she said. The security forces had no choice but to retaliate.

Whether we will ever discover the full truth about who fired first, it seems, as ElBaradei suggested in his resignation letter, the security forces could surely have avoided a confrontation in the first place by not insisting on removing the Brotherhood protesters from their encamped positions. Though ElBaradei resigned because he could not ‘bear the responsibility for one drop of blood’, to his many critics, he and the other liberals who supported the coup already have much blood on their hands.

This was after all the third fatal clash of the military and the Muslim Brotherhood and at least 140 of them had died in the first two. What took ElBaradei so long to resign? His critics would contend that instead of backing the coup and the dissolution of the democratically-elected parliament in June 2012, he and the other liberals could and should have worked ‘within the system to counterbalance Morsi’ as Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Centre put it in an article entitled ‘Egypt’s Liberal Guilt’ in Time magazine.

One must say that sounds good in theory but also terribly vague. It is the sort of course of action you propose in retrospect, one suspects, when there is no chance of it being tried and found wanting.Yet, unsatisfactory as it sounds, it certainly looks preferable after the events of 14 August, to having done a dodgy deal with the generals, trusting them to step out of politics in the near future and restore civilian rule.

Hamid suggests that the liberals acted as they did because they harbour an irrational hatred of the fundamentalists which surpasses what should be a healthy dislike of the generals. For this reason he sees them making the same wrong fatal choice in Tunisia where the Ennahda government, much milder in its Islamism than the Brotherhood, is nonetheless also facing ever-more aggressive opposition from street protesters backed by doctrinaire secular liberals.

But of course the Egyptian liberals cannot be held accountable for the actions of their Tunisian counterparts. They must be judged by the circumstances they confronted in Egypt.And one cannot help feeling that ElBaradei joined the post-3 July government in good faith, moved by a genuine concern about where Morsi was leading his country.

After 14 August, that faith may well look badly misguided. But that opinion of course enjoys the benefit of hindsight. Maybe, though, the lesson for ElBaradei and the liberals is as simple as the old cliché suggests; that the end cannot justify the means; that you cannot suspend democracy to save democracy.

That’s not a philosophy that topples empires. But if you presume to be a liberal, then perhaps, like liberals elsewhere – including in South Africa and, after the recent elections, Zimbabwe one should say – you just have to embrace the bittersweet love of supporting lost causes, and keep plodding on liberally in the hope that eventually the lost causes will be discovered by the majority.

It’s certainly difficult to imagine what else ElBaradei and Co. can now do to save Egypt from the hard men.

Peter Fabricius, Foreign Editor, Independent Newspapers, South Africa

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