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Mohammad Mursi, Bassem Sabry and April in Egypt

There aren’t many “liberals” in Egypt – writers frequently confuse the meaning of the word

H.A. Hellyer

Published: Updated:

There aren’t many “liberals” in Egypt – writers frequently confuse the meaning of the word by applying it to anyone who isn’t Islamist, or is anti-Islamist. It has also turned into something of a caricature for many commentators – those “whatever happened to those Egyptian liberals” pieces which still seem to get written, and taken at face value.

But there are a few genuine Egyptian liberals and a year ago this week, one of them, Bassem Sabry who was an Egyptian political commentator, passed away tragically in Cairo. When he passed away, I eventually went scouring through my pictures with him. I found one of the two of us in Tahrir Square in early December 2012. We had both gone to that small roundabout in the center of Cairo – a tiny area that held such deep meaning for us, as we dared to consider the possibilities of new futures and fresh opportunities for the people of Egypt. That evening was the scene of a huge protest against then President Mohammad Mursi, who had just issued a supra-judicial decree, immunizing his decisions from judicial review.

Bassem was a wise soul. He wasn’t a naïve observer oblivious to the faults of any of the sides in Egypt

H.A. Hellyer

I remember Bassem considering that Mursi’s moves that week were catastrophic – and we talked about it many times after that. Bassem was a liberal social democrat who believed in the revolution of the January 25 – he wasn’t particularly given to notions of Islamism, and perhaps even more so with regards to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Troubled by incitement

But his opposition to Mursi in late 2012 had little to do with that and had everything to do with his belief that Mursi had threatened the rule of law. He was also deeply troubled by the incitement, both sectarian as well violent, that Brotherhood leaders engaged in during that period. The violence at the Presidential Palace on the 5th and 6th of December, 2012 was the subject of judicial proceedings earlier this month, which led to Mursi receiving a 20-year-old custodial sentence.

Days after those events in 2012, Human Rights Watch issued a forthright, rather damning critique of the episode and demanded Mursi’s public prosecutor investigate the detention and abuse of several dozen anti-government protesters by Muslim Brotherhood members. The organization also called for an investigation into the failure of security forces to intervene to protect a peaceful anti-Mursi sit-in, and to stop the violence by both Mursi supporters and anti-Mursi protesters.

The HRW report makes for painful reading and explains why many, including Bassem Sabry, were so bitterly disappointed by Egypt’s first democratically elected president as well as his political party and movement. They were the party of power in late 2012 regardless of the unjustifiable resistance they faced from within the system. They acted irresponsibly and maliciously.

Human Rights Watch issued another report a few days ago. Let’s keep in mind that Human Rights Watch still stands by its 2012 report, which remains on their website. But they’re profoundly unsatisfied by the trial in 2015, noting it “was compromised by due process violations, the appearance of bias and an absence of conclusive evidence.”

I ponder how Bassem might have responded to the conclusion of that trial? He was, after all, deeply troubled about Mursi’s presidency during and after those clashes at the presidential palace. On more than one occasion, he told me how he thought Mursi had lost a kind of political legitimacy through those acts and how poor the conduct of the Brotherhood had been.

Polarized political scene

But Bassem and I often talked about the increasingly polarized political scene – and that was early 2013, let alone afterwards. We discussed how even some pro-revolutionary voices had poorly judged the situation, and were allowing their rhetoric to get out of control, though we still believed the revolutionary camp had much to offer. He consistently argued that ‘reconciliation was the only path for Egypt’.

In the days after Mursi was toppled, Bassem wrote, ever wisely:

“From a purely technical point of view, everyone knows what the terms of any political settlement in Egypt would revolve around. They would include: confidence building measures, safety from at least any politically-driven prosecution, the return of Islamist shut-down media or allowing the creation of alternatives, toning down the rhetoric in the private media, Mursi’s release, guarantees of involvement of Islamists in political life and the roadmap (potentially with minor discussions over the roadmap). The question is: does either side want this and whether or not they could sell this to their crowds. Until then, each side will try to find a breaking point or improve his bargaining power. And we all know what will happen in the meantime.”

Not too long after Bassem wrote that, the violent dispersal of the pro-Mursi sit-in at Raba’a took place. According to Egypt’s prime minister at the time, up to a thousand people were killed as the security services broke up the sit-in. Distasteful as much of the rhetoric emanating from it was, the sit-in was, according to many independent observers, overwhelmingly nonviolent and unarmed. As Mursi is sentenced to some twenty years in prison, no-one from the security establishment was sentenced – whether for the failure of protecting Egyptians in December of 2012 or for the hundreds of men and women who died in Raba’a in 2013.

Bassem was a wise soul. He wasn’t a naïve observer oblivious to the faults of any of the sides in Egypt. He knew full well the importance that must be granted to the priority of speaking truth to power, and he rooted his analysis in recognition of that. He could do nothing else, really – for that was at the core of the revolutionary uprising that he so believed in.

A year after his passing and two years after Egypt’s democratic experiment was suspended, his words remain as relevant today as they were when he wrote them. Bassem may have been taken from us but a part of his wisdom still remains. It would be prudent of the living to learn from it.

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Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and the Harvard University Kennedy School, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.