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Liberal Democratic Legacies in Modern Egypt: The Role of the Intellectuals, 1900–1950

By Israel Gershoni Published 2012

Ruz al-Yusuf reacting to the outbreak of the Second World War. “History repeats itself: The end of Hitler at the hands of democracy.” Britain, France, and Egypt portrayed as Allied Forces against Nazi Germany. September 9, 1939.

“Freedom is the ultimate virtue of mankind”; “Democracy is the only political system of modern man and modern society”; “Therefore, Egypt must be committed to freedom and democracy.” These are the words of ‘Abbas Mahmud al-‘Aqqad in his book Hitlar fi al-Mizan (Hitler in the Balance), which aroused sharp public interest in Egypt and the Arab world when it was published in Cairo in early June 1940. The book was written when Hitler was at the height of his military successes, and it was widely assumed that nothing would thwart his advances. ‘Aqqad’s book leveled a harsh attack on Hitler and Nazism. Through his analysis of Hitler’s complex and deranged personality, ‘Aqqad deconstructed Nazi racism, dictatorship, and imperialism. He portrayed Hitler and Nazism as the ultimate danger not only for freedom and democracy, but also for modernity, the very existence of modern man and enlightened culture. In ‘Aqqad’s view, the merits of a liberal democracy were rooted in: individual freedoms and civil liberties, constitutionalism, a parliamentary and multiparty system, the separation of powers, equality for all citizens, cultural pluralism, and the unquestionable legitimacy of political opposition.

When ‘Aqqad (1889–1964) expressed these views in the early years of the Second World War, his liberal democratic worldview had fully coalesced. Already in his early fifties, he was an established and well-known intellectual active for more than three decades. In hundreds of articles published in the Egyptian press, and particularly in his book The Absolute Rule of the 20th Century (al-Hukm al-Mutlaq fi al-Qarn al-‘Ishrin), published in 1929, ‘Aqqad reaffirmed his commitment to democracy and his rejection of any form of absolutism, oligarchy, aristocracy, and autocratic monarchial rule, and in particular Fascism, Nazism, and, in a different way, Communism. As a representative of the Wafd party in the Egyptian parliament, and later as the intellectual leader of the Sa‘adist Party and its representative in the Chamber of Deputies, ‘Aqqad was one of the most consistently democratic activists in Egyptian politics and culture.

However, ‘Aqqad was by no means exceptional. His ideas and activities aptly reflected the mainstream current within the intellectual community. In this article, I will first describe the salient features of this community and the contexts in which they operated, and then focus on the liberal modes of thought developed by two of the most representative intellectuals. This intellectual current coalesced and exerted its influence during the interwar era (1919–39) until the mid-1950s, galvanizing and institutionalizing a strong tradition of liberal democratic thought in Egypt and in the Arab Middle East. The intellectual community was active in a relatively sympathetic and friendly environment underpinned by two essential elements: the first was the very existence of parliamentarism; the second was the emergence and development of a strong civil society.

From 1923 to 1952, parliamentary government served as the basic framework within which Egyptian political, social, and cultural life evolved. Following the Great War, the eruption of the anti-colonial revolution of 1919 forced British authorities to grant Egypt formal independence in February 1922. Egyptian independence facilitated the promulgation of a liberal constitution in 1923 that called for a two-house Parliament, Chamber of Deputies, and Senate, and the immediate establishment of a parliamentary monarchy headed by King Fu’ad. For the ensuing thirty years, Egyptian political life consisted of a parliamentary system in which political parties competed for office in periodic national elections. This system endured until the July 1952 Revolution and the declaration of the Republic of Egypt in 1953. It dismantled the autocracy of the Khedival rule, eroded the authoritarian political culture of the late Egyptian-Ottoman oligarchy, and weakened British colonial rule. It encouraged ethnic pluralism and religious tolerance, reduced the presence of the police and army, and cultivated rich cultural activity with minimal state intervention.

The relative success of Egyptian parliamentary government was based on a mature civil society that developed distinct liberal public spheres. It emerged in the late nineteenth century, reached maturity after the Great War, and flourished during the interwar era. This civil society gave birth to a liberal public sphere, one that I define as the “effendi liberal public sphere.” Indeed, this civil society originated in an effendi social milieu. The effendiyya, groups of urban educated middle classes that emerged and expanded in the first half of the twentieth century, provided the fertile social grounds for the emergence of liberal, multivocal, and heterogeneous public spheres. First, the effendiyya promoted and maintained freedom of the press, which facilitated the production of a diverse variety of hundreds of dailies, weeklies, and monthlies, and other print media products. Second, this explosion of print culture encouraged and expanded public discourses both in Egypt and throughout the Arab world. Third, the effendiyya was also responsible for the pluralistic culture of everyday life that flourished in coffee and teahouses, civil associations, entrepreneurial projects, political organizations, social clubs, cultural salons, and the theater and cinema industries. Old and young, men and women, Christians, Jews and Muslims, and elite and non-elite strata participated in this inclusive civil activity within public spheres. However, the intellectuals constituted the hardcore center of this effendi liberal public sphere: they were the idea makers, the cultural producers, the writers and artists.

Historically, intellectual efforts to liberalize and democratize Egyptian life were underway as early as the first decade of the twentieth century. In particular, the thought of Ahmad Lutfi al-Sayyid (1872–1963), his journal al-Jarida, and Hizb al-Umma (the “Party of the Nation”) laid the groundwork for the emergence of a liberal democratic worldview from 1907–15. True, this was a patronizing, elitist concept of a democracy that assumed the intellectuals would play the Platonian role of philosopher-kings whose mission was to guide and control the democratic process. Because of the masses’ ignorance and irrationality, they were not supposed to take part in the liberal democratic milieu. Most of the liberal intellectual leaders whom I will discuss started their careers as disciples of Lutfi al-Sayyid and the al-Jarida school. With time, they would go on to challenge this elitist idea of a democracy and champion a more inclusive notion of a liberal democracy. This intellectual activity reached its zenith during the interwar era when its social, political, and cultural impact was most discernible.

How did these intellectuals conceive of a liberal democracy? Generally, one can say that for them, a liberal democracy was an organizing form of society and polity whose declared goal was to establish a liberal and just order that would guarantee the free will of all of its citizens, while defending civil rights and liberties. A liberal democratic government was to mediate between the wills of individuals and the collective interests of society through elections, representation, and majority-based decision-making that protects the minority. Its aim was to facilitate the institutionalization of courts and agencies, which would arbitrate conflicting interests. This democracy would not pose any limitations on individual freedoms except when the individual’s deed infringed upon the rights of others, the collective, or the system itself.

This concept of a liberal democracy originated in three major sources. The first was the Mediterranean Greco-Roman legacy, particularly Plato and Aristotle, and the Roman republican constitutionalist tradition as expressed by Polybius and Cicero. The second major source was the British political tradition of the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries as well as the political thought from the French Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. Egyptian intellectuals demonstrated intimate familiarity with the Greco-Roman intellectual tradition, part of which was translated into Arabic first in the Middle Ages, and later in the modern era. They also read Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau, and the nineteenth-century writings of Bentham, Mill, and Tocqueville. As activists, they tended to select the liberal themes, principles, and practices that were most easily translatable to their society’s needs and conditions. They were dedicated to comprehending and adapting these bodies of thought to their local political culture and to disseminating liberal democratic principles and practices among broader sectors of society in order to create a solid tradition of an Egyptian-Arab liberal democracy. The third and perhaps secondary source from which these intellectuals drew inspiration was local. They extracted insights and theories from classical Islamic political philosophers, particularly, al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, and Ibn Khaldun.

Despite their reliance on classical texts, Egyptian intellectuals emphasized that an Egyptian liberal democracy was principally a modern concept. From their perspective, it was an integral part of the formation of a modern secular worldview and way of life. Therefore, their liberal democratic weltanshauung was formulated as an antagonist to institutionalized religion, Khedival autocracy, authoritarian Ottoman political norms, and the Egyptian-Ottoman aristocracy and oligarchy. This democratic liberalism was inextricably linked to rationalism, the primacy of human reason, science, progress, modernism, secularism, humanism, and a strain of separation between religion and the nation-state. As Albert Hourani described their worldviews in his classical book Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1789–1939 (1962), “according to such thinkers, human society is standing, by the irreversible and irresistible natural law of progress, towards an ideal state, of which the marks will be the domination of reason, the extension of individual liberty . . . and the replacement of relations based on custom and status by those based on free contract and individual interest.”

Prominent within this intellectual community of discourse were about thirty luminary liberal intellectuals. Some of them were more dominant: ‘Abbas Mahmud al-‘Aqqad, Ahmad Amin, Salama Musa, Taufiq al-Hakim, ‘Ali ‘Abd al-Raziq, and ‘Abd al-Razzaq al-Sanhuri. The intellectual voices of women were equally important, particularly those of Huda Sha‘arawi, Nabawiyya Musa, and Labiba Ahmad. All of these intellectuals were of the same generation. They were born at the end of the nineteenth century and were active as public intellectuals, particularly in the interwar era. Two of these, however, were most exceptional: Taha Husayn (1889–1973) and Muhammad Husayn Haykal (1888–1956). The Egyptian-Arab public considered these two individuals to be representative thinkers of the day and the most authoritative proponents of a liberal democracy.

Taha Husayn—referred to as the “Doyen of Arab Culture”—was revered as the greatest thinker of this generation. He was the most influential promoter of a liberal democracy in Egypt and the Arab world. His impact on larger educated publics was unprecedented. As early as the 1920s, Husayn developed a solid liberal democratic worldview, which was rooted first in the Greco-Roman tradition, particularly in Aristotelian thought. However, in contrast to Aristotle, who was hesitant to confer democracy on the whole body of citizens, Husayn’s perspective was all-inclusive. He held that sovereignty emanates from the people and therefore “democracy is a political system of the people, by the people, for the people.” Democracy was always preferable to monarchy, aristocracy, or oligarchy, and in modern times, to Fascism, Nazism, and Communism. Husayn was highly conversant with eighteenth-century French Enlightenment thought, especially that of Rousseau. Husayn did his second Ph.D. in the Sorbonne in Paris (1913–19) and among his studies was French modern philosophy. In line with Rousseau’s ideas, he regarded society as a community of citizens possessing inalienable natural rights of freedom and justice. To ensure these rights, Husayn was a proponent of state subordination to an agreed-upon constitution that protects citizens from tyranny. Like Rousseau, Husayn’s solution to the inherent tension between the ruler and the ruled was that “men can be both ruled and free if they rule themselves.” Thus, government would ensure the natural rights to freedom of its citizens, and citizens, in turn, would demonstrate loyalty to the state and participate in its conduct through representative parliamentary institutions. All citizens—including women—had the natural right to participate in the political democratic process. In such a system, freedom of thought, freedom of the press, public opinion, and cultural pluralism reign.

As part of his promotion of liberal democratic principles and values, Husayn waged a scathing attack on Islamic orthodoxy; he sought to neutralize its power and authority in society, politics, and culture. Within his struggle, he attempted to subordinate al-Azhar, the traditional Muslim institution of academic learning, to the Ministry of Education and to reduce its sway over public education. He was also a republican by nature and strove to undermine the authority of the monarch, which with al-Azhar’s support, tried to establish an autocratic form of government. On a different level, in his quest for democracy, Husayn turned his sights against Fascism. He viewed it as a dictatorial system that silenced freedom of thought, suppressed civil rights, and transformed human beings into mere atoms within state machinery, thereby imprisoning them. In taking man’s freedom, Fascism—by its very nature—deprived man of his humanity.

However, Husayn understood that there was a built-in structural problem in his society: a majority illiterate populace in a liberal democracy. He never ignored the divide between the thin layer of the educated elite and the broader illiterate sectors of his society. Disturbed by the structural problem of illiteracy, Husayn dedicated his life and career to education, which he regarded as the most effective agent of democratization and liberalization of Egyptian life. Following Plato, Rousseau, and Mill, he held that through education and literacy, one could enlighten and refine the broader sectors of society and include them in civil democratic politics. He espoused the notion that education should be developed and promoted by the government, which should regard the education of all citizens as its ultimate priority. He worked for the spread of education through the Egyptian University and his governmental service, which culminated in his appointment as Minister of Education in the last Wafd government (1950–1952). Without proper education, Husayn held that one cannot comprehend the essence of democracy, its ideas, institutions, and its modus operandi.

In his most important book, Mustaqbal al-Thaqafa fi Misr (The Future of Culture/Education in Egypt), which was published in 1938, Husayn discussed the inextricable bond between democracy and education. He argued that education for democracy must begin in elementary school and should be the highest priority of “the future of culture in Egypt.” Borrowing from Rousseau, he posited that men are naturally free. He wrote: “One who gives up his freedom, gives up his humanity.” The negation of freedom contradicts the nature of man. A human being is both an individual and a social entity: society must ensure a citizen’s freedom and, in turn, a citizen must contribute to society. For Husayn, such a social contract and relations were achievable only in a liberal democracy.

Husayn promoted the idea that only a truly free democratic citizen can be a loyal patriot. Thus, the purpose of education was to instill the notion of proper citizenship alongside loyalty to the nation-state, since only educated and free citizens who understand the depths of their own freedom will be willing to sacrifice themselves for their nation’s freedom. Husayn’s definition of Egyptian nationality was highly liberal and inclusive, extending to all dwellers of the Nile Valley—irrespective of their ethnic origin, language, and religion. In his book Mustaqbal al-Thaqafa, he explicitly excluded language and religion from his conception of Egyptian national identity. As such, Muslims, Christians, Jews, and other ethnic or linguistic communities were all equally Egyptians. Husayn’s liberal, inclusive approach to Egyptian collective identity assumed that all Egyptians were equal citizens who should elect their representatives through the institutions and mechanisms of multiparty parliamentary government.

Muhammad Husayn Haykal, an equally influential contemporary of Husayn’s, was committed to similar liberal principles. Haykal was more a liberal than he was a democrat. If Husayn was a republican, then Haykal was a monarchist. Whereas Husayn appealed to the entire body politic, Haykal was primarily concerned with the educated elite. Husayn assumed that liberty and equality were compatible, while Haykal assumed that they were dramatically opposed and contradictory. Haykal, a conservative liberal, regarded freedom as an asset mainly of the enlightened sophisticated elite. If democracy were open to all, it would not award sovereignty to the people, but to the crowd. The crowd in its nature was illiterate, irrational, imbued with superstitions, and not in need of freedom, but stability and security, which only a more authoritarian or autocratic government could provide.

Haykal was highly influenced by Plato’s notion of philosopher-kings and the reworking of this notion set forth by the prominent tenth-century philosopher, al-Farabi. Haykal regarded the philosopher-kings of Egyptian society as those refined and talented individuals who underwent massive Europeanization and received a modern education. From a social perspective, he regarded the landed elite as the source for these philosopher-kings. Like Husayn, Haykal challenged the old Egyptian-Ottoman oligarchy but sought to replace it with a new aristocracy defined by its virtue and education and sheltered by the constitutionalist monarchy. Haykal believed that a liberal democratic government should first defend the free thought and activity of this educated elite, who would protect freedom and civil rights for all and lead and control the processes of modernization and progress.

Despite his elitist concept, Haykal did not preclude open entry into this educated governing elite. Anyone, men and women, who met the criteria of education and cultural refinement could take part in this aristocracy. In contrast to Husayn and his activity within the popular-oriented Wafd, Haykal was the intellectual leader of the Liberal Constitutionalist Party, which promoted a patronizing and paternalistic liberalism and was largely a continuation of the early Hizb al-Umma and al-Jarida. While Husayn viewed himself as a challenger of this school, Haykal viewed himself as a guardian of its social philosophy. Haykal assumed that the masses would follow the charismatic power of the prophetic philosopher-kings and would accept their authority as the embodiment of the collective general will. Thus, the masses would be led to a modern democratic system “unaware” and without really understanding its essence.

However, at critical junctures, Haykal also demonstrated that he was in fact a liberal democrat. In the early 1930s when the dictatorial regime of Isma‘il Sidqi (1930–33) undermined the 1923 constitution and thereby threatened to destroy the parliamentary government, Haykal led a democratic struggle against Sidqi. In his book al-Siyasa al-Misriyya wa al-Inqilab al-Dusturi (Egyptian Politics and the Constitutionalist Coup), published in 1931, Haykal waged a fierce and unrelenting defense of democracy from any authoritarian options of autocracy or dictatorship.

The collapse of Sidqi’s authoritative government and the restoration of the constitution and the reassertion of parliamentary life toward the mid-1930s were a triumph for Haykal and his liberal democratic orientation. 


The defense of liberal democracy by Haykal, Husayn, and many of these intellectuals suffered from limitations, two of which I’d like to emphasize. The first is that the parliamentary system did not function smoothly throughout the entire period. In particular, the 1930s, ’40s, and early ’50s saw episodes of bitter conflict between contending forces that resulted in occasional constitutional adjustments, which impeded parliamentary performance. While the monarch conspired to undermine the democratic government and to guide it toward a more authoritarian orientation, radical extra-parliamentary forces, led by Young Egypt and to a lesser extent also by the Society of the Muslim Brothers, strove to delegitimize its very existence. British colonial intervention in politics similarly hindered its ability to function.

The second limitation was more substantial. It involved the question: to what extent was such an aim realizable within the colonial or semi-colonial context? Can intellectuals promote a true liberal democracy in a colonized environment? To be sure, the intellectuals whom I’ve discussed also grappled with these questions, and concluded that it was feasible. They assumed that their efforts were an integral element in Egypt’s struggle for liberation from colonial rule. They did not anticipate that the national struggle would be lengthy and that British colonial rule would last until the late 50s. It became increasingly difficult for them to overcome a glaring obstacle: the fact that the very European Western culture that provided concepts and models for liberal democratic ideas and institutions was simultaneously the imperial power that threatened their local culture. As newer and more radical forces emerged in the cultural and political arena, they rejected liberalism as a foreign imperialist institution. Worse yet, they claimed that Western liberal democracy’s purported freedom was a tool in the service of a narrow Western elite promoting Western colonial discourse, which usurped the freedom of the masses through its sham parliamentary system.

A newer radicalized nationalism aimed at decolonialization of Egypt and the Arab Middle East undermined the intellectual project to institutionalize a liberal demo­cracy in Egypt and the Arab world. The Free Officers’ coup d’etat of July 1952 and the emergence of the authoritarian republican regime abruptly ended this project. However, from a historical perspective, the intellectuals’ liberal democratic legacy has proven to be enduring. Their liberal texts were canonized and remained popular years after their deaths. They were continuously consumed by successive generations. To what extent this legacy may serve as a source of inspiration and legitimization in current conditions in Egypt remains to be seen. 

Israel Gershoni, a Member in the School of Historical Studies (2011–12), is teaching the history of the modern Middle East at Tel Aviv University. His recent book, coauthored with James Jankowski, Confronting Fascism in Egypt: Dictatorship versus Democracy in the 1930s, was published by Stanford University Press in 2010.

Published in The Institute Letter Summer 2012