Rethinking Moderation, Attending to the Liminal

By Michaelle Browers, Wake Forest University

*This memo was prepared for the “Evolving Methodologies in the Study of Islamist Politics” workshop, January 29, 2016.

There was, not so long ago, a rich debate in Middle East politics over moderation. More recently there seems to be what might be termed “moderation-thesis fatigue,” as was well captured a year ago in a piece by Jillian Schwedler. Rather than asking about moderation per se (What is moderation? What can foster it? Inclusion? Cross-ideological cooperation?), at this moment when so many countries in the Arab region are experiencing instability, discontent and deep social divisions, we might inquire more immediately as to the fate those actors that the literature has already highlighted (even celebrated) as moderate: How have they fared, what role have they played, and what role might they yet play? However, I want to further suggest a rethinking of why it was that they were celebrated in the first place. Just as Stacey Philbrick Yadav notes “our inability to isolate Islamists as an object of analysis,” I argue for the redescription of moderation—and, ultimately, an abandoning of the term altogether—by focusing on the go-between, in-between action performed by those individuals we often label as moderates, a category of action which I am suggesting we redescribe as liminal.

Theorizing Middles

Social and political analysis of moderates, middles and liminality is vast and varied. This is seen most clearly in the association of middles with both stability and with change. The former emphasizes those actors (typically identified as the middle class or ideological moderates) who stabilize by virtue of their stake in the status quo and/or their possession of ideas that valorize stability, encourage measured reform and discourage radical change. My own work leaned toward the latter sense in locating alternative visions among various in-between and go-between individuals who were thinking, acting, dialoging and building connections across ideological divides.[1] Many of these same individuals were important players in the growth of protest activity that brought us the Arab uprisings and the overthrow of heads of state in a number of countries, including Egypt. I was not alone in drawing attention to Egypt’s middle actors[2] and moderates[3] — and many post-2011 works highlighted the importance of liminal spaces[4] and liminal actors[5] in explaining the uprisings and even in projecting further potentialities.[6]

Liminality has been associated with both reconciliation and with emancipatory politics, marking an in-between that allows for a mixing and mingling of things usually kept separate, a zone of contestation and transition that is open to alternative possibilities. Both aspects are found among those actors that scholars of Arab politics have highlighted as “moderate” or “middle.” I focus here on Islamist liminars, while maintaining the need for study of those individuals playing similar roles in other ideological corners— and limit my focus to Egypt, in light of space and knowledge constraints.

Locating Egypt’s Liminars

Liminars are found among the so-called “middle generation” of the Muslim Brotherhood—more a political generation in a sociological sense than age-cohorts—­sometimes self-styled[7] as the reformist brothers or ikhwan islahiyyun. In the 1970s, many of these figures were involved the creation of al-jama‘a al-islamiyya and active in student unions before joining the Brotherhood around 1975 to 1977. In subsequent years, many either left or were driven from the Muslim Brotherhood. Prior to the Egyptian uprising, some departed with Madi to form the Wasat party. Others had their membership suspended when they worked with other groups in the course of the uprising or became part of the handful of dissident parties established in the run-up to Egypt’s 2011 parliamentary elections. Some remained within the Muslim Brotherhood, but were in Tahrir Square and working with other groups ahead of their organization. ‘Abd al-Munim Abu al-Futuh remained within the Brotherhood until 2011, preferring to reform from within. He finally left (or was expelled) to run for president when it the Brotherhood claimed it would not seek the presidency, taking others with him.

Despite challenges from within and without, many of these reformist brothers were elected to Egypt’s post-revolution parliament; but their foray into formal political institutions was short-lived, since that body was dissolved by the supreme constitutional court (whose judges were appointed by Mubarak) in June 2012. Although a Muslim Brother was ultimately elected to the presidency, Muhammad Morsi was no liminal actor and perhaps too few scholars have observed what many former Muslim Brothers from this trend have reported in writings over the past two years: that hardliners used their electoral success and their access to state institutions during their one year in power to purge their ranks of those internal dissidents that they have been struggling against since the 1990s.[8]

A number of these figures proved vocal critics of policies that took place or continued under the Morsi presidency. Before the military coup, reformist (former) Brother Haytham Abu Khalil asserted that the political crisis in Egypt was “a result of a floundering presidency,” which was taking its orders directly from the Brotherhood (specifically from deputy supreme guide Khayrat al-Shatir), and lacked the “planning expertise” needed to govern effectively. Abu al-Futuh (and his Strong Egypt party) initially supported Tamarrud (Rebellion), which led the campaign to collect 15 million signatories to a call for early presidential elections. However, he immediately opposed the military’s use of this popular movement to oust Morsi and take power and helped form the Third Square (al-maydan al-thalith) along with an ideologically wide range of actors and groups — a liminal space of protest to take place in Sphinx square, situated outside of both the military organized protests in Tahrir Square calling for a crackdown on “terrorism” and the Islamist protests organized by Morsi’s supporters in Rabi‘a al-Adawiyya square.

Many, too, have been arrested in the wake of Morsi’s overthrow, including both Madi and Wasat Party deputy, ‘Issam Sultan. The former was released in August 2015, while the latter still languishes in prison along with ‘Ariyan and Biltaji. The Egyptian Current Party, which was led by former Muslim Brotherhood youth members and some youth from April 6, merged with Strong Egypt in October 2014, providing some hope that some liminars will not be so easily fractured by the regime’s divide and rule tactics. At the same time, Strong Egypt, like all opposition forces, has had many members arrested, cannot receive any funds, and finds itself regularly shut out of or attacked by the Egyptian media. In the lead-up to the fifth anniversary of the January 25 revolution this group remained a voice for the opposition. But its ability to address the larger divides in Egyptian society—let alone to stave off the deepening divisions within the democratic opposition–remains limited by the current political climate and repressive regime practices.

Much previous work has credited these individuals (along with other activists working outside of both state and traditional parties in Egypt) with doing much of the legwork of forging the broad- based oppositional politics prior in the lead up to 2011. I also identified a second group of Islamist go-betweens who did much of the headwork. This second category of liminars consists of older, more intellectual figures—many of whom began their politicization in Arab nationalist or socialist movements but have come in one way or another to be associated with an Islamicist ethos and are often grouped together under the heading of wasatiyya. They include the law professor Kamal Abu al-Magd, the former Judge Tariq al-Bishri, the journalist Fahmi Huwaydi, the writer and lawyer Muhammad Salim al-‘Awwa, Muhammad Ammara. Some consider Tariq al-Bishri’s October 2004 call for disobedience to an unjust regime as the manifesto that galvanized the opposition. His name quickly circulated as a potential consensus candidate for president. He declined, citing age, though Salim al-‘Awwa decided to run. Bishri was immediately tapped by the SCAF to lead the constitution writing process, as the revolution’s first order of business. When Morsi put forth his infamous November 2012 constitutional decree that would have granted him broad powers as president, Bishri again spoke out critically.

Despite the failed experience of the Morsi presidency, the emergence of popular support for the military’s removal of the country’s first democratically president and the current climate in which calls for the “elimination” of Islamists are widely heard, these figures remain committed to democracy and dialogue. Those who subscribe to the participation-moderation thesis would expect inclusion to contribute to a further moderating of views and exclusion to their radicalization. Certainly, since the military coup, the lines between those who support the regime and those who support the Muslim Brotherhood have become much sharper. Nonetheless, these liminars continue to be the most consistent advocates for dialogue and reconciliation. The lawyer Kamal Abu al-Magd has been perhaps the most vociferous in calling for the establishment of reconciliation processes that would put the Brotherhood and the Sisi government in dialogue. Yet, his multiple efforts to mediate between the two, announced in the media, have been consistently rebuffed by both sides. And he has, in turn, become the object of critique by both: he has been criticized by the Muslim Brotherhood for suggesting they give up their claim to the presidency and renounce violence and he is criticized by the government for suggesting the release of at least some of the Muslim Brotherhood members currently imprisoned.

The motives of these figures was called into question before the uprising in Egypt. In the current climate, they are finding themselves not just suspect but threatened. In addition to arrests and intimidation tactics on the part of the Sisi government, the press has been used to sully their reputations, as their critical forays into the public are consistently met with vitriolic rejoinders and charges of slander, treason and the like. This past July, Kamal Abu al-Magd gave an interview in Tahrir that was critical of the political climate under Sisi and was viciously attacked in the media the next day, most prominently by ‘Amr Adeeb on the talk show al-Qahira al-Yawm.[9] Interviews with some of the analysts at al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies revealed that many secular self-identified “liberals” and “democrats” view these liminars as as bad as the Muslim Brotherhood— or even worse (for providing a cover or enabling the Islamists). The fraught status of the liminal intellectuals and activists over the past five years seem to confirm Edmund Burke’s claim for those who engage in moderation and compromise: the former “will be stigmatized as the virtue of cowards” and the latter as “the prudence of traitors.”

Attending to the Liminal

 Shortly after Egypt’s military removed Muhammad Morsi from power, Egyptian political science professor and activist Rabab el-Mahdi identified “a wide and hard to bridge societal polarization” as the source of the current “catastrophe” and suggested that, absent a reconciliation process, Egypt could enter a phase “much worse than that of the police state under the rule of Mubarak.” Another Egyptian political scientist, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, noted that reconciliation between the regime and the Brotherhood is essential if the bloodshed is to stop and the country is to avoid a civil war. Tens of thousands of Muslim Brothers members and thousands of other Islamist and secular activists have been imprisoned or are in exile. There have been more deaths in clashes with police, by acts of terrorism, and though torture or neglect in prison. Five years after the uprising in Egypt, many commentators are bemoaning the “collapse of the Egyptian center,” the “pervasive distrust” and “wall of fear” among social groups in the country. The literature on reconciliation processes consistently points to local, homegrown mediators as key to long-term success. Deliberative models are increasingly touted as means of building trust and resolving crises. Much of the literature on democratic transitions and consolidation note the importance of centrist, moderate, or middle class forces. In O’Donnell and Schmitter’s words: “the talents of specific individuals (virtù) are frequently decisive in determining the outcomes.”[10]

What I am suggesting is that the “talents” that matter most are those of actors who are committed to working in the in-between and as go-betweens—that is, liminal actors who are willing to build connections, broker and engage across divides, to think and act independently of existing structures of power in order to pursue a not fully formed but in many respects salient vision of an alternative to authoritarianism, whether it emerges in the form of Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood or the military.

How can one expect to cast lines between the echo chambers absent Egypt’s liminars, whether the so-called Islamic wasatiyya, the “reformist Brothers” and ex-Brothers, or other individuals whom we might associate with other ideological categories (and about whose level of “moderation” we might well disagree) but who clearly and consistently display a similar category of action as liminars on the Egyptian political scene? It is in those in-between spaces and via those go-between actors that alternative visions and communities are worked out. Of course, beyond this, we must consider not just liminal spaces and those who create and animate them, but the social structures in which these liminal spaces and individuals are embedded.

** A much expanded (chapter length) version of this argument will appear in in Critical Approaches to the Arab Uprisings, ed. Amentahru Wahlrab, Michael McNeal and Matthew Weinert (I.B. Tauris, forthcoming). The research behind both iterations of this project was greatly facilitated by the Project on Middle East Political Science’s Travel, Research and Engagement Grant.


[1] Browers, Michaelle (2009). Political Ideology in the Arab World: Accommodation and Transformation. New York: Cambridge University Press.

[2] Wickham, Carrie Rosefsky (2004). The Path to Moderation: Strategy and Learning in the Formation of the Egypt’s Wasat Party.” Comparative Politics 36(2): 205-228; Stacher, Joshua (2009). “The Brothers and the War.” Middle East Report 250 (Spring): 2-9.

[3] Baker, Raymond William (2006). Islam without Fear: Egypt and the New Islamists. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

[4] Rumelili, Bahar (2013). “Modeling Democracy: Western Hegemony, Turkey and the Middle East,” in Viatcheslav Morozov, ed, Decentering the West: The Idea of Democracy and the Struggle for Hegemony. Abingdon: Ashgate, 64-84.

[5] Wickham, Crrie Rosefsky (2013). The Muslim Brotherhood: Evolution of an Islamist Movement. Princeton: Princeton University Press; Baker, Raymond William (2015). One Islam, Many Muslim Worlds: Spirituality, Identity, and Resistance across Islamic Lands. New York: Oxford University Press. However, neither Wickham nor Baker use the term liminality.

[6] Levine, Mark (2013). “Theorizing Revolutionary Practice: Agendas for Research on the Arab Uprisings.” Middle East Critique 22(3): 191-212.

[7] Abu Khalil, Haytham (2012). Ikhwan islahiyyun (Reformist Brothers). Cairo: Dar Dawwin.

[8] Woltering, Robbert (2014). “Post-Islamism in Distress? A Critical Evaluation of the Theory in Islamist-Dominated Egypt,” Die Welt de Islams 54(1): 107-118.

[9] Abbas 2015.

[10] O’Donnell, Guillermo and Philippe Schmitter (1986). Transitions from Authoritarian Rule: Tentative Conclusions about Uncertain Democracies. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *