February 19, 2013 | New York Daily News

Mona Eltahawy’s Illiberal Liberalism

The Egyptian activist's position on free speech and protest is troubling

In the two years since the revolution that toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s decadent 30-year-old regime, there have been few Egyptians with a more visible international media profile than Mona Eltahawy.

Whether in newspaper columns, on television and radio airwaves or the streets of Cairo itself, the Egyptian-American journalist has been an outspoken critic of the religious intolerance, violent misogyny and political authoritarianism that plague her native country. When security forces attacked and sexually assaulted her at a Tahrir Square protest in November of 2011, her international profile rose even further.

Given Eltahawy's support for freedom of speech in Egypt, then, it has been dispiriting to see her demonstrate such an utter lack of understanding for the concept here in the U.S.

Last September, an outfit calling itself the American Freedom Defense Initiative paid for posters to be plastered in 10 New York City subway stations declaring, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.”

Deeming the message “racist,” Eltahawy defaced a poster with spray paint. In a video of the incident, Eltahawy is asked by a woman if she thinks she “has the right” to do this. “I do, actually,” Eltahawy replied. “I think this is freedom of expression, just as [THE AD]is freedom of expression.” Eltahawy was arrested and charged with criminal mischief.

In an interview published last weekend by the Huffington Post, Eltahawy expressed no remorse whatsoever. “There's a spectrum of protest. People have to protest in the best way that suits their conscience and principles.”

Actually, no. In a democratic society bound by the rule of law, one is not permitted to violate another person's right to free speech. That principle applies to the government as much as it does to individuals.

As for the provocative posters themselves, their content is irrelevant as far as the First Amendment goes. For the great thing about the American Constitution is that even racists are protected by it. Just as individuals are not allowed to burn down the offices of newspapers that publish cartoons they don't like, one cannot deface posters she happens to find “offensive” – especially since those posters were officially sanctioned (if not exactly celebrated) by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Eltahawy, however, seems to consider her act to be a form civil disobedience, envisioning herself as some sort of Rosa Parks on a tagging streak. “Hate crimes against Muslims have tripled since 2010, and we on the left are sitting here arguing over vandalism,” she complained to the Huffington Post. Eltahawy's apparent disregard for the First Amendment (reducing her critics to prudes who would prioritize clean subway walls over the lives of Muslims) is breathtaking, particularly for someone so often described in the Western media as a “liberal.” Speaking as if her spray-painting had done anything to reduce anti-Muslim hate crimes, Eltahawy would have us believe that people who merely voice their opinion are as guilty as those who commit acts of violence.

But America isn't Europe, or, for that matter, the Middle East. We don't have hate speech or blasphemy laws that seek to protect the tender sensitivities of our citizens.

Eltahawy's defense is the same as that of the left-wing college students who routinely shout down conservative speakers at campuses across the country. Arguing that there exists some nebulous right to eliminate speech that one (in this case, Mona Eltahawy) finds distasteful, what could she possibly say to the Muslim Brotherhood activist who defaces a poster in Cairo that he considers “offensive” to Islam?

It may be a cliché, but the best remedy to speech you don't like is not censorship or vandalism but more speech. This is advice that Eltahawy, particularly, should take to heart. After all, she enjoys unparalleled access to the Western media and has no shortage of venues in which to express her many opinions. She could have tweeted her outrage to her heart's content, given critical interviews, or even pay for her own signs in the MTA. Indeed, Eltahawy did the first two with abandon, earning far more publicity for herself and her point of view than did the American Freedom Defense Initiative with its paltry, 10 posters hidden beneath the streets of New York.

As an alleged liberal, Eltahawy speaks for a tiny portion of Egypt's populace (apparent in the fact that the two candidates who made it to last year's presidential run-off election were a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and a Mubarak regime holdover). This renders her status as a Egyptian darling of the international media all the more exceptional.

But Eltahawy's unrepentant defense of her own illiberal behavior speaks to a larger problem of liberalism in Egypt, one that is apart from her own concerns: Many of the people who identify themselves, or who are identified by outsiders, as “liberal” are not, at least as far as the term is understood in the West. The number of Egyptians who genuinely believe in liberal principles – individual rights, free but regulated markets, separation of religion and state, and a rejection of the poisonous prejudice that is anti-Semitism – is pitifully small. This is why the country's political and economic trajectory over the past two years has been so disastrous, indeed, why Egypt has been such a basket case for as long as anyone can remember.

Egypt, in other words, needs liberalism. Which is why before lecturing Americans on the subject, Mona Eltahawy would do well to educate herself about it first.

Kirchick is a fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @jkirchick