We are unable to display your institutional affiliation without JavaScript turned on.
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

Download PDF

Democracy or Authoritarianism? Army or Anarchy? First Takes and Later Reflections on the Arab Spring

There’s an old joke that captures the dilemma confronting political scientists who studied the Middle East. One evening, a passer-by chances on a fellow searching for his lost house key under a streetlight. Hoping to be helpful, the spectator asks the searcher where he dropped the key. “Across the street,” comes the reply. Then why is he searching on this side of the street? “The light is better over here.”1

Democracy Prevention: The Politics of the U.S.-Egyptian Alliance, by Jason Brownlee. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. pages. $76.50 cloth; $26.99 paper.
Beyond the Arab Spring: Authoritarianism & Democratization in the Arab World, by Rex Brynen, Pete W. Moore, Bassel F. Salloukh, and Marie-Joëlle Zahar. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2012. pages. $27.50 paper.
The Arab Spring: Change and Resistance in the Middle East, ed. by Mark L. Haas and David W. Lesch. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2013. pages. $27.
The Arab Spring: Will It Lead to Democratic Transitions? ed. by Clement Henry and Jang Ji-Hyang, Seoul, South Korea: Asian Institute for Policy Studies, 2012. pages. $26 paper.
Arab Spring in Egypt: Revolution and Beyond, ed. by Bahgat Korany and Rabab El-Mahdi. Cairo and New York: American University in Cairo Press, 2012. pages. $31.46.

The books under review represent efforts to come to terms with the significance of the events that characterized the Arab Spring revolts of 2010/11. Nearly three years after the initial uprising in Tunisia, they can be evaluated both with respect to their explanations of the causes of the Arab Spring, the attempts of some authors to use theoretical paradigms, and with regard to their prognostications for future developments. Is the choice only between democracy and authoritarianism; or is it between the [Egyptian] army or anarchy, as posed in the title of this review, or are there other options?2 How prescient are some of their [End Page 633] predictions? How appropriate are their attempts to apply theoretical approaches that may reflect the search for the key where the light is better? This review will focus on Tunisia and Egypt while referring to other countries and regional issues.

These studies vary considerably in format and scope. Three are edited with numerous chapters of differing lengths. The Haas and Lesch coedited volume, The Arab Spring, devotes half the book to specific explanations of protests in Arab countries and the other half to analyses of their impact on countries either within the region or powers such as the United States and Russia. The Korany and El-Mahdi coedited volume deals only with Egypt, but includes numerous topics that could not be specifically addressed in other volumes such as chapters on workers’ and youth movements, the role of women in the uprising, and the varieties of representations of Egyptian Islam. The Henry and Ji-Hyang coedited Arab Spring contains substantive chapters on Algeria, American policies in the Middle East, the economies of uprising-affected societies, but some chapters are extremely brief and could have been excluded.

Beyond the Arab Spring is multiauthored, but is written as a book. The most theoretically ambitious of the reviewed volumes, it offers separate, regionally-focused chapters on North Africa (including Egypt), the central Arab lands, and the Arabian Peninsula, combined with extensive discussion of political culture, Islamist movements, and economic and political liberalization. These chapters are examined within theoretical parameters whose goal is to examine the “trajectories of authoritarianism and reform in the Arab world,” comparing experiences in various countries along with essays on political culture, electoral politics and Islamist movements. Beyond the Arab Spring’s bibliography is the most sophisticated and extensive of the books under review.

Only Brownlee’s Democracy Prevention can be considered the product of a long-term research project whose timing of publication was most opportune. Its focus on Egypt from the Sadat era onward in light of Egyptian-American relations and strategic concerns contrasts with the immediacy of Arab Spring in Egypt, and highlights aspects of American policies toward Egypt heretofore left unconsidered or isolated from each other when they were actually mutually reinforcing.

All contributors consider Tunisia the likeliest candidate for a smoother transition to parliamentary democracy. The best chapters specific to Tunisia are those of Julia Clancy-Smith (this reviewer’s wife) in the Haas and Lesch volume and Mohamed Kerrou in the Henry and Ji-Hyang book. Both stress the discrepancies between the coastal economies and their relative wealth as opposed to the poverty of interior regions with Clancy-Smith noting tensions going back to the late 19th century. But Tunisia has been rocked by two political assassinations this year (the most recent on July 25, 2013) that that have left the government — led by the Islamist party, Ennahda, in coalition with secular groups — in turmoil. Prime Minister Rachid Ghannouchi, head of Ennahda, has appeared paralyzed by the boldness of a Salafii challenge that shut down the University of Manouba, for months when women wearing niqabs staged a sit-in in the office of the dean of the arts faculty and ransacked it. Now Ghannouchi and his government claim that the two assassinations were committed by the same person who has ties to al-Qa‘ida and to the Tunisian Salafii party, Ansar al-Shari‘a. [End Page 634]

Ghannouchi and his party face enormous challenges. Mohamed Brahmi, assassinated on July 25, was from Sidi Bou Zid, the home of Muhammad Bouazizi, whose self-immolation sparked the initial Tunisian uprising against the Ben ‘Ali regime; Brahmi represented the region in parliament. When news of Brahmi’s killing reached Sidi Bou Zid, residents torched the party headquarters of Ennahda.3

National history and its symbols are significant here. Brahmi was killed on Tunisian Independence Day, celebrating Tunisia’s liberation from French rule on July 25, 1956. Similarly, in Egypt, as Ann Lesch notes in her excellent discussion of the background to Egypt’s uprising (Korany and El-Mahdi), protests against Mubarak (and his neoliberal economic policies encouraged by the International Monetary Fund [IMF] and the United States) included the March 9 Movement formed in 2004 to “call for university and academic independence” from government intrusiveness; the date commemorated the day in 1932 when Ahmad Lutfi al-Sayyid, president of Fu’ad I University (now Cairo University), “resigned to protest the firing of the noted intellectual Taha Hussein as dean of arts.”4

Ironically, the first major Tahrir Square demonstration in 2011 protested the brutalities of Mubarak’s police force and was held on Police Day, January 25. The term and date originally commemorate an Egyptian police stand against British forces in the Suez Canal Zone in 1952 ordered by the then-Wafd government. Their deaths sparked the riots of January 26 that gutted many Western establishments in Cairo, including the Shepheard Hotel, and set in motion events that culminated in the military officers’ revolt of July 23, 1952, which overthrew King Faruq. In 2011, the date of January 25 symbolized popular mistrust of the police.

To these discussions of Tunisia must be added the comparative analyses of Tunisian developments with those of Egypt, Libya, and the Gulf monarchies. In The Arab Spring: Will it Lead to Democratic Transitions?, the editors’ introduction, along with Lisa Anderson’s and, especially, Eva Beilin’s trenchant comparisons of Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya note important similarities and distinctions. Egypt and Tunisia have functioning bureaucracies and state structures that, though not noted, predate imperial occupation, whereas Libyan leader Mu‘ammar Qadhafi essentially undermined whatever fragile state structure existed in the country prior to his 1969 coup. Nor does Libya, unlike Egypt and Tunisia, have a national army.5

Anderson and Beilin are justifiably cautious in their predictions for democratic transformation in any of these three countries, but view the existence of long-standing bureaucracies in Tunisia and Egypt as a plus, however inefficient Egypt’s might be. But recent events suggest otherwise. The apparently miraculous restoration of electricity and fuel supplies to the Egyptian public almost immediately after President Mohamed Morsi’s ouster suggest that the Egyptian bureaucracy could have conspired with the military to withhold services to encourage public anger at the government. As several authors note, many retired military officers found sinecures in Egyptian ministries. In short, the existence [End Page 635] of a bureaucracy as such may not be as key a factor as who controls it, a measure of the authoritarian nature of the regime. This point, and the Egyptian military’s control of the bureaucracy, is also stressed by Holger Albrecht who argues that:

Broader conceptual frameworks appear to be inapt to fully grasp the political earthquake that shook the authoritarian regimes in the MENA region. The ‘authoritarian persistence’ literature has … confused the longevity of some of the region’s authoritarian regimes with the assumed stability of their political orders …6

Albrecht argues that a distinction must be made between authoritarian presidential republics and dynastic monarchies. In the former, such as Egypt, anger at plans for presidential succession counted more than economic despair. Indeed, Albrecht discounts economic hardships as a real factor in Egypt’s uprising, disagreeing with Lesch’s chapter in the same book and the analyses of contributors in other volumes. In light of events in Tunisia where anger was fueled by outrage over the president’s family’s exploitation of the economy, disregarding of economic factors is problematic. But Albrecht appears to hit the mark when he concludes that Egypt will likely not experience a transition from authoritarianism to broader participatory government, but rather a transformation to a different type of authoritarianism where the military will reinvent populism to avoid democracy” (p. 269).

Still, when Albrecht predicts that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) will engage in actions resembling Turkey’s 1961 coup which resulted in the hanging of former Prime Minister Adnan Menderes, he ignores the fact that Turkey had experienced ten years of democracy where Menderes and his Democrat Party, secularists by background, gained power by appealing to Islam, thus defying the basis of Kemalist secularism. But the comparison with Turkey has value if only to stress how long a road Turkey traveled, a half century from the first free elections, before an elected Islamist party was able to stay in power. Moreover, Turkish parties during this period were relatively cohesive, whereas, as Albrecht notes, Egyptian demonstrators had no specific political agenda other than Mubarak’s removal and leading secular/ liberal figures became mired in their own disputes and rivalries rather than seeking to form political blocs. Their willingness to collaborate with the military in removing Morsi displayed a far greater commitment to have access to power than a desire to blunt authoritarian rule.

These and other factors lead Kemal Kirisci and Fawaz Gerges to conclude that Turkey should not be considered a “model” for Egyptian developments and that Egypt has a long road ahead of it before it approaches the Turkish level of democracy, in part because, in Gerges’s view, Arab Islamists generally “subordinate the political to the moral.” But Gerges’s arguments have in part been overtaken by events, as when he argues that Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, to their credit, were not eager to gain power because they were aware of the Algerian experience of the early 1990s: “if you go for broke, you risk antagonizing the military and provoking a response.”7

Here, various treatments of economic issues stand out, with some key differences in interpretations. As the authors of Beyond the Arab Spring observe, economic decentralization was intended to encourage political decentralization: “it is on these assumptions that the neoliberal consensus of the 1980s and 1990s was built” (p. 214). This was envisioned as a process whereby wealth would be spread owing to the emergence of a capitalist economy, breaking the hold of an economy dominated by the state. As a result, a burgeoning middle class would form the basis of political liberalization and a transition to democracy. [End Page 636]

What occurred, especially in Egypt, but also to varying degrees in Tunisia, was the opposite: “crony capitalism,” where the companies or businesses privatized were handed over to individuals either close to the ruling elite or, as in the case of Ben ‘Ali’s Tunisia, to members of his and his wife’s family who were rumored to have acquired control of over 50% of the nation’s economy. As Clement Henry’s sophisticated discussion, “Political Economies of Transition” reveals, while the Tunisian economy and its middle class may have appeared to be relatively prosperous by statistical measurement, at least 50% of its university graduates were unemployed. This in itself highlights one of the anomalies of Tunisia’s apparent economic success. It had been based on tourist and other industries that did not require educated workers. As a result, Tunisia’s “bully regime,” in Henry’s words, aroused the fury of an aware, if economically desperate, educated class because of its blatant corruption, although the spark for the uprising came from the interior that had been exploited by international companies for its resources to the detriment of its inhabitants.8

But Henry and most observers of Egypt’s neoliberal privatization focus on policies undertaken after Mubarak assumed office in 1981, when the process of crony capitalism began under Anwar Sadat. Here, several accounts lack context. Beyond the Arab Spring depicts Sadat’s infitah (opening to foreign investment) policy “as much as a tactical effort to secure political support from the country’s private sector as it was an effort to stimulate national economic development” (p. 219). In fact there was virtually no private sector in Egypt. One of Sadat’s major goals was to involve the United States in the Arab-Israeli peace process in the mid-1970s and a way to do this was to encourage foreign companies to invest in Egypt, enhancing the image of Egypt in American eyes from its days as a socialist regime under Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser. James Gelvin is correct, in his conclusion to the Haas and Lesch book, that Sadat did agree to an IMF loan in 1976, supposedly setting in motion the elitist control of the economy, but he overlooks the January 1977 riots that resulted — riots that forced Sadat to rescind the steps he had supposedly accepted.

There is no doubt that IMF strictures were accepted by the Mubarak government and led to the vast imbalance in wealth seen in Egypt today. But the best discussion of this issue is Bassam Haddad’s. Though focused on Syria, Haddad’s introduction offers the best synopsis of what occurred in Egypt as well. Whereas

the political elite started … privileging capital long before business actors became prominent, … the sort of change … in recent years has a different character. Earlier stripping of labor rights was considered a function of problematic authoritarian arbitrariness, something that is frowned upon socially and viewed as a departure from a social (developmental) contract of sorts. More recently … the incremental stripping of labor rights was carried out in the name of ‘investment’ and ‘growth.’9

This process was accompanied by the rise of new privileged elites and the gradual erosion of the middle class in such countries, where “the much heralded private sector is nearly everywhere in the region only picking up ‘shares’ of fixed capital formation from the embattled and bloated public sector, but is nowhere near compensating for job losses, [End Page 637] let alone accommodating new job seekers.”10 But, as US National Security Council “staffers observed before Sadat’s assassination, the balance had shifted long ago from ‘what is good for Egypt’ to ‘what is good for the U.S.’”11

In this regard, while Ann Lesch traces similar processes in her chapter on the prelude to Egypt’s 2011 uprising, Samer Soliman argues in the same book that Egypt under Mubarak saw the expansion of a middle class, a “bourgeoisification” of society that resulted in clear distinctions between a “wealthy middle class” and an increasingly impoverished lower middle class. If so, why, as Soliman then argues, did “the wealthy middle class play an important role” in the 2011 Egyptian Revolution and what was that role?12 Soliman also argues that gross domestic product (GDP) in Egypt had been increasing before the revolt, indicating greater prosperity. Henry and others consider GDP to be a false indicator of general prosperity given that in Egypt 40% of the population lives at or below the poverty level while, as noted, half of Tunisia’s university-educated youth were unemployed.

As for the Gulf monarchies, there is general agreement that oil wealth allows regimes to increase benefits and dampen public unrest. Where significant protests did erupt, as in Bahrain, the issue aroused regional concern drawing Saudi and UAE support to the Sunni Al Khalifa dynasty against mass demands for greater political rights, with the majority but not all of the protesters drawn from the Shi‘i majority. As the authors of Beyond the Arab Spring observe, “most Gulf politics can no longer be considered just a local affair” (p. 82).

This comment applies more broadly as well given Saudi and Qatari involvement in funding governments or opposition groups in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria. The most extensive treatment is that of “The Politics of Monarchical Liberalization,” in Beyond the Arab Spring (pp. 173–91). More generally, Islamist regimes, often rivals as in the case of Iran and Saudi Arabia, or Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are seeking to decide the fates of countries wracked by civil strife, often challenging or appearing to challenge the great power with whom they are supposedly allied, as is the case with Washington’s ties to the Saudis and Qataris, as well as Bahrain where the US Fifth Fleet is based.13

Jason Brownlee addresses these matters in his impressive study of US-Egyptian relations where he concludes that the US has, since 1979 and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, opted for security and strategic interests over greater popular rights and representation: the US-Egyptian relationship is based on “values that presuppose the suppression of popular sovereignty” (p. 172), not the promotion of democracy, contrary to initiatives proclaimed during the George W. Bush Administration. Brownlee’s analysis supports arguments posed by Sheila Carapico in her highly personal account of the demonstrations in The Arab Spring in Egypt.14 It also agrees with Albrecht’s conclusion that the result of the Egyptian uprising will ultimately be the “reproducing of authoritarianism” in Brownlee’s terms (p. 176). Brownlee, however, see this development as the deliberate consequence of US acquiescence for reasons pertaining to its own strategic concerns, whereas Albrecht attributes it to the failure of Egyptians opposed to the Mubarak regime, especially the liberal/secularists who lacked the will to unite in political parties.

For Brownlee, authoritarianism will be reproduced because American policy has and continues to be based on security issues perceived as related to the stability of Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia in order to enable US power to secure its interests from the Suez Canal to [End Page 638] the Persian Gulf. In this light, the al-Qa‘ida attacks on the US of September 11, 2001 provided Bush Administration appointees concerned with Israeli security to argue that Saddam Husayn should be ousted from power in Iraq. As Richard Armitage, then Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, put it:

The siren song of Iraq … that Ahmad Chalabi was singing was multidirectional; first of all we {the new Iraq] will be the Middle East pillar of democracy … We will allow you to use our bases to pressurize Iran … we will recognize Israel … was the song.”15

That would not only serve US interests in the Gulf but, more importantly, it would guarantee Israel’s security and enable a settlement of Palestinian issues suitable to Israeli interests: “if an American road to a calmer situation in Palestine exists, it runs through Baghdad.”16

Brownlee notes that Bush’s national security team had been concerned about Iraq before 9/11, and refers to the 1998 letter signed by many who would serve in the Bush Administration calling for regime change in Baghdad. These included Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and Douglas Feith who held the top three posts in the Defense Department under Bush. But Brownlee misses the fact that Feith and Richard Perle (Chair of the Defense Policy Advisory Committee, who recommended individuals for posts in the Bush defense team), had authored a policy paper addressed to newly elected Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in June 1996 titled “Clean Break.” It advised Netanyahu to break with the Oslo peace process to preserve Israel’s hold on the West Bank and Golan Heights; it also declared that Saddam Husayn’s overthrow was essential to Israeli security. A similar strategy paper authored by David Wurmser called for the same developments a month later. Wurmser became the Middle East adviser to Vice President Richard Cheney.17

In short, the linkage of Saddam to Israeli security and rejecting, though not openly, progress in talks with the Palestinians existed prior to the 1998 letter to President Bill Clinton and led to the appointments of these individuals to key posts under Bush. As Brownlee shows, 9/11 meant that any concern about Mubarak’s succession to Sadat, his lack of a vice president, and the crushing of dissent, including the imprisonment of activist and American citizen Saad Eddin Ibrahim took second place to assurances of Egyptian cooperation in facilitating military overflights, priority transit through the Suez Canal, and other services, especially once Turkey denied base rights to US forces. These same issues, military over-flights of Egyptian airspace and priority transit of US ships through the Suez Canal, play a role in the Obama Administration’s muted response to the Egyptian military crackdown on Egyptian protests generally following its ouster of President Morsi.18

Brownlee addresses conceptual issues most specifically in his conclusion, especially studies of competitive authoritarianism. He argues at one point that the question is “not that Egypt would resist democratizing pressure were it applied by the United States” (his [End Page 639] italics), but rather that such efforts — on behalf of the public and against the government — have been absent. On this issue, Brownlee’s own evidence in his book confirms that serious efforts by the US have been absent, but he has also shown at times that Mubarak did resist and resent any type of democratizing pressure. Nonetheless, Brownlee’s call for political scientists to move beyond a framework that sets all countries on a path toward Western-style democracy has merit as does his backing for efforts “to ensure that professional subfield partitions do not obstruct rigorous analysis. In the case of the U.S.-Egyptian alliance, distinctions between ‘international’ and ‘domestic’ forces fragment processes that are better understood holistically.”19

These interpretations lead to further consideration of Beyond the Arab Spring’s format. Its early chapters on regions of the Middle East summarize recent political events, noting economic issues. These are followed by chapters that address matters such as political culture, Islamist movements, monarchical liberalization, rentierism, economic liberalization, the new Arab media, and finally, “The Impact of the Regional and International Environment.” This selection of topics at times abstracts events from their historical context, such as separating rentierism from monarchical liberalization, the latter focusing mostly on Arab Gulf states. And although external factors are mentioned occasionally in these topical chapters, most lack any consideration of regional and international factors in favor of considering the validity of theoretical perspectives or topics such as democracy or economics, as seen in their discussion of Sadat’s infitah policy, noted above. Their treatment of competing explanations of approaches to the Middle East or Islam will be more useful for fellow scholars than for explaining specific developments within the region.

For example, the three chapters on North Africa, the Levant, and the Arabian Peninsula contain generally good coverage of recent events, including the 2006 Palestinian elections. Here, the authors place the Hamas victory in the context of Western encouragement of Palestinian reform without asking why the US in particular, with Israeli assistance, not only sought, in their view, to “reverse the outcome of the parliamentary elections … [and] weaken the notion of constitutional government,” but to attempt to overthrow Hamas and restore Fatah control of Gaza.20 In fact, this American action links this discussion to supposed American concerns for democracy in Egypt.

Throughout the book, the authors cautiously challenge depictions of the Middle East that fall under the essentialist or exceptionalist label, i.e., that the region, Islam, and its inhabitants can be lumped together easily, and that the region is incapable of change, unlike other parts of the world. In their discussion of “Political Culture Revisited,” the authors distinguish between three approaches to Middle Eastern political culture: the essentialist, the contextualist, and approaches critical of each. This reviewer wonders why the “essentialists” are deemed worthy of discussion in a scholarly analysis of political culture, given the racial and cultural biases inherent in that approach. The authors begin with Raphael Patai’s The Arab Mind — a generalized portrait of all Arabs as being obsessed with sex, which they associate with shame. To humiliate Arabs will make them submit, as they only understand force, being unwilling to bow to institutional authority and incapable of accepting democracy. These characteristics explain the authoritarian nature of Arab society. Other essentialists include Elie Kedourie, Samuel Huntington, Daniel Pipes, and Bernard Lewis when considering violence and Arab culture; Ernest Gellner is labeled as such for his generalized view of Islam as eternal and never changing, based, though not noted, on research limited only to Morocco. [End Page 640]

Here again, politics enters the discussion. They cite the 2002 edition of The Arab Mind, which had a foreword by Colonel (ret.) Norvell B. De Atkine who declared that he had “briefed hundreds of military teams being deployed to the Middle East” and currently used the book in teaching military officers at Fort Bragg, North Carolina where the book “forms the basis of my cultural instruction” for officers being deployed to the Middle East. Once the Abu Ghraib prison photos were released, many, this reviewer included, associated the nudity of the prisoners and its exploitation as reflecting ideas offered in Patai’s book. Stereotypes have an impact.21

As for Bernard Lewis, his supposed shift to cautious optimism regarding Arab acceptance of democracy a decade ago was directly linked to Bush Administration justifications for the war in Iraq, which Lewis supported. To his and the authors’ credit, they do quote him as backing the recent protests against authoritarian rule and declaring that Islam opposed autocracy, a major shift from previous views (pp. 98–99). And they note the debate that arose with the onset of 9/11 over the stress on and critique of political culture as a valid measure of analysis (pp. 103–104). Finally, they question the validity of the political culture perspective and conclude that the Arab uprisings expressed a desire for greater democracy without specifying any particular theoretical perspective as preferable. But there is no direct linkage between Patai’s The Arab Mind and American military behavior in Iraq.

The best integration of historical perspective with theoretical concerns appears in Janine Clark’s chapter on “Islamist Movements and Democratic Politics.” And the volume’s editors are surely correct in their excellent conclusion when they say that Tunisia may be the best candidate for a peaceful transition to democratic politics “because it is neither a regional pace setter nor a strategic actor” (p. 299).

Beyond the Arab Spring’s chapter on the regional and international environment is well-done, but readers should consult other volumes listed here for specific topics rather than a broad overview. Half of Haas and Lesch’s Arab Spring considers the regional and international environment with chapters on Iran, Turkey, Israel, Russia, and the United States. All have competent summaries and most contain illuminating analyses, marred only by Robert O. Freedman’s chapter on Russia where he refers to Syria and Iran as “rogue regimes” (p. 214), a propaganda element unsuitable for a purported work of scholarship. Jeremy Pressman’s excellent discussion of “Obama and the Arab Uprisings” cautions about “overplaying” or “overstating” US influence in the region, advice also offered in two incisive pieces in Henry and Ji-Hyang’s Arab Spring by Michael Hudson and Uzi Rabi. Both state that US influence in the region has waned. Hudson offers the prescient warning that while the uprising against Bashar al-Asad offered an opportunity, it could also be a trap: “the possibility of al-Qa’ida finding sanctuary in a post-Assad regime … would hardly bode well for Israeli or American interests” (p. 236).

Yet, the Obama Administration has been egged on to attack Syria as of late August by Israel, as well as Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Gulf states in what appears to be a tacit tactical alliance with little concern for long-term consequences. Was the timing of the poison gas attack in the Damascus suburbs on the one-year anniversary of Obama’s “red line” speech about such weapons entirely coincidental? Though elements of the Syrian regime might have been responsible, so also could have been elements of the opposition, possibly infiltrated by persons linked to outside forces. Reports note that anti-Asad commando units have been trained in Jordan by US troops and the administration has now admitted it has no direct evidence of the Asad government ordering such an attack. Instead officials offered the ambiguous explanation that “communications between military commanders intercepted after Wednesday’s [August 21] attack provided proof that the assault was not the result of a rogue [End Page 641] unit acting against orders.”22 This double negative leaves as much doubt as certainty as to who issued what orders to whom? But the timing proved convenient for those countries and think tanks who have striven to justify an attack on Syria, if only to undermine its alliance with Iran.

At the time of writing, Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed forces (SCAF) has reasserted its authority. Security forces have now expanded their massive and bloody retaliations against Muslim Brotherhood protests and sit-ins to include any protesters who are labeled Islamists or terrorists. Elements of the Brotherhood have reacted by destroying Christian churches and schools. Husni Mubarak has been released from prison and placed under confinement for reasons of health. American and European efforts to defuse the situation failed to impress SCAF and its head, General ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi. The Obama Administration refused to label the military’s overthrow of Morsi as a “coup,” which would lead to cutting off $1.3 billion in military aid in the face of open Egyptian military contempt for the efforts of American mediators. In his rejection of US pleas, General Sisi was encouraged by Washington’s traditional allies in the region: Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the Emirates. Indeed, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) urged the US Senate not to halt military aid on July 31. Senators obediently followed suit, reiterating AIPAC’s points in their declarations.23

The irony that masses of Egyptians now back military rule, albeit with a promise of a new constitution whose formulation the military will oversee, should not be lost. Nor should observers be surprised at SCAF’s assertion that they enjoy independence from parliamentary oversight, presumably to be enshrined in any new constitution. The US Defense Department has effectively been independent of congressional oversight since Congress passed a law in 1992 authorizing audits of all government agencies. Its excuse? It cannot accurately account for its finances because of complicated and conflicting computer systems, which, one might think, could be upgraded.24

For the moment at least, the US has chosen the army over what was seen as anarchy in Egypt, a choice encouraged by its regional allies. Whether Tunisia will face the same dilemma remains to be seen. Its army has until now remained removed from politics, but that may change since al-Qa‘ida elements perhaps linked to recent events in Mali and armed with weapons smuggled from Libya have established themselves in mountainous areas of southwest Tunisia on the Algerian border, a region that, as Clancy-Smith observed, served as a base of resistance to Habib Bourguiba in 1955/56, led by resistance fighters based in Tunisia. Bourguiba, leader of the Néo-Destour Party but living in exile, had to enlist the aid of French forces to crush the resistance in the name of achieving national independence. And recent events have led some Tunisians to conclude that Ennahda is itself a threat to democratic norms as some of its parliamentary delegates, including women, have called for restrictions of women including segregation on public transport.25

As for the question of democracy versus authoritarianism, the issue is not specifically Middle Eastern. It can be found whenever a society traditionally ruled by autocracy, monarchical or otherwise, attempts to transform itself, willingly or unwillingly, into a democratic system. Consider the recent and current experiences of Russia and Ukraine. Spanish democracy is only thirty-five years old. The problem can also be addressed with respect to entrenched bureaucracies and military interests that reject accountability to elected officials in democracies such as the US. [End Page 642]

Is democracy always the answer? Sheila Carapico considers the Bush Administration’s democracy promotion to have been intended to buttress autocratic governments. Robert Satloff, whose Washington Institute for Near East Policy backed the Iraq invasion and currently calls for an assault on Iran, in 2005 backed the push for democracy promotion in the Arab world as “Constructive Instability,” aimed at undermining governments that might threaten Israel. His focus was on Lebanon and Syria, but he argued that the Bush Administration’s push for democracy should also be aimed more forcefully at Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Indeed, Bush Administration demands on these traditional allies was such that “the fear of the American elephant in the Arab china shop is so great that Arab leaders have dropped all pretense to ‘hanging together’ … if it buys them time and sufferance in Washington.”26

The fear of the American elephant appears to have diminished as these contributions make clear. So also, for the moment, has any real hope of parliamentary life surviving in any Arab state in the region, save possibly Tunisia. Political scientists should join historians in taking the long view rather than looking for any immediate illumination from a theoretical street lamp. Democracy is not impossible to achieve, as the Turkish experience proves, but problems exist there as well, triggered in part by fallout from the US invasion of Iraq. And however “rogue” some may consider Iran to be, it does have a functioning electoral system, however flawed parliamentary impact on policy may be. That is more than can be said for America’s Arab allies at the moment. [End Page 643]

Charles D. Smith  

Charles D. Smith is Professor Emeritus of Middle East History at the School of Middle East and North African Studies, University of Arizona, where he was former head of the Department of Near Eastern Studies. Among his publications are Islam and the Search for Social Order in Modern Egypt (1983); Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict (1988), now in its eighth edition; and The Modern Middle East and North Africa: A History in Documents (2013) coauthored with Julia Clancy-Smith.

1. Lisa Anderson, “Searching Where the Light Shines: Studying Democratization in the Middle East,” Annual Review of Political Science, Vol. 9 (2006), pp. 208–209, cited in Brynen et al., Beyond the Arab Spring, p. 7.

2. Raymond Hinnebusch poses the democracy/authoritarianism binary in his review essay of three books on Syria, “Documenting the Roots of the Syrian Uprising,” Middle East Journal, Vol. 67, No. 3 (Summer 2013), pp. 467–74; he opts for a “weak state” paradigm posited by historical sociology as the best framework for analyzing events in the Levant. The army versus anarchy argument has been offered by Israeli policy-makers to their US counterparts as the best reason to back the Egyptian military’s ouster of President Mohamed Morsi in Egypt, not because of its implications for Egyptian society or politics but because Egyptian democracy could threaten Israel’s security, Jodi Rudoren, “Israel Puts More Urgency into Shaping Allies’ Actions,” New York Times, August 19, 2013, p. A7. This suggests a Weberian “strong state” paradigm within Hinnebusch’s analytical framework, but one desired as much by outside powers, including Saudi Arabia to protect their interests, as required by internal conditions. Does political science offer theories based on who owns the streetlight and controls where it shines? Is this an apt question considering how quickly electricity was restored in Egypt following Morsi’s departure?

3. The Salafi action at the University of Manouba was virtually ignored in the American media when it occurred two years ago, in contrast to European coverage that included the Euronews channel showing a Salafi leader with a microphone openly mocking government officials. For discussion, see Joshua Hammer, “A New Turn in Tunisia?,” New York Review of Books, July 11, 2013, pp. 13–14, where Ghannouchi condemned the Manouba faculty of letters dean, Habib Qazdaghli, as “a Marxist” who rejected all religious believers (referring to his former communist affiliation). A summary of the killings of Chokri Belaïd and Mohamed Brahmi is in Carlotta Gal, “Tunisia Says Assassination Has Links to Al Qaeda,” New York Times, July 27, 2013, p. A4.

4. Ann Lesch, “Concentrated Power Breeds Corruption, Repression, and Resistance,” in Korany and El-Mahdi, eds., Arab Spring in Egypt, p. 33.

5. For Libya, see Diederik Vanderwalle, “Libya after the Civil War: The Legacy of the Past and Economic Reconstruction,” in Henry and Ji-Hyang, eds., Arab Spring, pp. 185–210. Mary Jane Deeb has a much shorter summary, “The Arab Spring: Libya’s Second Revolution,” in Haas and Lesch, eds., Arab Spring, pp. 64–67.

6. Holger Albrecht, “Authoritarian Transformation or Transition from Authoritariansm? Insights on Regime Change in Egypt,” in Korany and El-Mahdi, eds., Arab Spring in Egypt, pp. 251–52.

7. Kemal Kirisci, “Is the Turkish Model Relevant for the Middle East?” in Henry and Ji-Hyang, eds., Arab Spring, pp. 159–83; and Fawaz Gerges, “The Evolution of Islamist Movements,” in Henry and Ji-Hyang, eds., Arab Spring, pp. 135–40. Gerges’s quotes are on p. 139.

8. Clement Henry, “Political Economies in Transition,” in Henry and Ji-Hyang, eds., Arab Spring, pp. 53–75.

9. Bassam Haddad, “Syria, the Arab Uprisings, and the Political Economy of Authoritarian Resilience,” in Henry and Ji-Hyang, eds., Arab Spring, p. 218. For Syria, see also David W. Lesch, “The Uprising that Wasn’t Supposed to Happen: Syria and the Arab Spring,” in Haas and Lesch, eds., Arab Spring, pp. 79–96, who discusses his own personal experiences with representatives of Bashar al-Asad’s authoritarian state over which he had no control.

10. Haddad, “Syria, the Arab Uprisings, and the Political Economy of Authoritarian Resilience,” p. 219.

11. Brownlee, Democracy Prevention, p. 147.

12. Samer Soliman, “The Political Economy of Mubarak’s Fall,” in Korany and El-Mahdi, eds., Arab Spring in Egypt, pp. 58–59.

13. On Saudi Arabia and the rentier state thesis, see also Steve A. Yetiv, “Oil, Saudi Arabia, and the Spring That Has Not Come,” in Haas and Lesch, eds., Arab Spring, pp. 97–115.

14. Sheila Carapico, “Egypt’s Civic Revolution Turns ‘Democracy Promotion’ on Its Head,” in Korany and El-Mahdi, eds., Arab Spring in Egypt, pp. 199–222.

15. Quoted in Brownlee, Democracy Prevention, p. 78.

16. Michael Scott Doran, “Palestine, Iraq, and American Strategy,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 82, No. 1 (January/February 2003), p. 22, quoted in Brownlee, Democracy Prevention, p. 208, fn. 64.

17. Richard Perle et al., “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,” Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies (IASPS), Study Group on a New Israeli Strategy Toward 2000, June 1996, http://www.iasps.org/strat1.htm; and David Wurmser, “Coping with Crumbling States: A Western and Israeli Balance of Power Strategy for the Levant,” IASPS, December 1996, http://www.iasps.org/strat2.htm.

18. Eric Schmitt, “White House Response Muted to New Mass Killings of Egyptian Protesters,” New York Times. July 29, 2013, p. A6; and Mark Landler, “For U.S., Balancing Act with Egypt Grows More Complicated,” New York Times, July 30, 2013, p. A8. Landler notes that Israel backs SCAF’s retention of authority to protect its own security interests, and that Egyptian generals “are paying little heed to American officials.”

19. Democracy Prevention, pp. 174–75.

20. Beyond the Arab Spring, p. 59, quoting Yezid Sayigh. “Fixing Broken Windows: Security Sector Reform in Palestine, Lebanon, and Yemen,” Carnegie Papers, No. 17 (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, October 2009), p. 15.

21. Quotes taken from Norvell B. De Atkine, “The Arab Mind Revisited,” Middle East Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 3 (Summer 2004), pp. 47–55, available at: http://www.meforum.org/636/the-arab-mind-revisited.

22. Mark Mazetti and Mark Landler, “U.S. Facing Test on Data to Back Action on Syria,” New York Times, August 29, 2013, p. Al.

23. David Kirkpatrick, Peter Baker and Michael Gordon, “How a U.S. Push to Defuse Egypt Ended in Failure,” New York Times, August 18, 2013, p. A1.

24. Scot J. Paltrow and Kelly Carr, “Special Report: How the Pentagon’s Payroll Quagmire Traps American Soldiers,” Reuters, July 9, 2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/07/09/us-usa-pentagon-payerrors-special-report-idUSBRE96818I20130709.

25. Karima Bennoune, “Killing the Arab Spring in Its Cradle,” New York Times, July 30, 2013, p. A19.

26. Robert Satloff, “Assessing the Bush Administration’s Policy of ‘Constructive Instability’ (Part I): Lebanon and Syria,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, PolicyWatch #974, March 15, 2005, http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/assessing-the-bush-administrations-policy-of-constructive-instability-.

Research Areas


Subject Headings

  • United States -- Foreign relations -- Egypt.
  • Arab countries -- Politics and government.
  • El-Mahdi, Rabab. -- 316633
  • Lesch, David W. -- 316632
  • Brownlee, Jason, -- 1974- -- Democracy prevention: the politics of the U.S.-Egyptian alliance. -- 316630
  • Brynen, Rex. -- Beyond the Arab spring: authoritarianism & democratization in the Arab world. -- 316631
  • Korany, Bahgat. -- Arab spring in Egypt: revolution and beyond. -- 316633
  • Haas, Mark L. -- Arab Spring: change and resistance in the Middle East. -- 316632
  • You have access to this content
  • Free sample
  • Open Access
  • Restricted Access