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Reviewed by:
  • Egypt by Robert Springborg
  • Jannis Grimm (bio)
Egypt, by Robert Springborg. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2018. 245 pages. $22.95 paper.

In April 2018, Egypt's president, 'Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, was reelected in a sham election whose outcome was foreshadowed by the withdrawal of all credible competitors from the presidential race. Among those prevented from running were Husni Mubarak's last prime minister, Ahmad Shafiq, and former army chief of staff Sami 'Anan, Field Marshal Muhammad Husayn Tantawi's right-hand man when the army took power after Mubarak's fall. The fact that these two senior officers challenged Sisi nurtured speculation about internal rifts within Egypt's ruling coalition. Among those insinuating friction between the president and parts of his security apparatus is Robert Springborg, a profound expert on Egypt's security sector.1 He suggests that the Shafiq and 'Anan candidacies indicate growing resentment of Sisi, who seems over-challenged by the security crisis and the "socio-fiscal trap" (p. 44) his government is caught in.

Springborg expounds on these dynamics in his latest book. This monograph, ambitiously titled Egypt, is a primer on the architecture of the "officer republic" (p. 5) and is aimed at informed readers and researchers alike. Building on decades of professional engagement with the country's security sector, Springborg revisits Egypt's modern history with a focus on the question of how the "leading Arab nation state" (p. 31) entered a downward spiral of poor governance, sociodemographic pressure, and unfavorable economic prospects. Addressing the structures of political power exertion as a key explanatory variable, his central argument is that the foundation of the military regime established by Gamal 'Abd al-Nasser in the 1950s has survived its founder and solidified as a "deep state" (p. 51) behind the republican facade. This substructure of institutional politics is responsible for the country's administrative incompetence, economic underperformance, and social fragmentation.

Much has been written about the deep state in Egypt, belying the scarcity of reliable information on who is actually pulling the strings in Cairo. Springborg, in turn, offers a sharp analysis based on the term's origin in Turkey, where it denotes the political guardianship of the military and intelligence services. Since the 1950s, Springborg argues, a deep state comprising the presidency, the intelligence services, and the army has functioned as a gatekeeper to political decision-making in Egypt: "Power has shifted marginally between the three legs of the tripod over the last 60-plus years, but the tripod itself has remained remarkably stable" (p. 71). Its penetration of all branches of government has led to a subordination of social and economic policy to concerns over security and self-preservation, which has undermined the separation of power and protected the privileges of a narrow crony elite. The institutions of the deep state became the principal beneficiary of economic benefits at the expense of the majority population. Decades of unfazed expansion into the private sector effectively created economic empires run by military elites, who enjoyed vast competitive advantages vis-à-vis private businesses. Structurally, Springborg shows, the consequences of this imbalance were disastrous as they stalled much-needed economic modernization.

Springborg thus contests the view of the military as an anchor of stability for Egypt's political system. He moreover debunks the romanticizing narrative about the army as arbiter of social unrest during the 2011 Tahrir uprising. While extensive military autonomy enabled the collapse [End Page 505] of the Mubarak regime in the first place, it effectively impeded any meaningful reform of the architecture that had thus far sustained it. The author therefore disputes the reading of 2011 as a revolution. Rather than transforming the state, this "coup-volution" (p. 4) only inverted the power relations between Mubarak's former power base and the military, effectively placing Egypt under direct military rule. In Springborg's view, it is both a curse and blessing that protesters never challenged the supremacy of the deep state: "Had subordination of the military and security forces to civilian control been the protesters' objective, Egypt might have dissolved into civil war" (p. 57). However, as the architecture of power remained untouched, the key drivers of Egypt's economic demise...


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