“The Elite Isn’t Going to Lose Control”

Middle East scholar Joshua Stacher explains why democratization in Egypt is only skin deep.


In the West, authoritarian regimes in foreign lands tend to be depicted as uniformly brittle and hollow, ever ripe for popular overthrow. But that blanket characterization fails to do justice to the differing natures of authoritarian systems, argues author and political scientist Joshua Stacher. Authoritarianism is not, by definition, "a stagnant governing approach," he writes in his timely and provocative new book, Adaptable Autocrats: Regime Power in Egypt and Syria.

His defining example of an authoritarian regime that is masterful at perpetuating its rule comes from Egypt, the Arab country he knows best. With last year’s toppling of "ruler for life" Hosni Muburak and the recent election as president of Mohamed Morsi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood (and decidedly not of the military and other powerful state institutions), some analysts see a brighter prospect for democracy. "Democratization is becoming rooted in Arab societies," Egypt included, the historian Olivier Roy recently declared. But Stacher doesn’t think so. Egypt, he says in his book, has not experienced a genuine democratic revolution. While "structural changes to the ruling coalition have undoubtedly occurred," the same old elites, especially the military (its power concentrated in the SCAF — the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces), remain firmly in control of the country.

Syria, in this formulation, offers a contrast to Egypt. Because political and economic power is more decentralized in Syria, with Damascus having only a tenuous hold on events in the outlying regions, Bashar al-Assad’s ruling coalition might collapse. The result is apt to be an unstable power vacuum of the sort Egypt has so far managed to avoid. But in any case, Stacher concludes that "neither Egypt nor Syria is democratizing, and neither is likely to do so in the wake of the 2011 Arab uprisings." And Washington, he asserts, is complicit in this squelching of popular aspirations for grassroots democracy; its rhetoric notwithstanding, the Obama Administration, like its predecessors both Republican and Democratic, is generally comfortable with the diverse forms of autocratic governance in the Middle East. After all, in 2009, President Obama called Mubarak "a force for stability" in the region.

This bleak and somewhat harsh assessment begs tough questions. But Stacher, an assistant professor at Kent State University in Ohio, has earned the right to a voice in the debate about how the U.S. should respond to change in the Arab world. His knowledge of the terrain is hard-won and first-hand: He devoted three years of fieldwork in Egypt and Syria to research for the book, including, as he notes, "more than one hundred interviews with government decision-makers, political activists, journalists, academics, and dissidents." He speaks fluent Arabic and lived in the Arab world (mainly in Cairo), from 1998 to 2007. A native of a small town in southwestern Pennsylvania, Stacher first visited Egypt in 1997, on a college study-abroad program. "I fell in love with Egypt because of how chaotic it was," he recalled. "Back in ’97, you had this major city, Cairo, where there were no traffic cops, no traffic rules." In the following interview, he fleshes out his perspective on events in Egypt and the Middle East as well as Washington’s reaction to them:

Foreign Policy: How do Egyptians talk about democracy? Does it mean the same thing to them that it means to people in the West?

Joshua Stacher: They don’t have the same exact conception of democracy that we do. What Egyptians are really looking for is equality of opportunity. Basic protection under the law. They want to feel like they’re getting a fair shake — in getting into school, getting a job, getting a car, getting an apartment. The problem is, they don’t have basic rights protected. If you’re Egyptian, and you get thrown into jail, what [social] class you’re in determines whether you’re going to get tortured or not.

FP: Certainly many people in the West also would include "basic protection under the law" as an element of their conception of democracy. Is part of your argument that, as a historical and cultural matter, Egyptians are more accepting of authoritarian rule than are people in the West?

JS: I don’t believe that Egyptians think that authoritarianism in their lives is productive developmentally, politically, socially.

FP: So why, then, are you so pessimistic about the prospects for democracy in Egypt, if it represents  a strong popular urge?

JS: Because I don’t believe the elites are going to lose control and that the population is actually going to be empowered. Elites by their nature are conservative. They want to preserve power and direct power to serve their interests. I don’t believe that the transition in Egypt is haphazard or just sort of happening day by day. I believe that there are very structured processes, negotiated processes that are bringing about outcomes that are preserving military rule. If you like grand spectacle, like elections or protests or Mubarak being put in a cage in front of a judge, then yes, a tremendous amount of change has happened. But if you want to measure change in terms of how power is distributed, or how social hierarchies are being displaced, then there hasn’t been that.

FP: Egypt has its first civilian president in Mohamed Morsi, a top figure in the Muslim Brotherhood. There’s very little mention of the Brotherhood in your book. You don’t see the Brotherhood’s ascension as containing any seed or promise of democracy? And why do you see the Brotherhood as a relatively powerless force vis-à-vis the military?

JS: I’ve done a lot of work on the Muslim Brotherhood outside of this book. At the end of the day, they are a more or less an Egyptian institution. If you look at the Egyptian state, it is modeled on a very hierarchical, very top down, very class-ist way of operating. The Muslim Brotherhood functions in almost identical ways to this. If you go to the top of the Brotherhood, a lot of them [top officials] are intermarried and have family links.

FP: Do you know Mohamed Morsi?

JS: I know Mohamed Morsi extremely well. I met him in 2005, I interviewed him in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010, and I talked to him on the phone before he was named president.

FP: In what capacity did you talk to him?

JS: As a friend to a friend. The kind of research that I’m interested in doing requires that I develop personal relationships and commitments to human beings. I called him to basically congratulate him and wish him well — that was it.

FP: The story line in the Western media about what’s playing out in Egypt is in some respects at odds with your assessment. The main narrative is that there is this grand tension working itself out between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military, as seen, for example, in the current battle over reconvening the Brotherhood-dominated parliament seated earlier this year but afterwards dissolved by the courts. Make your analytic point: Why do you think that story line is essentially wrong?

JS: If we were to measure power on a 100-point scale, the army controls an overwhelming majority of that scale. Any time there is any type of negotiation or any type of interaction between the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi and the military, eight to nine times out of ten the Brotherhood doesn’t get what it wants. This latest thing with parliament has proven that point very clearly. Morsi made some grand gesture: We’re going to reconvene the parliament. Well, parliament reconvened for [a few] minutes. And that’s the end of it.

Morsi has accepted the logic that there will be a new elected parliament. In the end, he didn’t wrestle any executive power away from the SCAF, he didn’t wrestle any legislative power away from the SCAF, and they’re having new elections, which is exactly what the SCAF wanted.

FP: What’s preventing the revolution from breaking out?

JS: In my opinion, it is the SCAF. I mean the SCAF is the one playing social forces off each other, they’ve been inciting these sectarian clashes, they allowed the storming of the Israeli Embassy. The SCAF has been involved with completely hijacking the constitution, writing themselves into the constitution, allowing the elections to reconstitute a political field that marginalizes the people in the streets from having a say in what was going on.

FP: Do you know any of the generals, have you talked to them?

JS: I haven’t met any of the generals, no.

FP: You take a tough line on Washington’s role as an actor in advancing democracy in places like Egypt, writing in the book that "despite its shifting rhetoric, the U.S. Administration is pathologically against the empowerment of Arab populations given its actions thus far." Pathologically? What’s your evidence for that? Perhaps you’d like to take back that word?

JS: I don’t want to take it back. I intentionally chose that word. I thought about that word for a long time. In what instance, in what place, have we ever seen the United States support democracy in the Arab World?

FP: Why wouldn’t Washington want to see the empowerment of Arab populations?

JS: Because this is a structured relationship. Do you know how many times we use over-flights to fly over Egyptian airspace to go bomb something or do surveillance on something? And what about the unrestricted use of the Suez Canal? We don’t want a democratically elected population to say, "Hey, look, you can’t just go bomb Iraq without having evidence."

It’s a lazy approach to empire. You rely on the local strongman to keep the natives in their place. That has been the policy, with pretty much bipartisan support in Washington, for the last sixty years in the Middle East.

FP: I thought you might say that the empowerment of the Arab populations could produce a much more anti-Israel posture in countries like Egypt.

JS: No doubt it probably would produce an anti-Israel posture, but that’s something for the Israelis and these individual states to negotiate.

FP: Have you had the chance to present your analysis to decision makers in Washington?

JS: I had an opportunity to go the White House on January 31, 2011, to meet with senior members of the National Security Council, on Egypt. I made incredibly critical comments. The problem is that they think they are actually supporting democracy, when the bottom line is that the major line of communication with Egypt right now is going from the Pentagon to the SCAF.

The reason why the Obama Administration didn’t go absolutely insane with what was going on in Egypt is because they never understood it as falling beyond the reach of the section of the Egyptian state that they were best connected to — and that was the military. That was connected to the Camp David agreement. They got what they paid for.

FP: Let’s turn to Syria. Democracy promotion in Washington sometimes takes the form of calls for armed intervention to topple autocrats. Right now, there are voices urging that approach towards the Assad regime in Syria. For example, former CIA officer Reuel Marc Gerecht is advocating a "coordinated, CIA-led effort to pour anti-tank, antiaircraft, and anti-personnel weaponry" into the hands of the Syrian rebels. Without such an effort, Gerecht says, there is apt to be a "protracted bloodbath" in Syria. Why not try something like this plan?

JS: Because if you topple the regime with outside assistance, the people that come in, the next elites that come in, are beholden to you. What you end up doing is creating more dependency than you do actual autonomy. If you want Assad to be toppled, the movements will find a way to overthrow him. The regime will fragment. It’s already sort of happened. If I was Bashar al-Assad, I would not sleep well at night. I would think my days are numbered. Because that is the par excellence of a regime not adapting well. If you stop adapting, you become extinct.

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