The Deep State Comes to America

In Egypt and Turkey, grand government conspiracies are a reality. In the United States, they're little more than fantasy.

By Steven A. Cook, the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

In the months and weeks leading up to the summer 2013 coup d’état in Egypt that brought Mohamed Morsi’s presidency to an end, Egyptians encountered one economic challenge after another. Blackouts had become commonplace, the tourism industry was dead, foreign investment was nonexistent, and the government was flirting with a solvency crisis. All of this meant severe hardship for the millions of Egyptians who had hoped that the end of former President Hosni Mubarak’s regime would bring them the “bread, freedom, and social justice” so many had demanded in Tahrir Square a few years earlier.

Among the most painful economic problems at the time was the shortage of fuel. In car-heavy Egypt, the inability to move — in addition to the usual, frustrating snarl of traffic — added insult to injury.

And then it was over. An economic crisis that had seemingly been months in the making disappeared almost overnight. A week after the coup, Ben Hubbard and David Kirkpatrick of the New York Times reported that gasoline was, suddenly, readily available. Was this just a coincidence — or was this the work of a secret cabal of military officers, intelligence operatives, and senior bureaucrats known as the “deep state”?

The idea of a deep state is hardly unique to Egypt. It is actually more commonly associated with Turkey and has recently turned up in the United States. For Turks, the rumors of their own long-standing secret cabal were confirmed when a Mercedes-Benz struck a truck in the small town of Susurluk, 150 miles southwest of Istanbul, on Nov. 3, 1996. The passengers in the Mercedes were an odd group that included Istanbul’s deputy chief of police, a member of parliament, a known hit man, and the hit man’s girlfriend. Only Sedat Bucak, the right-wing parliamentarian, survived.

To many in Turkey, what became known as the Susurluk scandal provided a peek into the Turkish deep state. There was the obvious question about how it came to be that one of Turkey’s legislators and a senior police officer shared a ride with a known murderer and drug trafficker named Abdullah Catli. Then there were sensational allegations that the brakes of the car, which hit the truck at a high speed, had been remotely disabled. On top of these questions and accusations were claims that Catli, his girlfriend, and the police official, Huseyin Kocadag, had actually survived the collision but were killed by a team of assassins who arrived on the scene before local police and ambulance crews.

Until that moment, there had been little tangible evidence of the existence of Turkey’s deep state — even as it was nevertheless accepted as a fact of Turkish political life. It was the unseen conspiracy that well-meaning Turks always counseled inquisitive foreigners to look out for among military, police, and intelligence officers — the usual suspects — as well as in the most unexpected places, like the media, academia, and business community. No one knew how it all worked, but taken together these groups are believed to use the power of the Turkish state to advance their interests at the expense of society.

The conspiracy-minded idea that “things are not always what they seem to be” has proved attractive to Egyptians and Turks alike. Although the prevalence of the term and the imagined composition of the cabal differ, the belief in both Egypt and Turkey that powerful and unaccountable forces have a unique influence on the trajectory of events stems from similar conditions — an inability of citizens themselves to have a say in politics, economics, and social matters. Instead, Egyptians and Turks live in a political system where capriciousness, brutality, and corruption have become norms. It is no wonder that people have come to believe in the existence of a deep state.

That is Egypt and Turkey, though, countries where journalists are routinely jailed, opponents of the government are imprisoned, security forces politicized, parliaments are pliant, and the news is another name for an elaborate information campaign waged under the auspices of presidential palaces. How did the deep state enter political discourse in the United States?

In recent weeks, news outlets as varied as Breitbart, Infowars, the Intercept, and AlterNet have run stories about an American deep state. The term probably arrived on U.S. shores the same way it got to Egypt, by people straining to make sense of events in countries with such disparate histories, cultures, and political systems as Turkey, Egypt, and the United States. For supporters of President Donald Trump, the deep state is a convenient scapegoat as the new administration takes a beating in the press, protests throughout the country deepen polarization, and leaks pour out of the White House. Then there is what seems to be an undeclared war between Trump and the intelligence community, which has brought into public debate the prospect that senior officials have engaged in illegal and perhaps even treasonous activities. From a certain perspective, forces within the bureaucracy seem to be colluding with the media and Democrats to lay siege to Trump’s young administration.

It is quite the opposite for Trump’s opponents. They regard Trump’s attacks on the press, his effort to delegitimize the judiciary, the unexplained links between the White House and the Russian government, and the seemingly purposeful effort to sow instability in the country as different dimensions of a plan to fundamentally alter the character of the American political system. The very fact that some senior advisors to the president, such as White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon, have spoken openly about “tearing down the system” has only intensified fears of a plot by the most powerful to undermine American democracy.

In other words, many among Trump’s detractors argue that the American deep state is engaged in a slow-motion coup. Among the 40 percent or so of Americans who believe that the president is doing a good job, the contentiousness of his first month in office is a result of a concerted, organized effort by the bureaucracy to undermine the Trump administration. Trump himself has hinted as much in his attacks on the intelligence community and judiciary.

There is reason to be concerned about the integrity of American political and legal institutions as the president and his advisors have thrown them open to question and manipulation. The president seems not to have thought through how these tactics will affect the future political trajectory of the country — a fact that contains stark similarities to the way the leaderships of Egypt and Turkey have leveraged institutions to meet immediate political challenges and, in the process, consolidated the authoritarian nature of their respective political systems.

Within this apparent similarity are the stark differences between the Egyptian and Turkish deep states and their alleged American counterpart. In Turkey, the deep state — if it exists — is believed to maintain a single, prime directive: ensure the republican system that modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and his associates established in 1923. Toward that end, the deep state has sought to repress expressions of Kurdish nationalism, thwart Islamist ambitions, deny the history of Armenians in Anatolia, and, in a previous era, suppress communism. This has produced periodic assassinations, contributed to a three-decade war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and four coups since 1960.

In Egypt, the deep state’s goal has been to ensure what can only be described as the “natural order” of politics, meaning the perpetuation of the military-dominated political system that former President Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Free Officers founded in the 1950s. The Egyptians have been more successful in that than the Turks, who have had to resort more often to military interventions and violence to preserve the secular republican state.

In the United States, the likelihood that a deep state exists seems far-fetched. Lost in this moment’s political polarization is the fact that the response from intelligence professionals, judges, and government administrators is directly related to the new administration’s disregard for democratic norms. Rather than trying to reshape the American republic, these forces have moved to ensure that hostile foreign powers cannot compromise senior American officials and that the national security advisor should not blatantly mislead the vice president.

At a level of abstraction, American bureaucrats are doing something similar to what the Egyptian and Turkish deep states have done — protect a system. That is as far as it goes, however. In the American case, the bureaucrats themselves don’t control, or want to control, the system they are trying to protect. People in the White House, the Pentagon, the State and Justice departments, Congress, and the intelligence community are leaking to the press because they have no choice in an administration where officials have unexplained links with Russia, an array of conflicts of interest, and have promoted soft forms of white nationalism and fascism that threaten basic ideals of American democracy. On top of all of this, those same officials have openly expressed disdain for the professional bureaucracy. This is more than the mundane leaking of everyday Washington but only because the stakes are so high.

Nothing in any of what has transpired in the United States since Trump’s inauguration indicates the existence of an American deep state. The idea has emerged because, like Egyptians and Turks who live in societies where government is opaque, Americans, who are bereft of good explanations for the often bewildering turn of events in a highly polarized and charged political environment, have sought an easy interpretation: conspiracy.


Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East. Twitter: @stevenacook