POMEAS OP-ED, 25 July 2014
There is an uninformed debate going on about the Middle East, easily sticking to clichés rather than analyzing the structural and conjunctural variables that define the course of events. Therefore, Hazem Kandil does a great job in evaluating the post-colonial history of Egypt with a long-termist perspective in his book "Soldiers, Spies and Statesmen: Egypt's Road to Revolt" published by Verso in 2012.
He convincingly posits that the Egyptian Republican regime has been a product of a trilateral power struggle between the military, the security services and the political apparatus. He thus claims that any reading of the course that the country has taken should be both a function and result of the power relations and more precisely the balances between these three groups.
Egypt has been deemed the leader of the Arab World, which was almost a truism back until a few years ago. The perception that follows is that the arrival of the Arab Spring- a foreign plot for some- and the ensuing chaos upended the country's unique status. Kandil's depiction of the political history of Egypt simply invalidates this overreaching argument and sketches an insular worldview that has come to dominate Egyptian foreign policy.
He demonstrates that Egyptian politics, even in its transnational Nasser phase was all about domestic power struggles. Despite a propagated quest to repair Arab dispossession, Nasser's motivation was to consolidate his power base domestically. Hence his foreign adventures and foreign alignments and dealignments. Kandil delineates how his successors, i.e. Presidents Sadat and Mubarak, also followed this path to ensure foreign support for domestic survival.
The book is full of anecdotes and bitter experiences of Egypt with cronyism, nepotism and above all a corrupt political class that confronts demands and rights of the people. Despite its claim to bring in an "institutional realist" point of view, the book ends up mostly focusing on the role of agency, i.e. a history of Egyptian leaders and political personalities.
The leadership, which happened to have bred among the top-brass, followed a deviating course right after assuming power to opt for a weak and inefficient military. Sadat and Mubarak, in particular, without a definitive power base and with meager background in the military, felt threatened by the military's potential to overturn their rule or to empower successful military commanders, who could emerge as alternatives to their dysfunctional rule.
This reasoning makes it easier to understand Egypt's subservient foreign policy conspicuously in the wake of the 1973 war. Sadat's fear of military's success in that very instance led to national surrender, which in Kandil's depiction borders treachery. The Camp David process and American alliance thereof insitutionalized the loss of autonomy in Egyptian foreign policy. The military cadres' preferences for an offensive regional strategy thus fell on deaf ears and the Egyptians settled for a defensive and status quoist order that appeared satisfied with a predominant neighbor and an underdog role vis-à-vis a superpower, a concession which was regarded worth accepting in order to ensure the regime's survival.
Lacking a national foreign policy identity, Egypt oscillated from being a bulwark against communism to a Soviet ally during Nasser, from an opponent to friend of Israel during Sadat and from a defender of the Arabs' rights to their usurper during Mubarak era.
Yet the main focus of the book is not foreign but domestic competition. The author describes how this predominant concern about internal balances engendered an inefficient and obstructionist political order, which regarded far-reaching military, popular and economic success as potential threats to its very survival. The book arguably ranks the military below the security services in pecking order because of the latter's inherent self-discipline and rather biasedly delineates a military characterized essentially by patriotism against all other corrupt agents in the political arena. What followed was a delicate dependence of the political class on the defensive shield of especially the security services and the police. This led to Egypt's transformation from a military to police state, which prioritized raison d'etat to the detriment of both the people and the country. The political leaders' choice also crowded out the military's preference to stand behind a strong leader like Ataturk, who would lead "'a revolution from above' that would build a strong centralized state with a modern industrial economy."
The end result of this narrow mindset was in a Samer Solimanian sense "the regime success and state failure." The book gives an elaborate account of the class divisions of wealth, which pointed to a select group of first landowners, then bureaucrats and finally big bourgeoisie amassing fortunes. Hereby the book hints at a correlation whereby the group that commands economic power also increased their political say, though still within the limits of the trilateral balances. What was left for the masses was to accept economic subsistence in return for political passivity. The political class frugally trickled down the neoliberal returns to the people through subsidies, public employment and services. Yet both their gradual diminution and unsustainability brought about occasional ruptures, the latest being the eruption in the Tahrir Square and across the country.
The book assigns the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) an insignificant secondary position. Despite their weight in terms of a significant ideological power base among the public, they stand short before the colossal trilateral mechanism, which prescribes and proscribes the course of Egyptian politics. Therefore, while the MB shared a common ground with Nasser in the beginning, they fell apart once the latter consolidated his power base. A similar fate was looming despite MB's rise to power in 2012 elections.
Kandil started writing down the book five years prior to the 2011 upheaval. However, his structural reading of the Egyptian politics seems to have vindicated his approach. Published in 2012, the book suggested the MB to balance against the dynamics of Egyptian system, which largely remained intact given the ineffectuality of disorganized and ephemeral political riots. The feasible choice seemed to enter into a power sharing deal, whereby "the military-security apparatus would have the final say in military and national security affairs, while civilians would retain control over political life in general." When the MB chartered for an expansive role both in domestic and foreign policy, the result was a coup that largely reproduced the six-decade-old known ways of repression and control. If the book is any indicator, both the MB's and a semblance of democracy's comeback will entail bigger ruptures in the aforementioned political balances.
*Foreign Policy Institute (FPI) Fellow, SAIS, Johns Hopkins University