Democratization is a popular topic in political science scholarship. Over the last few decades, as many countries around the world have attempted to transition to democracy, policy practitioners have also increasingly examined processes of democracy-building and questions about how democracies develop.

Initially, scholars focused on the Middle East wondered why authoritarianism had persisted in the region, when it had been challenged and dispensed with in most other parts of the world.

Explanations revolved around three main narratives: the Arab world’s supposedly intrinsic barriers to democracy, which included social, cultural, and economic practices, the lack of institutional frameworks to support a shift toward democracy, and the absence of “good governance” in Arab countries.[1]

These explanations aimed to demonstrate the Arab world “exceptional” nature. A key tenet of modern democratization theory underlines the need for a separation of religious and political power, which seemed especially difficult to realize in Muslim-majority Arab countries. Patrimonialism, ‘small group politics,’ ‘oriental despotism’ and widespread passivity were also viewed as particular to Arab culture.

Another key feature of the literature on democratic transition was the necessity of a free market economic system. Integrating Arab economies into the global system and encouraging liberalization, privatization, and competition became an important feature of democracy promotion, through neoliberal restructuring led by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank.

Certain factors were, however, excluded from mainstream analyses of democratization in the Middle East—the international geopolitical context, the history of colonialism and decolonization, and the imbalances in global power relations which continue to structure international relations. It is difficult, for example, to speak of the 2011 Egyptian uprisings without considering Egypt’s strategic geopolitical role, American foreign policy, and Egypt’s modern historical trajectory, including Ottoman and British colonization, as well as the ramifications of the Cold War.

Nuanced analysis of democratization in the Arab world should consequently be grounded in narratives and data sourced from the region, and framed to reflect events and processes on the ground. Discussion of democracy promotion in the region in terms of preconceived notions about Arab society must be abandoned once and for all.

Any description of political change must also consider historical and global contexts. In Egypt, for example, major social, political, and economic processes have affected its democratization prospects, both before and after the revolution.

Democratization in Egypt

Although accounting for the state of democratization in Egypt or presenting a comprehensive analysis on why the country has not transitioned to democracy is beyond the scope of this article, key historical events continue to play out today, which prevent a democratic system from materializing.

The free market and neoliberalism

A free market economy is often highlighted in the academic literature as a prerequisite to democratic transition.

During Gamal Abdel Nasser’s regime, Egypt pursued Arab socialism through land reforms, massive social service programs and subsidies, and nationalization of industries, including the Suez Canal.

While Nasser enjoyed broad public support, it eventually became clear that Nasser’s system was unsustainable over the long term. The welfare state was inefficient and insulated from the global economy. Successive governments were forced to cut back subsidies and remove some social services, leading to a crisis in Egyptian society.

Sadat’s presidency brought major changes in Egypt’s economic outlook and structure. His economic program, known as infitah or “opening,” included privatizing key industries Nasser had nationalized, opening the economy to foreign goods and markets, removing many social services and subsidies, and increasing foreign investment.

Many Egyptians rebelled against these policies, which “violated the social contract between the state and the masses, triggering anger and discontent,”[2] evidenced in the 1978 bread riots, triggered by soaring food prices.

Sadat’s economic policies had differing effects depending on social class. A small elite became extremely rich quickly, thanks to new investment opportunities.  Parts of the middle class also benefited, as relatively high levels of education helped them secure well-paying jobs. The lower class, by contrast, suffered from cuts in social services, decreasing subsidies, and increasing food prices.  For the vast majority of Egyptians, Sadat’s infitah was the beginning of a downward spiral.

Mubarak’s economic policies were a continuation of infitah, but with a new set of actors. Under Mubarak, Egypt was forced to accept the IMF’s structural adjustment program (SAP), which led to further privatization and less government control.

The SAP reinforced neoliberalism–the source of many of Egypt’s economic woes–as a solution to those same problems. The program consisted of “a reform package which advocated the minimization of the role of the state, privatization of the public sector and the abolition of social welfare measures such as food subsidies, health care, and labor legislation protecting the interests of workers.”[3]

By the start of the 1990s, a new elite had formed, in which Mubarak’s son Gamal was a key member. This group was comprised primarily of businessmen intent on deepening Egypt’s neoliberalist pursuit.

The implications of neoliberalism

Egypt’s transition from British rule to an independent nation state under Nasser represented a major shift in the country’s political and economic trajectory. The transition from Nasser’s Arab socialism to Sadat and Mubarak’s neoliberal capitalism represented a second major shift.

Today we can see the effects of both shifts.

Under Nasser’s government, the Egyptian population came to expect certain services from the state, including subsidies, a minimum level of education, and access to government jobs following a university education. The prospects of satisfying expectations crumbled as the state became increasingly incapable of supplying these services.

Since Nasser’s death, Egypt has transformed into a developing, neoliberal country, with massive gaps and tensions between the classes, growing privatization, and little government regulation. The new business elite control large parts of the economy. The merging of this new elite with the centers of political power (most notably Mubarak’s ruling party National Democratic Party (NDP), in which Gamal Mubarak and others occupied central positions) was a key barrier to political and economic democratization in Egypt prior to 2011.

Following 2011, the landscape shifted. This business elite still exists, although many have been taken to court and are awaiting sentencing (most notably Gamal Mubarak). Moreover, the ruling party (NDP) no longer functions in any official capacity.

Today, a new class of Islamist businessmen continue to encourage neoliberalism. It is still too soon to understand the economic program or impact of the Muslim Brotherhood, but it appears its commitment to social justice is more a ploy to gain popular support than an actual ideological goal.

Egypt’s experience should be used to challenge the assumption in much of the democratization literature that opening up a country’s market is a key requisite to democratization.

The coercive apparatus

The Egyptian coercive apparatus, which consists of various factions, including central security forces, military police, and state security, also impacts Egypt’s democratization.

Under Nasser, the security system began to flourish, shifting Egypt away from a military to a security state. Nasser also ensured no one division within either the military or state security became too powerful, and consistently employed divide and rule tactics, creating a rivalry that continues until today.

Under Sadat, this process continued and intensified. When Sadat became president, the military was preoccupied in Sinai by continuing tensions with Israel. Sadat took advantage of this and began to transfer responsibility for internal security from the military to the police. As a result, the Ministry of Interior began to accumulate unprecedented powers. [4]

Although both security and military forces are inherently coercive institutions in many countries, they typically carry out their roles in different ways. The military tends to repress citizens indirectly through intimidation or deterrents like curfews, whereas the security apparatus leans toward direct, personal coercion of citizens, often through torture and execution.

In addition, in both authoritarian and democratic countries, the military historically enjoys widespread respect and special privileges. The security apparatus, on the other hand, often loses many of its privileges in a democratic system.[5]

These trends are evident in the case of Egypt.

The strength of the country’s security forces and their ability to act without restriction ultimately led to one of the major sparks of the 2011 uprising: the death of twenty-six year old Khaled Said in Alexandria at the hands of police officers. Said had been sitting at an internet café, when he was hauled out into the street by police officers and beaten to death, in apparent retaliation for posting a video of the officers pocketing proceeds from a drug bust.

Police brutality had become one of Egypt’s main problems. Khaled Said’s death made it apparent that no one was exempt from it. The state and the economic elite needed a strong and brutal coercive apparatus to protect them after their legitimacy had disintegrated. Ironically, it was this same apparatus that had protected them for so long that triggered the uprising.

The military

The Egyptian military is a complex, multi-layered institution that is embedded in the country’s social, political and economic fabric. The power of the military is especially clear in the state bureaucracy and the economy, which Yezid Sayigh describes as the “officers’ republic.”[6]

The 1952 military coup, often popularly understood as a revolution, marked the beginning of the officers’ republic, as it ensured the prominence of military personnel in all levels of the Egyptian government.

Under Nasser and Sadat, the government was demilitarized, prompting a military retreat from politics. During the Mubarak era the military expanded its power, through economic investments.[7]

While the military under Nasser had political goals that included the redistribution of land and economic nationalization, under Mubarak, it was much less ideological. The top military brass had become part of the state’s patronage system, thus completing the process of depoliticization.

The military was not, however, completely absent from the political scene. Following Gamal Mubarak’s entry into the NDP, as more of his business associates began to assume major positions within the party, the military began to worry about maintaining its hegemony in Egyptian politics. It became conceivable that Gamal Mubarak would become Egypt’s first civilian president. This not only helped spark the revolution by infuriating many Egyptians, who were not happy seeing the presidency being handed down from father to son; it also worried the military to have an Egyptian president who did not come from the army’s ranks. This sets the scene for the resignation of Mubarak, and the military’s re-entry at the forefront of Egyptian politics.

The military, like any other institution in the country, has specific economic and political interests that it needs to maintain and that impact its political calculations. At the beginning of the uprising, it was unclear which side the military was on.

While many observers believed the army was on the side of the people because it defied orders to use force, others emphasized that the army was also detaining and abusing protesters, and standing by as security forces used violence against these unarmed civilians.

This changed on February 2, 2011, when the violence used by Mubarak’s state security reached unparalleled levels. It is likely that the military, realizing the legitimacy of the regime was beyond saving, decided not to back Mubarak.

It is important to recognize, however, that this was done for specific strategic reasons. In choosing not to fire at protesters, to sacrifice Mubarak, and take control of the transition process, the military ensured its dominance in the new Egypt as well as the maintenance of its image as a vital Egyptian institution.

The role of the Egyptian military after the uprising was problematic. Although it eventually ceded power to the democratically-elected president, Mohamed Morsi, the transitional period was fraught with tension and violence, including the infamous clashes at Maspero television station in Cairo, the Port Said football massacre, and virginity tests carried out against female protesters by military personnel.

As Egyptian civilian government continues to struggle, there are several reasons why the military may not actually support a transition to democracy.

First, the military is currently unaccountable to the civilian government. It managed to ensure that the country’s new constitution, written mainly by the Islamists, protects the military and its vast economic empire. Thanks to constitutional clauses, the military’s budget is secret and immune from parliamentary oversight.

Second, military is an economic powerhouse and controls 5-40% of the Egyptian economy. The military will want to protect these economic interests, and will resist any political attempts to redistribute its wealth.

Third, the military enjoys a special relationship with the United States and Israel. As public sentiment in Egypt is becoming increasingly anti-Israel, the military is unlikely to allow a democratic transition to occur, to protect its relationship with its American and Israeli allies.

Following the post-revolution presidential elections, the military has once again receded into the background. It is as yet unclear how much influence the military will exert on the Morsi-led government, but it is too early to claim that it is no longer an important player.


Three factors are integral to any discussion of Egypt’s path toward democratization. The historical trajectory through which these processes developed, the way they interacted with one another, and how they are influencing events post-2011 are all key aspects of Egypt’s political climate.

Any type of prediction about the future of the country must take into account the ways in which different actors and structures continue to exert influence inside Egypt, particularly the military and neoliberal economic elite.

The consolidation of military rule, the creation of a centralized state that relied extensively on the creation of a strong, brutal coercive apparatus, and the introduction of free market policies, all combined in complex ways to prevent democratic progression following Egypt’s independence in 1952.

These processes continue to impact the country today. January 25, 2011 did not represent a clean break with the past; rather it represented a shift in some areas and continuity in others. The military still exerts political and economic influence; the coercive apparatus continues to exist; the state ignores its responsibilities to support and maintain Egypt’s infrastructure; and the government’s economic program is solidly of a (Islamic) neoliberal variant.

Effective analysis of the present requires understanding historical trends, which make clear that, following shocks like an uprising, economic and political processes are more likely to be reproduced, rather than disrupted.

The democratization literature would benefit from more historically-grounded analysis that draws on processes, actors, and structures that are present in local narratives.

In the case of Egypt, this requires examining the military, the neoliberal elite, and the coercive apparatus, and the ways they have interacted over time to prevent the country from democratizing.

[1] Grindle, Merilee Serrill. Going local: decentralization, democratization, and the promise of good governance. Princeton University Press, 2007.

[2] Bayat, A. (2002) ‘Activism and Social Development in the Middle East,’ International Journal of Middle East Studies 34(1): 1-28.

[3] Abdel Rahman, M. (2002) ‘The Politics of ‘UnCivil’ Society in Egypt’ Review of African Political Economy 29(91): 21-35: 22.

[4] Kandil, H. K. (2012). Power Triangle: Military, Security, and Politics in the Shaping of the Egyptian, Iranian, and Turkish Regimes (Doctoral dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles), 9.

[5] Ibid: 30

[6] Sayigh, Y. (2012) ‘Above the State: The Officers’ Republic in Egypt’ Carnegie Paper, 3.

[7] Ibid: 4.

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