Eberhard Kienle, Egypt: A Fragile Power (Abingdon / New York, Routledge, 2022).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Eberhard Kienle (EK): The immediate reason was a call from Anoushiravan Ehteshami who wondered whether I would be ready to write a volume on Egypt for his Contemporary Middle East Series at Routledge. It looked like a golden opportunity to return to two related issues that had been pushed to the back of my mind by the 2011 protests and the return of authoritarian rule. First, I wondered why the different economic policies pursued by Egyptian governments since World War Two—despite the country’s assets, such as such as institutions performing, to an extent, in various areas—never led to anything like sustainable and inclusive development. Second, I was curious to explore further the extent to which the case of Egypt, endowed with these assets, confirmed my assumptions about the “variety of states” in the Arabic-speaking parts of the world which I sketched out on another occasion. Both questions are part and parcel of a broader concern with the future of a country where I had the privilege to spend many years of my professional life.

Not all too long ago, the diversity of Arab states was illustrated by the Arab Spring. Even though the path in Egypt was bumpy and ultimately proved reversible or worse, a seemingly irremovable president for life resigned and stood trial in court, while competitive elections resulted in the (temporary) victory of his former opponents. Various attempts at violent repression notwithstanding, the protests were not crushed and did not develop into violent domestic conflicts across the entire country or a “civil war” like in Syria. Nor did they or such violence lead to the summary execution of the former strongman as it happened in Libya. As a state, Egyptian survived the (partial) transformation of its political regime with relative ease.

Evidence provided throughout the book illustrates that in institutional—and institutionalist—terms, Egypt became a consolidated and distinct political entity early on. Unlike Syria or Libya, delineated by imperialist fiat after World War, it had (been) taken (on) that course more than two centuries ago. Thanks to the flagging power of the Ottoman Empire, the process of state formation began before European imperialism lastingly left its imprint. Egypt developed institutions with a considerable impact on numerous walks of life; it also developed into a community of solidarity and loyalty—of people increasingly convinced that they formed a nation. including the one that Anderson calls an “imagined community.” Occasionally, as after 1952 and to a smaller extent after 2011, new institutions emerged in opposition to earlier ones, but almost always within for the same territorial and demographic entity. To cut a long story short, since the early nineteenth century, Egypt followed the trajectory of a nation-state in the narrow sense of the term and developed into a power of sorts.

However—and here we turn to my first question—the process was stymied by limited economic resources, at least in comparison to the heartlands of capitalism in Europe and later in North America. It was truncated when the imbalance of resources from the mid-nineteenth century increasingly facilitated European domination, culminating in British occupation from 1881 to basically the 1954 evacuation treaty, negotiated by Nasser two years after the Free Officers took power. As a result, external actors shaped institutions in ways that heavily influenced politics, as well as the creation and distribution of wealth. The legacy and path dependency continued to impact developments and available choices until today. Policies to catch up with the former imperialist masters no doubt appealed to Nasser, but they soon exacerbated the resource gap; subsequent choices like Sadat’s infitah failed to narrow the gap or even deepened it. In the end, Egypt remained a largely fragile or hypothetical power which, in terms of political centralization resembled its European counterparts, in terms of economic strength its neighbors in the global south. To me it looked challenging and stimulating to untangle these dynamics which help to answer the two questions raised above—quite apart from the pleasure of working in Egypt and with Egyptian colleagues.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

EK: Seeking to understand why Egypt politically and economically has become what it is today, the volume draws on the historiography of the Eastern Mediterranean in the early nineteenth century; the literatures on state- and nation-building in the context of historical imperialism and foreign domination; and debates on the (international) political economy of the global South. Sensitive to the weight of institutions, it also explores the conditions of their demise. Against that backdrop, it seeks to explain authoritarian rule in Egypt and its variations, salient features, and impact on economic and social policies. Economic outcomes appear as the result of heavy external constraints (and occasionally opportunities) as much as of choices made by Egyptians. Social policies are not conceived as anything like a “social contract.” As implied by the previous paragraph, “a fragile power” is not “a fragile” or even “failed state.”

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

EK: To an extent, the book obviously builds on my earlier writing on Egypt, in particular on A Grand Delusion: Democracy and Economic Reform in Egypt (London, I.B. Tauris, 2000); twenty years on, it largely confirms but also partly refines its main argument that in the 1990s, under Mubarak, policies of economic reform and liberalization reinforced authoritarian rule. However, its chronological and thematic scope is much wider and therefore takes much inspiration from the lively debates about the historical formation of the Egyptian state, its political economy, and international relations.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

EK: Written for an academic as well as a broader public interested in Egypt, the Middle East, and the historical dimensions of current affairs, the book seeks to contribute to debates in Egypt and abroad about the institutions and policies that serve the interests and guarantee the liberties of all Egyptians.

In this context, the volume also questions commonly held assumptions, or rather illusions, that Egypt with its current difficulties and government remains a factor of stability in the Middle East. No doubt, the Egyptian state is unlikely to disintegrate like its counterparts in Syria, Libya, or Yemen. However, the perennial conflict between the military-based governments that have been in power almost uninterruptedly since 1952 and their supporters, on the one hand, and their challengers, in particular the Muslim Brothers, on the other hand, smolders and continues. Rather than ideological, the conflict has largely been a conflict over who is in and who is out. It will not simply go away; rather it will be fueled by the persistent attempts of the military and its cronies to limit participation and even crowd out civilians in the private sector.

J: Where is Egypt going in the new future?

EK: The Sisi administration has not managed any better than its predecessors to put the country on a path towards sustainable and inclusive development. In fact, this government’s responses—like those of earlier governments—have compounded the difficulties and further removed the country from such a trajectory. Megaprojects such as the “new” Suez Canal and the new administrative capital near Cairo are not conducive to it; the former was built on exaggerated and largely unfounded assumptions about future traffic, while the latter reflects a logic of consumption and representation rather than production. The new authoritarian rulers continue to focus on rent-seeking and self-perpetuation rather than human resources, critical thinking, and innovation that might raise productivity. No transition to the production of higher value-added products has been initiated, nor has there been much success in terms of job creation for a growing population that now numbers more than one hundred million people. In spite of a few encouraging but unconfirmed figures here and there, inequalities in income, wealth, and opportunities have not decreased.

By and large, the country continues to spend more resources than it produces, especially outside the volatile oil and gas sector, which only generates rents for the happy few. As in the past, transfers from abroad have kept the country afloat, most recently loans from the International Monetary Fund which had to be called in again—twice already since 2013. Despite some additional sensitivity to social concerns, the loan agreements for most Egyptians boil down to austerity measures. If it is true that some macroeconomic indicators have—temporarily—improved, most of the attendant “structural” measures fail to foster, and even impede, sustainable development and the more equal distribution of wealth. Sadly, under these conditions, the country will stumble along until the next crisis hits and another bailout follows—or not. Health, education, and human resources in general will further atrophy; people will try and emigrate, stage protests, or simply fall into apathy.

J: What other projects are you working on now? 

EK: In a sense the companion volume to this one, my next book will focus on states in the Middle East that are less consolidated than Egypt. Conceiving them in terms of “limited statehood” rather than misconceiving them as “failed states,” I seek to explore what remains of them after years or decades of disintegration, internal conflict, in some cases “rebel governance” and foreign occupation, as well as atrophied or absent public policies including government services.


Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction, pp. 12-14)

Revisiting some received ‘wisdoms’

The preceding account and the following chapters illustrate continuities across periods that, although often excessively reified, have been discussed in part of the literature. The end of the monarchy as a political regime did not coincide with the end of economic policies that relied on, or at least allocated an important role to, the private sector. Conversely, the advent of the republic did not mark the beginning of state intervention and étatism in economic policy. However timidly, the role of the private sector began again to be strengthened under the allegedly socialist Nasser, even though it was only with Sadat’s infitah that the shift acquired momentum.

Similarly, the volume shows the continuous presence of important authoritarian features in the sense of limitations to pluralism combined with centralized, unaccountable decision-making. Although these traits changed over time, they generally remained irreconcilable with a meaningful definition of democratic government or democratization. If Egypt was increasingly affected by global capitalism in the late 19th century, it never experienced the pervasive economic and societal transformations epitomized by the industrial revolution that forced the capitalist heartlands to accommodate resourceful constituencies and to enfranchise ever larger parts of the population down to workers and the destitute. To the contrary, in Egypt the democratizing European powers from the late 19th century heavily contributed to quell demands for political participation.

The authoritarian features of the monarchy fed on the highly unequal distribution of wealth propped up by external interference, external conflict, and ensuing lack of legitimacy. The 1952 coup swept away the monarchy all the more easily as Britain, exhausted by World War Two, was no longer able to compensate for the continuous erosion of its domestic support or, as it occasionally tried, to push for reforms.

The Free Officers intended to reduce the remnants of the ancien regimé supposedly in league with imperialism, as well as other opposition forces; partly related disagreements among the Officers accentuated repression, as did external conflicts. The Officers also became convinced that state-led economic development and ‘modernization’ to catch up with the ‘developed’ world justified authoritarian rule. Like his successors under different circumstances, Nasser sought to avoid debates about distributing scarce resources. Over the decades, external aid related to Egypt’s ‘strategic’ location and other substantial rents further buttressed the rulers vis-à-vis their domestic challengers, actual or potential, even though at times aid reduced want and opposition.

Far more stringent than under the monarchy, the mechanisms of control and repression established under Nasser and attendant policies of co-optation and legitimation were inherited by Sadat and Mubarak, themselves officers; in spite of policy changes such as partial economic liberalization, the latter continued to defend the interests of the armed forces and their allies. Marked by considerable path-dependency, such continuity was briefly interrupted by the 2011 protests which, however, brought down a president rather the political regime and its ‘governmentality’.

Unsurprisingly, there is no evidence for claims that causally link authoritarian rule to the – alleged – absence of ‘democratic values’ or demands for participation; the latter have been repeatedly and forcefully illustrated, not least in 2011. Whether seen as a doctrine or a set of institutions and practises, Islam has not prevented Egyptians from seeking and promoting representative government, neither in 2011 nor in the latter part of the 19th century. As for Islamists, many of them were no democrats, but at crucial moments, they were courted by the rulers, in particular Sadat, who them- selves were no democrats. Similar reservations apply to the importance of (neo-) patrimonial dynamics and the (mis)use of public resources for private ends which may be seen as a consequence rather than a cause of authoritarian rule; at any rate, in Egypt, as in many other places, these dynamics had to compete with formal and institutional mechanisms. Equally unsubstantiated remains the claim that authoritarianism developed in tandem with large-scale irrigation infrastructures; in many instances, the former emerged without the latter and vice versa. Independently of its causes, authoritarian rule, often seen to expedite decisions, has left them to the whims of the rulers. The absence of consultation, participation, transparency, and consensus has negatively affected the quality of policies, not to mention their acceptance. In some cases, the lack of checks and balances simply allowed the rulers to replace common with their own or special interests – for instance, when crony capitalism thrived under Mubarak. More recently, the Sisi administration no doubt managed to build the ‘new’ Suez Canal in record time but never evaluated costs and benefits, which turned out to be different from expectations.

The volume moreover argues that disagreements between Islamists and non-Islamists (rather than secularists of which there never have been that many) – the latter including many Muslims – have not necessarily drawn the major battle lines in Egyptian politics. Sadat’s tactical rapprochement with Islamist organizations is only one example. Since the 1950s, the main divide has separated the armed forces and their allies from those who failed to join the alliance or were excluded and therefore missed the gravy train. Numerous officers and their civilian allies have allies have been Islamists in the sense that they wanted public and private life to be governed by values and norms they themselves considered Islamic. They were not concerned about Islamism as an ideology or set of practices; they were only concerned about Islamists who challenged their own position. No doubt, Nasser, in spite of earlier links with the MB, had little sympathy for the ‘Islamization’ of politics and society. On a famous occasion in 1958, he publicly ridiculed the idea that women should veil themselves. This being said, he knew when to invoke religion, if only symbolically – during the Suez War in 1956 for instance he addressed Egyptians from the minbar or chair of Al-Azhar. Mubarak frequently accommodated activities and demands by Islamists, provided they helped to marginalize armed groups or the MB, whom he deemed dangerous. It should be stressed though, that often the three presidents responded to ideological and normative changes that they could not control as they unfolded on a global scale.

Finally, echoing the book title, the decades since the end of World War Two illustrate the failure of successive economic policies to raise production and revenues to the level of consumption and expenditure, generate the resources necessary to play the role of a regional power, or ‘catch up’ with the ‘developed’ countries. Even progress towards the UN millennium and later sustainable development goals has been rather uneven. Those who devised and implemented policies often succeeded in making them work for themselves and their supporters. Under the monarchy, large landowners never lost out; in the last decade of Mubarak’s reign, well-connected entrepreneurs around his son Gamal considerably benefited from government policies and subsidies. However, neither the private-sector-based economic order under the monarchy, nor the increasingly étatist policies pursued under Nasser, the open-door policy under Sadat, or the more far-reaching economic reforms under Mubarak brought the country closer to anything that could be called sustainable development and distributional justice.

At best, the ultimate failure of successive economic policies has permanently reproduced a condition of fragile strength. To an extent, such failure has been part and parcel of a vicious circle in which lack of resources and limited capacities affect the formulation and implementation of policies. The frequent availability of strategic and other rents primarily fostered a sense of complacency. Matters were complicated by the cost of decades of conflict with Israel and by drawbacks of authoritarian rule. However, failure was as much the result of global developments and indeed relations of power that impose policies like infitah and structural adjustment and except in a few fortunate places favour the development of underdevelopment rather than development in any meaningful sense.