America Versus Democracy in Egypt

by David Wearing

Washington-Cairo relations are best understood in terms of 'democracy prevention' rather than 'democracy promotion', as a new book by Jason Brownlee demonstrates

First published: 10 February, 2013 | Category: Foreign policy, Terror/War

Democracy Prevention: The Politics of the US-Egyptian Alliance, Jason Brownlee. Cambridge University Press, 2012



"I really consider President and Mrs Mubarak to be friends of my family."
Hilary Clinton, US Secretary of State, 2009

"No, I tend not to use labels for folks."
US President Barack Obama, 2009, when asked whether, in light of the thousands of political prisoners in Egypt, he regarded Hosni Mubarak as an authoritarian ruler.

"[Mubarak has] been immensely courageous and a force for good"
Tony Blair, February 2011

"Gamal Mubarak, ...has been the leading voice in favour of change within the government and the ruling party. Of course, it is easy to cast him as the putative beneficiary of a nepotistic transfer of family power, the continuation of “tyranny” with a change of face at the top. This analysis, in my view, is too simplistic."
Peter Mandelson, February 2011


On 10 February 2011, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates had his fifth telephone conversation since the start of the Egyptian uprising with his counterpart, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi. The following day, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces deposed President Hosni Mubarak after twenty-nine years in power.

This was not the first choice outcome of the American government or many of its international allies. Under Mubarak and his predecessor Anwar Sadat, Egypt had been a pillar of the US-managed imperial system in the Middle East. After the uprising began in late January 2011 began, Egyptian and US officials had initially sought to replace Mubarak with his intelligence chief, the ghoulish Omar Suleiman, with the aim of placating the public while keeping the basic structures of power in place. But despite waves of vicious attacks on protestors from regime goon squads, uniformed and otherwise, it became clear that this solution was not going to fly. The tens of thousands involved in strikes or protests on 8 February 2011 demonstrated forcefully that replacing Mubarak with his torturer-in-chief was not going to cut it with the Egyptian people. As Jason Brownlee notes, “by February 10, 2011, a transition without Mubarak or Suleiman had become the best bet for preserving the US-Egyptian alliance”.

Brownlee’s new book ‘Democracy Prevention: The Politics of the US-Egyptian Alliance’, explores the history of Washington’s commitment to autocratic rule in Cairo, the reasons for which are straightforward enough. “Official US-Egyptian relations have been at odds with domestic public opinion in Egypt. Rather than fostering democracy in an incremental fashion, US and Egyptian officials have promoted an autocratic security state that supports a US-led regional order built around Israeli security and US influence over the Persian Gulf. By contrast, public opinion in Egypt favours a regional security order  less dominated by the United States and Israel, and a government that respects political competition and civil liberties”.

For forty years Washington has provided a steady and plentiful stream of aid to the Egyptian military, keeping a vital conservative force within the state onside, and coup-proofing the government in the process. In addition, macroeconomic stability has been assured through aid and loans, with a blind eye turned to domestic repression. When Sadat expelled thousands of Soviet advisers in 1972, the way was clear for a full strategic reorientation, after the nationalism and anti-imperialist affectations of the Nasser years. Between the Arab-Israeli War of 1973 and the Camp David Accords of 1978, Washington began to shore up Sadat’s regime economically and militarily.

The eyes of the human rights champion President Carter were squarely fixed on the geopolitical prize. The oil crisis of the early 70s and the fall of the Iranian Shah in 1979 underscored the need for dependable allies in the strategically vital Middle East. Sadat’s dependability lay precisely in his being a dictator, willing to ignore the wishes of his own people. At Camp David in 1978, Sadat’s domestic power put him at a disadvantage because, unlike the Israelis, there were no insuperable domestic impediments to his will that he could cite in negotiations. Sadat even told his delegation that he would “sign anything Carter proposed without even reading it”. By signing the peace treaty with Israel, Egypt lost the support of Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Arab League, but cemented its place as a favoured imperial client state.

The alliance continued seamlessly when Mubarak succeeded Sadat after the latter’s assassination. Arms for anti-Soviet guerrillas in Afghanistan were purchased by the CIA and Saudi Arabia from Egyptian stockpiles. Egypt gained “Major Non-NATO Ally” status in 1987, conferring preferential treatment in arms supplies from its American patron. The US Navy was granted special permission to pass nuclear-powered vessels through Suez and enjoyed use of Cairo West Air Base, both key staging posts to the Persian Gulf.

In 1990, Mubarak played the lead diplomatic role in gathering the Arab coalition that backed the US against Saddam, in return for which Egypt received huge debt write-offs from Washington and the Gulf states, saving it $1bn a year in repayments. After the World Trade Center bombing of 1993, Omar Suleiman ran Cairo’s end of the “rendition” (kidnapping and torture) programme started by President Clinton and stepped up significantly by President Bush II after 9/11.

Under Bush II, what few disagreements arose between the allies over political reform concerned little more than “differing ways of reaching the shared goal of regime continuity”, rather than any ‘democracy promotion’ crusade on Washington’s part. Mubarak wanted to groom his son, Gamal, for the succession, whereas the Bush administration thought Omar Suleiman more reliable (as did Obama after them). Washington regarded as unpalatable the likely choice, in the event of Mubarak’s death, between his son or the Muslim Brotherhood, and pressed (albeit weakly) for political reforms that might allow “sustainable pro-US alternatives” to emerge.

The official charged with taking the lead on Bush’s ‘freedom agenda’ in Egypt, Elliot Abrams, had previously been pardoned by the first President Bush for his role in the Iran-Contra cover-up, indicating the standards of integrity that Washington was bringing to bear on the issue. Condoleezza Rice’s description of Mubarak as “a president who has sought the consent of the governed” gave a sense of how seriously one should take the neo-conservatives’ claimed commitment to democracy. Egyptian trainees on “anti-terrorism” courses in the US continued to hail from the same police forces identified by the State Department for their role in torture, extra-legal detention, and unlawful killings. Bush et al may have talked a good game on democracy, but when Mubarak ignored them they essentially shrugged their shoulders and carried on with business as usual. The ‘democracy promotion’ agenda was largely a sham, as it had to be given that any Egyptian foreign policy reflecting the will of the people would have run counter to Washington’s strategic priorities in the region.

In June 2006, 76 per cent of Egyptians saw Hamas’ electoral victory as good for the Palestinian people, 83 per cent thought the Iraq war increased the threat of terrorism, 14 per cent saw Iran or North Korea as threats to world peace, while 56 regarded the occupation of Iraq as such, 10 per cent supported the ‘War On Terror’ and 8 per cent expressed ‘a lot’ or ‘some’ confidence in Bush’s international leadership. None of this had any influence on Egyptian foreign policy, whose parameters were defined elsewhere. After 9/11, the Bush White House placed even greater value on Egypt’s strategic assistance, as well as its experience and expertise in fighting violent extremists. Despite huge public opposition to the invasion of Iraq and to American power more generally, Mubarak gave US forces access through the Suez en route to the Persian Gulf.

Democracy prevention was a geopolitical necessity, not only in Egypt, but in the occupied Palestinian territories. When the Palestinians failed to elect the right people in a free and fair parliamentary vote in 2006, Washington’s reaction was viscerally hostile. Cairo needed little encouragement to join the counter-democratic effort, given the links between Hamas and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Suleiman told foreign diplomats in 2006, “The most important thing to remember is that the Hamas government must not be allowed to succeed. It has to fall”.

Egypt assisted in arming and training Fatah forces in advance of a planned US-backed coup against the elected Palestinian government. This was pre-empted by Hamas in June 2007 which attempted its own coup, leading to the Gaza-West Bank split that endures to this day. Egypt helped to enforce the subsequent collective punishment of Gaza, whose aims Suleiman characterised in these terms: “The people of Gaza must not be starved, but there’s no need to help them too much. Keep them going on the minimum”. The echoes of senior Israeli official Dov Weisglass’ gruesome pledge to “put the Palestinians on a diet” were unmistakeable, and one need not be surprised to learn that the Israelis had gone so far as to calculate the minimum amount of calories that the Palestinians would need to avoid malnutrition.  Nor should it surprise us that the Israelis also favoured Suleiman as Mubarak’s successor.

As Brownlee notes, Bush’s “Freedom Agenda found its targets through the periscope of US national security: Arafat, Saddam Hussein, Hamas. The Bush White House never sought to remove pro-US dictators in Egypt and other strategic location”. All one needs to add is that “US national security”, in this instance, refers strictly to the “security” of US imperial interests on the other side of the planet, not the security of the United States itself.

The Obama administration substantively continued where Bush had left off, minus the rhetorical flourishes about supporting democracy, and with a corresponding cut in funding to US-establishment pro-democracy NGOs. By this point, the Interior Ministry was holding an estimated 20,000 detainees without trial each year, employing a million people, not including informants, and extending its reach into every aspect of Egyptian life. Opposition throughout Egyptian society was steadily building, consisting on the one hand of organised labour resisting the regime’s neoliberal economic programme and on the other of urban dissidents condemning the planned succession of Gamal and the rampant brutality of the police. The former component, though largely unheralded in most Western analysis, played a crucial role in Mubarak’s downfall, as tens of thousands of workers in strategically vital industries took strike action in the dictator’s final days. 

The US understood the breadth and depth of discontent amongst ordinary Egyptians, but counted on the regime’s autocratic nature to contain these threats. As the embassy in Cairo noted, “widespread bitterness about spiralling prices, seething upset about government corruption, disdain for the Mubarak government’s perceived pro-US and Israel posture, and working class economic woes…bubble up in virtually every conversation”. But thankfully, “Egypt’s omnipresent security apparatus is…a strong counter-balance to riots and demonstrations. We think it possible that Egypt will witness further spasms of limited violence, but these are likely to be isolated and uncoordinated, rather than revolutionary in nature”. This gives some context to what Hilary Clinton meant when she said in late January 2011: “our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people”. The first part of the sentence was a strategic misjudgement, the second a bald faced lie.

Over the course of those January and February days, the Obama administration and its allies in the Egyptian military shifted from supporting Mubarak, to favouring a gradual handover to Suleiman, to accepting the departure of both. To change their minds, tens of thousands of ordinary Egyptians had to brave injury and death at the hands of the security state and its mercenary thugs, over 850 paying the ultimate price. Brownlee says: “Reports show Obama wanted to ensure stability in Egypt while appearing to support gradual democratization. An ‘orderly transition’ would ostensibly bring about liberalizing reforms, placate protestors and sustain a cornerstone of US strategy. It would also reassure regional allies – mainly Israel and Saudi Arabia – who supported Mubarak”

Democracy, essentially, was a threat. If new leaders took power in Egypt, “Washington would no longer be able to rely on Cairo to undertake initiatives that are profoundly unpopular with the Egyptian people”. Some junior officials argued that the protestors should be supported, but Joe Biden, Hilary Clinton and Robert Gates all backed the Suleiman option. Revealingly, while genuine democrats around the world greeted the fall of Mubarak with optimism and delight, bitter recriminations ensued in Washington over the failure to foresee the overthrow of a key ally.

However, what the Egyptian revolt of early 2011 swept away was not the state but it’s leadership. The apparatus beneath Mubarak was salvaged and preserved by the SCAF, with support from Washington and degrees of ambiguous but nonetheless real collusion from the Muslim Brotherhood.

The junta had big stake in limiting the reach of democracy. “Any democratically elected government could threaten the military’s independent income stream from its enclave in the economy. Its manufacturing and export revenues were subsidized by conscripted labour, US aid and government spending that had historically been exempt from taxation and parliamentary oversight”. The SCAF placed Egypt under its own autocratic rule, cracking down hard on industrial action, maintaining the draconian strictures of the state of emergency, expanding military trials of civilians (more than 10,000 in its first six months in power alone), failing to ensure justice for those killed in the uprising, and conducting sickening “virginity tests” on female political activists. On Sunday 9 October 2011, when Coptic Christians and their supporters protested the SCAF’s failure to protect the Copts from religious violence, twenty-seven were killed by soldiers and regime thugs. Thanks to Washington’s allies, the limits of the “revolution” were now starkly apparent.

Throughout the transition process, the SCAF attempted to award itself a stronger position within the state, granting itself impunity from democratic oversight, if not an explicitly supervisory role in the post-Mubarak settlement. Disgust with the counter-revolutionary role being played by the US-allied generals led to a full scale uprising against the junta in November of 2011, which was eventually faced down by the security forces after much bloodshed. But what the insurrectionists lacked this time around was a sufficient degree of wider public support to force those in power to capitulate. The SCAF maintained its grip, and ploughed on with the transition.

Egyptian foreign policy under the generals differed a little from the status quo ante, but not in any dramatic sense. A Fatah-Hamas reconciliation deal was brokered (for all the good that did), and the Rafah border crossing into Gaza was partially reopened, but the treaty with Israel, the cornerstone of the US-led regional order, was maintained. Cairo’s continued orientation towards Washington meant that Obama saw no need to disrupt the flow of American support to the Egyptian military, notwithstanding the extremely negative role it was playing in the post-Mubarak transition. Nor did this experience prompt the White House to reflect on the probable anti-democratic effects of its military support for other autocratic regimes in the Middle East. At least, not to the extent that this support was broken off, or substantively curtailed.

Brownlee’s narrative ends just as the latest stage in the post-Mubarak story begins: the increasingly destructive rule of the Muslim Brotherhood’s President Morsi. Though Morsi managed to shuffle the SCAF leadership out of the picture last summer, this appears in hindsight to have been more of a gentleman’s agreement than a coup by the President against the junta. The generals have been allowed to walk away scot-free from their disgraceful time in government, while the military state-within-a-state retains all its privileges and remains unaccountable to the people. The street violence and political turmoil that plagues Egypt today is in part a legacy of the junta’s preservation of the state’s apparatus of coercion, aggravated by Morsi’s increasingly thuggish style of rule. The US has not helped either. A superpower making deals with forces of reaction and conservatism – be it Mubarak, Suleiman, the generals or the Brotherhood – is exactly not what Egypt needs at a time when its myriad internal contradictions and cleavages need to be worked through and resolved as carefully and as thoroughly as possible. That process is being impeded by the selfish influence of Mubarak’s former patrons.

Brownlee’s fundamental contention is that authoritarianism is constituted, not just within states, but between them. Western governments collaborating with foreign elites and states in pursuit of shared interests and goals may reinforce and sustain the most anti-democratic elements amongst their allies. In that sense, the US may be seen almost as an anti-democratic force within the Egyptian state itself, bolstering forces like the SCAF which act as an obstacle to democracy. This important insight could, if anything, have been developed a little further. If there is one criticism to be made of this excellent book, it is that the emphasis on security and diplomacy comes at the expense of the economic and class elements of modern Egyptian state formation. It would have been interesting to know Brownlee’s thoughts on how the neoliberal economic reforms promoted by the West benefitted both the Egyptian business class and leading members of the notoriously corrupt ruling party, creating another strata committed to the preservation of the regime.

But it seems unfair to criticise a book for what it is not rather than for what it is. On foreign and military policy, Brownlee’s account of Washington-Cairo relations is thorough and comprehensive while maintaining a nice, lean narrative flow. What is particularly refreshing for a student of the subject is the fact that his analysis is unencumbered by the conformist sentiment that afflicts so much international relations scholarship, where Western leaders are almost invariably cast in a quasi-reverential light. Brownlee does not hypothesise malign intent on the part of high-ranking individuals, but nor does he assume the opposite and contort the analysis to fit. Rather, he takes a cold, even look at America’s steady support for one of the world’s most autocratic regimes, and lets the cards fall where they may. The fact is that no even-handed assessment of American support for Egyptian dictators could reflect positively on Washington. To the extent that the turmoil of the last two years in Egypt has removed a President and a ruling party, but not amounted to a revolution, foreign enablers of tyranny must bear their share of the blame for preventing rather than promoting democracy.

David Wearing is a PhD researcher at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies, studying Britain’s relationship with the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council. He is an editor of New Left Project, writes for The Guardian, and has also been published by Al Jazeera, the New Statesman, Le Monde Diplomatique, the Huffington Post and openDemocracy.

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