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The Arab democracy deficit: the case of Egypt.

THE BLEAK 2002 ARAB HUMAN Development Report (AHDR 2002) noted "a substantial lag between Arab countries and other regions in terms of participatory government." (1) Recognizing the "intractable" nature of attempts to quantify such matters, the authors--not surprisingly--present rough measures showing "freedom scores" drastically lower for the Arab world than even for sub-Saharan Africa or South and East Asia. The report concludes that this "freedom deficit"--coming first among deficits that include those relating to "women's empowerment" and "human capabilities/knowledge" (p. 27)--"undermines human development and is one of the most painful manifestations of lagging political development" (p.2) A follow-up report the next year (AHDR 2003) rightly put the freedom deficit at the heart of the overall problem by pointing out that the absence of democracy "shackles active minds, extinguishes the flame of learning and kills the drive for innovation" (p. 11).

If we accept Samuel P. Huntington's designation of the period starting in 1974 as the "Third Wave" of democratization, (2) the Arab world has found itself high and dry. Few if any other parts of the globe have remained so far above the rising waters. Contrary to the widespread expectations of some who failed to see the special barrier shielding them--that is, as I show below, an external power committed to maintaining authoritarian client regimes even while it uses the rhetoric of support for democracy and indeed engages in "democracy promotion"--Arab regimes remained impervious to the "wave" whose effect at first hit southern Europe and then Latin America. This remained true when, by the 1990s, the "wave" began at least superficially to transform many regimes in other parts of Africa and Asia. A recognition of the reality of the special protection Arab regimes have against the "Third Wave" prevents us from being sanguine about the future.


The "freedom deficit" characterizes one of the biggest Arab countries, Egypt, about as much as it does the region in general. The AHDR puts it in the second lowest rank, along with such countries as Oman and Algeria (above Saudi Arabia, Iraq, etc.) and below the third category (i.e., Morocco and Kuwait). Only Jordan--self essentially an autocratic state, its considerable degree of liberalization notwithstanding--is put in the highest rank within the Arab world. (3)

Such frankness about Egypt contrasts with a widespread tendency (4) in the past in the U.S. press and among establishment-oriented writers to whitewash Western client regimes. This has been done by obscuring the distinction between democracy on the one hand and slight degrees of democratization or liberalization that leave the authoritarian structure intact (and, as I show below, even augment it) on the other hand. Recent careful studies of Egyptian politics by such scholars as May Kassem and Eberhard Kienle (5) capture the superficial nature of liberalization under Mubarak, which as Kienle shows, defies the usual description of even "gradually returning to a liberal tradition" or of a "transition to democracy" (or even a "blocked transition") (6) as the mixed picture of the 1980s actually has been followed by deliberalization since the early 1990s.


My focus already has shifted from "freedom" to "democracy." The two words are not entirely synonymous, as the first refers variously to the absence of foreign domination or--in the sense used in the AHDR (and here)--to the existence of individual liberties. By contrast, democracy relates to the right of the people as a whole to rule themselves or, in the minimalist sense in which it is used today, periodically to control their government by choosing their rulers through electoral procedures that include the "majority-rule" and "one-person-one-vote" principles. As the terms "illiberal democracy" (7) and "despotism of the majority" imply, majority rule does not necessarily spell a high degree of individual freedom (but neither does rule by a few, however much one might try to constrain the rulers with constitutions), although it gives groups with significant numbers of votes an important means to protect their freedom. However, the term "democracy" not only singles out an important freedom for the majority collectively to choose their rulers, but it has to include pretty much the full range of individual freedoms, notably freedom of expression, especially the right to criticize the government and for opposition parties to function. (8)

Although I later will revert to the more conventional word, I propose now to shift from "democracy" to another term, "polyarchy," coined by Robert A. Dahl in a classic work by that title. (9) I use this term mainly in order to avoid misquoting Dahl, who, at least in this one book, rejects the application of the word "democracy" to the type of governmental system it usually describes. For him, democracy is only a "hypothetical system whose realization would involve much that no country ever has adopted.

Demonstrating remarkable ability to reduce highly complicated ideas to two simple factors, Dahl clarifies that polyarchy represents two dimensions: inclusiveness and contestation. A polyarchical regime is fully inclusive, meaning that every adult has the right to vote in elections (this assumes that each vote counts equally, that is, the "'one-person-one-vote" principle). A regime can be fully inclusive even if voters have no real choice (as in the standard Leninist single-party pattern or in the election of Egyptian presidents). We can quickly dispose of the inclusiveness test in the case of Egypt, as no large groups are excluded from the suffrage. (10) There is the matter--official claims much to the contrary--of an extremely low voting rate (11) in Egyptian elections, which might be mistaken for something less than full inclusiveness (and does exemplify that to the extent that it involves people being prevented from voting, as in the case of those who are detained immediately before elections). But the low voting rate seems to result primarily from a realization that elections do not offer a real choice, which brings us to the second dimension of polyarchy.

Dahl's second dimension is contestation, that is, the unhampered right to oppose the government by choosing leaders through fully contested elections. While some writers in the past (12) argued that uncontested elections can constitute meaningful popular participation in politics, such a lack of contestation obviously does not add up to freedom or to a meaningful degree of democracy. A polyarchy, in Dahl's terms, is both fully inclusive and fully contested. A main issue in Egypt if we want to measure its degree of polyarchy is the level of contestation.

Dahl should have added what I propose to label the "Third Dimension" of polyarchy, that is, the extent to which those who are chosen in inclusive, contested elections are the real rulers. (13)

High levels of inclusiveness and contestation may add up to very little if those who are elected in such a manner are not the ones who have effective power. Based on Dahl's two dimensions, Turkey qualifies as a polyarchy, but the fact that the army has set limits on what the popularly elected government does (and recurrently has taken power when it was dissatisfied) belies this designation to a considerable degree. Similarly, a major degree of contestation (if within limits set by the Council of Guardians) has emerged in the Islamic Republic of Iran, but the minimal extent of the elected parliament's real power and the central role of institutions such as the Council of Guardians and the Faqih (Jurist)/Leader disqualifies Iran from being designated as essentially polyarchical, although it arguably comes closer to being a polyarchy than does any Arab state. Similarly, in Jordan and Morocco, where fairly high levels of contestation have sometimes been demonstrated in parliamentary elections, the extent to which real power is centered in the palace belies any designation as polyarchies. In Egypt, as I show below, the existing levels of inclusiveness and contestation for parliamentary seats are negated by the concentration of real power in the hands of a president who recurrently gets nearly unanimous approval in uncontested plebiscites, that is, the absence of the Third Dimension.


Beginning with President Anwar al-Sadat's agreement in 1974 to allow three minbars (pulpits), later transformed into political parties, to compete with one another, the Egyptian regime has been able to present itself as at least moving significantly away from the authoritarianism (what Dahl calls "inclusive hegemony") of the 1960s in the direction of polyarchy. Although Sadat's crackdown on his critics shortly before his death belied this, there was optimism at first among those who failed to understand the dictates of the client relationship with Washington that his successor, President Husni Mubarak, would resume the democratization process, as he promised to do. But to what extent has politics become authentically contested?

The number of legalized political parties has grown to sixteen during the Mubarak era, including the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), although others have failed to get official approval. Major "opposition" organizations include the New Ward Party, the leftist Tagammu (Progressive) Party, the Labor Party (which took on an Islamist ideology and has been suspended since 2000), the Nasirite Party, and the rightist Liberal Party. (14) Each party not only can nominate candidates for parliamentary seats but can publish newspapers and magazines that present its criticisms of the government, clearly a major departure from the earlier patterns, although extensive censorship and other limits on press freedom continue to exist. (15)

The NDP recurrently gets the lion share of parliamentary seats, ranging during the Mubarak era from 94 percent in the 1995 elections to 78 percent in 1987. Out of a total elected membership of 444, the number of non-NDP candidates--that is, candidates of opposition parties and independents--elected to the People's Assembly during the Mubarak period has ranged from 95 in 1987 to 26 in 1995. (A large number of members of the NDP running as "independents" defeated their party's official candidates in 2000 but subsequently returned to the party's parliamentary ranks.)

Such results would make any observer skeptical of claims that these elections are seriously contested. It is unlikely that a significant degree of real contestation in any country could long result in overwhelming majorities for the same political party (unless it split into factions that themselves resembled de facto parties, as in the American "Solid South"--which in any case was low on the inclusiveness dimension as a result of the effective disenfranchisement of Blacks--for so long). In fact, the huge NDP majorities are maintained by a combination of its having access to the bulk of the state's (i.e., the president's) patronage and to various kinds of fraud and coercion. This includes a large dose of ballot-box stuffing, fraudulent voting, and other irregularities as well as harassment and detention of opposition, particularly Muslim Brothers candidates and supporters, before each election. Opposition parties, unlike the NDP, find it difficult to get permission to hold gatherings, particularly in desirable locations, and their candidates often have to resort to walking through their districts and risking arrest. (16) The imposition of judicial supervision over the 2000 elections apparently made a big difference in what occurred at the polls, but harassment of the opposition elsewhere proved sufficient for the regime to maintain control of the process. (17) Also "the regime's de facto hegemony over political debate" has disadvantaged non-NDP candidates. (18)

The real opposition, that is, the Islamist movement, notably the Muslim Brothers, is excluded from contestation. Violent activities of extreme Islamist groups whose distinction from the Muslim Brothers the regime conveniently tries to obscure have provided a convenient excuse for the latter organization not to be recognized as a political party (although some of its members have been elected as independents). The Muslim Brothers have faced heavy repression since the mid-1990s. There may be room for disagreement on the Muslim Brothers' commitment to continuing free elections if they ever won control of the government through the electoral process. If the claim that their undemocratic intent is true, this might provide a basis for opposing democratization on the part of those who prefer the present authoritarian regime to an authoritarian regime led by the Muslim Brothers. But the exclusion of such a major force (which some think would win a majority in free elections, although that might not be true if the existing authoritarian order against which they are protesting were democratized) even if perfect contestation ever were extended to other parties for choosing the parliament and the president would leave a tremendous void for any claim to having removing the polyarchy/democracy/freedom deficit.

As Kassem's penetrating study shows, the "opposition" parties are co-opted by the regime and hardly represent true contestation. Instead, they serve "predominantly as a mechanism for reaffirming and, more importantly perhaps, expanding, the regime's informal grip on political participation so as to include political opponents and their supporters," who thus "gain access to a share of the resources" that the regime controls (19) but accordingly are kept weak and dependent on the ruler. According to her analysis, electoral politics relates not to rival programs but to obtaining a share of resources that the state can dole out. She shows that the NDP is "little more than a conglomerate of personalities each possessing their own personal network of supporters" (20) and that "opposition" parties are co-opted into the political system in return for shares in this patronage.

No doubt, elections in Mubarak's Egypt are utilized to recruit into the regime's clientelist system of control parties other than the President"s own "ruling" party. The point, however, is that multiparty elections can only perform such a role if the government can ensure that opposition parties are constrained to the extent that they become, like the President's party, dependent upon the government and its patronage. In such circumstances, they are compelled to accept the political status quo and hence to acknowledge that participation is not to compete for power but to gain access to a share of the resources controlled by the centre. (21)

Such patterns of legal participation also facilitate control by the police by providing electoral registers and other electoral activities that are in the view of security agencies. (22)

The truth is that, despite a considerable degree of open debate, critics of the regime face severe repression. The state of emergency that has been in effect since Mubarak rose to the presidency (and most of the time since 1952) bolsters the oppressiveness of the regime. Renewed for another three-year period in 2003 with only 30 members of opposition parties voting against it, the emergency allows suspects to be detained without trial, provides for trial of civilians by military courts, bans strikes, demonstrations, and public meetings of more than five people without permission, and allows censorship or closing newspapers. (23) A law passed in 2003 eliminated the High State Security Court, but another military tribunal, the Emergency Security Court, from which there is no appeal (other than to the president for a pardon) remained in place, while regular courts obtained new authority to detain suspects, making the change far less positive than claimed by the government. (24) Detained suspects often endure severe torture (sometimes resulting in death), and sometimes innocent members of their families are held hostage and threatened with rape. (25) In addition, dozens of people have disappeared in recent years. The specter of violence committed by extreme Islamist organizations such as the Islamic Group and Jihad has provided a rationale for such actions even after the violence largely came to an end in 1998.


In the final analysis, the degree of contestation for seats in the People's Assembly is essentially irrelevant unless that body has real power. Even if full contestation for the Assembly were a reality, this would not equal to anything close to polyarchy if effective power lies elsewhere This provides an example of the missing Third Dimension of polyarchy, a point that often has been played down if not totally overlooked. (26) In fact, the Assembly is fully subservient to the president, who is chosen every six years by plebiscite following nomination by a two-thirds vote in the Assembly, where his loyal NDP's control over the bulk of the members reduces this to a formality. The president's power results in part from extensive constitutional authority but, more important, on patronage, that is, from his control over state resources, which he, as "the premier patron in this clientelist system," can dole out to his loyal clients. (27) There has never been even a token opposition candidate, and the incumbent always receives a percentage of the total vote that is only slightly lower than the 99.9 percent (the plebiscites of 1981, 1987, 1993, and 1999 produced 98.46 percent, 97.12 percent, 96.28 percent, and 93.79 percent "yes" votes respectively for a renewal of Mubarak's tenure) that evoked smiles during the days before "liberalization" began. In the words of one student of the subject, the only kind of "'freedom' [that] has been expanded during Mubarak's rule has been the freedom of the presidency from informal constraints that earlier limited its authority." (28) The Assembly's constitutional right to legislate and to deny confidence to ministers has had no impact on the reality of the regime in the face of the president's absolute control over that body. The president is so preeminent as the "kingpin" of the system that Kienle was able to exclude all other civilian executive officials, including ministers, from being "automatically ... members of the regime" at all, and indeed he suggests that it might be correct to think of "the president alone" as the whole regime. (29)


Other institutions have increasingly come under central state control. Since 1994, university deans and village umdas have been appointed. The election of local councils is so fraudulent that only 4-20 percent of the people bother to vote. Official trade unions have virtually no significance and are completely subservient to the regime, while the vocal professional syndicates which Muslim Brothers tended to dominate recently have come under state control, with the regime using the pretext that low voting rates in these bodies belies the representative nature of elections. (30) State control over Islamic institutions constitutes a longstanding practice in Egypt (and generally in the Sunni Islamic world, with top religious figures--in the words of their militant opponents--reduced to the status of "pulpit parrots.") (31)


Theoretical writings on the requisites of democracy/polyarchy have singled out too many possible factors for us to consider fully here. (32) Suffice it to say that Egypt lacks many of the conditions that are considered to be favorable to democracy, but other parts of the Third World that have undergone democratization are in many respects even less well endowed with the same conditions. Considering that there is a widely recognized broad correlation between the level of economic development and the success of democracy, it may be worth noting that Egypt is far from being found in the list of least developed countries. Recent UNDP reports put in the category of "medium human development"--well above many countries that have experienced much more democratization. On the other hand, Egypt is not experiencing the steady economic growth that arguably has been conducive to democracy in some nevertheless still-impoverished countries. Poverty recently has been rising. While state control of the economy may in some ways enhance authoritarianism, the growth of neoliberalism has magnified the gap between rich and poor, another factor widely known not to be conducive to democracy. The country's homogeneity should be a huge plus for democracy, but there also is a tradition of extreme centralization.

There is the question of historical trajectories to democracy and authoritarianism. It may be true, as some writers have suggested, that democracy in Western Europe is the culmination of a process that began with the balance between kings and feudal nobility, something that did not exist elsewhere. But Egypt (and the Arab and Islamic worlds generally) are not unique in having failed to experience true feudalism. If this were the determining factor, the whole non-Western world would suffer the same disadvantage, while in fact many of them, unlike Egypt, have at least in a formal sense been added to most lists of democracies during the Third Wave, even if those who are elected are able to engage in manipulation that "hamper the ability of electorates to remove governments that fail them." (33)

The prevalence of certain attitudes in various countries sometimes is emphasized as forming a solid foundation for democracy. It is important for democracy to have strong legitimacy (that is, a commitment to it on the part of both the general public and potential "activists and leaders" in future democratic systems). Although at least one survey shows a greater support for democracy in the Arab world than in any other area of the globe, it is likely that the popular commitment to democracy in Egypt (and the Arab countries generally) is shallow. A host of other cultural attitudes (for example, regarding democratic practices within the family (34) and the classroom) would appear to be weak, but this seems to be no less true in parts of the Third World where democratization has advanced much further.

Egypt's modern history provides some grounds for optimism. Huntington suggests that a country that undergoes failed democratization during one global "wave"--the "first wave" is said to have started in 1828 in the United States, while the beginning of the short "second wave" is put in the midst of World War II, and the "third wave" in 1974 (in Lisbon)--stands a better chance of success when it is tried again during a subsequent "wave." (35) In fact, polyarchy/democracy has never fully come into being in Egypt, even temporarily. However, moves in that direction have a much longer pedigree than in most of the non-Western world. The Assembly of Notables established by Khedive Isma'il in 1866 hardly purported, at first, to do more than bolster his autocracy or what in Dahl's terms would be called "closed hegemony" (i.e., the absence of both contestation and inclusiveness). But the way it eventually became an independent force during the Urabi period points to an unusually early, if brief, emergence of attempted contestation. More to the point, the "liberal" period between 1923 and 1952 carried with it, at least sporadically, a considerable degree of both inclusiveness and contestation. Aside from periods when the 1923 Constitution was temporarily replaced, Egypt might have come close to qualifying as a polyarchy/democracy except in terms of the Third Dimension, that is, the inability of the popularly elected Wafdist majorities effectively to govern in the face of monarchical and British domination. While we should avoid Huntingtonian fundamentalism (that is, taking his historical schemes literally and as the final word), one might consider the emergence of a Wafdist government in 1950 (not in 1942 as a result of British intervention) as at least another brief and feeble manifestation of polyarchy.

The vitality recurrently shown by the regular Egyptian judiciary has not dented the authoritarian character of the regime. The Court of Cassation's reversal in 2003 of the infamous conviction by the State Security Court of Sa'd al-Din Ibrahim may provide a recent example of this, although a more cynical interpretation could be that the rectification of the injustice resulted from the embarrassment the conviction had caused the regime. As another remarkable case in point, on three occasions, the Supreme Constitutional Court has forced new general elections on the ground that the previous electoral law was invalid. In each case, the democratic character of subsequent elections was not enhanced (while respecting the wishes of the court provided legitimacy for the regime without posing any difficulties for it), (36) but such a tradition of judicial independence could help to bolster polyarchy in the future.


The failure of the authors of the AHDR to emphasize the role of external powers (37) is understandable in light of the extent to which Third World peoples--and Arabs in particular--have been criticized, perhaps sometimes justifiably, for putting the blame on others. Indeed, any attempt to attribute the failure to democratize during the "Third Wave" solely to external factors would not hold water. Still, a good case can be made for such as a decisive factor in the case of Egypt in particular and of the Arab world generally, setting them apart from other regions of the Third World--including countries that, aside from the absence of a commitment by Washington to authoritarian rulers there, face internal conditions that sometimes are much less favorable to democracy than those in the Arab world--that, at least on the surface, have democratized. The reality, as I previously argued in this Quarterly, (38) is that the position of Western powers--notably of Great Britain (39) and, more recently, the United States--in the area has always rested on alliances with authoritarian client regimes (at least potentially against the populations these regimes rule). A few contemporary authoritarian regimes (notably Syria's) and one quasi-authoritarian regime (Iran) whose resistance to a satellite role has earned them the designation "rogue states" are the result of "blowback" from earlier American intervention against democratic forces, representing the "law of unintended consequences." In other cases, authoritarian American client regimes remain in place.

The failure of such regimes in the Arab world, notably that of Egypt, to democratize during the "third wave"--at a time when democratization, at least in a superficial manner, has been seriously pushed in other parts of the world--may be seen in large part as a function of Washington's need to for allies in the area. The reality is that its policies make it too unpopular for democratic governments to maintain such alliances with it. Confirming what intelligent observers already knew, a Pew Survey conducted in 2003 showed that 94 percent of Egyptians have an unfavorable view of the United States. Of particular importance to the United States is the maintenance of Egypt's separate peace with Israel in the context of popular rage against the suppression of the Palestinians, that is, a sort of autocratic peace that flies in the face of current theories linking democracy to peace. It is not just that the United States has made the Arab world the major exception to its recent promotion of democracy, as recently has come belatedly to be recognized, (40) but that its fear of democracy has caused it to bolster such an authoritarian regime as Mubarak's with economic and military aid (and presumably in other ways, such as the provision of intelligence, that have not been publicly revealed). Whether it is literally true, as some Egyptians have maintained, (41) that the torture machines used in their country are "made in America," such a claim accurately points to the truth of the relationship between Washington and the regime in Cairo. I am not suggesting that there should be outside coercion to promote freedom in Egypt or any other country, for that would be crude, arrogant, and counterproductive. Those who talk about such an agenda--as in the case of the neoconservatives in the Bush administration--demonstrate utter hypocrisy mixed with confusion. (42) I am simply describing the reality of outside intervention to bolster authoritarianism.

So much rhetoric and propaganda notwithstanding, there is little reason to believe that this is changing. Admittedly, there is a possibility that American leaders are simply confused and are so carried away by their own self-righteous spin that they will undermine major pillars of their empire. (43) Predictably, President George W. Bush's speech to the National Endowment for Democracy in November 2003 calling for the democratization of the Middle East included harsh words for Syria and Iran but praise for the Saudi regime's "first steps" in that direction (that is, plans for partly elected local councils in the future). He called on Egypt to "show the way toward democracy" in the region, but an official spokesperson later explained that this did not involve any threat of consequences for these allies if they failed to heed his advice. (44) At the very time it is talking so much about changing its ways, the United States now continues its reliance on authoritarian client regimes in the Arab world (45) and indeed has widened the circle of countries where it is allied with dictators to include the former Soviet republics of Central Asia (46) as well as Pakistan, where military rule stopped getting criticism from Washington after 2001. It is notable that while the cooperation of autocratic American client regimes in the Persian Gulf region provided a launching ground for an American invasion of Iraq whose sugar-coated rationale was presented as the spread of democracy to that country, it was the democratically elected parliament of Turkey, reflecting the Turkish people's overwhelming will, that thwarted the plan to invade Iraq from the north. It is ironic--but almost predictable in terms of the paradigm of imperial reliance on authoritarian clients presented here--that a "senior U.S. official" reportedly related that "Pentagon officials" threatened the Turkish government with the possibility of getting the Turkish army to overrule it--and thus the democratic process--on this matter. (47) Considering the certainty that the Iraqi people's Arab and Islamic identity would be manifested in truly free elections, one would have to be extremely naive to accept Washington's propaganda about its intention of establishing democracy in Iraq. Its resistance to holding early elections there in the face of demands by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and others for such at the beginning of 2004 bears this out. (48)

Not only do authoritarian client regimes form the bedrock of the United States imperial position in the Arab world, but in addition these regimes have an enhanced value in the "war on terrorism." Despite the inroads into democracy at home represented by the Patriot Act, Washington has found it convenient to turn prisoners over to regimes that show less hesitation to use torture. The Mubarak regime has been of particular importance in this regard. (49) In at least one much publicized case, the United States even resorted to deporting a Canadian citizen, Maher Arar, to Syria--whose regime hardly qualifies as a client--for torture. (50) Also, the authoritarian nature of client regimes is beneficial to Washington in that if--as in the case of Iraq after the end of the war with Iran--it becomes convenient to dump them and they can be branded as "dictatorships" that are beyond the pale, thus "manufacturing consent" for campaigns against them. Although I have no indication that this matter has been thought out in official circles, the authoritarian nature of Arab regimes provides important legitimacy for support of Israel.

On the other hand, the sort of democratic facade that Mubarak has established facilitates the client relationship with Washington. It is true that Orwellian usage of terms such as "Free World" long has served to make all sorts of regimes into honorary democracies in the mind of the American public, as has the adoption of neoliberal economic policies. But it is helpful for those who talk so self-righteously about America's "democratic mission" to point to the existence of opposition parties that win some seats in a "moderate Arab country" as evidence that it at least is on the road to democracy. Events such as the conviction of Sa'd al-Din Ibrahim (especially since he held United States as well as Egyptian citizenship) on trumped-up charges can cause difficulty for foreign policy makers with the American public and Congress. This resulted in an additional $130 million allotment in aid to Egypt being dropped (at least temporarily), although it did not affect the longstanding program (nearly $2 billion annually). There is no doubt that some addition to the democratic facade that maintained the existing authoritarian structure would be welcome in Washington.

Some of the best known recent repressive actions of the Mubarak regime have related to the suppression of criticism of Washington's actions and for supporting the Palestinian cause. Large, ideologically diverse demonstrations in Cairo in March 2003 against the United States war on Iraq as well as against the repression of the Palestinians and involving chants against the regime resulted in many people being beaten with clubs or hit by stones thrown at them by security forces. About 800 people were detained for "known or alleged affiliations with organizations critical of government policies" rather than on the basis of evidence supporting the criminal charges eventually brought against them. Arrests carried out in the days following the demonstrations were "without judicial warrants, in violation of Egyptian law," and some of victims, including children, subsequently were subjected to torture and deprived of medical treatment for their wounds. (51) Security forces even invaded the Lawyers' Syndicate (Bar Association) and occupied it for several hours, severely beating and arresting lawyers involved in defending demonstrators. (52) The arrest of Ashraf Ibrahim, an engineer who was actively engaged in support of the Palestinian cause and had participated in demonstrations against the attack on Iraq, along with four of his associates, and their trial by the Higher Emergency State Security Court, on charges of downloading human rights information from the Internet and apparently for monitoring this brutality (officially described as "sending false information" to foreign human rights organizations and membership in a "revolutionary socialist group") was characterized by Human Rights Watch as "criminaliz[ing] most forms of peaceful dissent." Joe Stork, head of the regional division, spoke of "A court that denies the basic right to a fair trial and indictments that criminalize free speech and freedom of association" that belied all "talk of democratic reform." (53)


Contrary to the widespread image of an authentic process of democratization under Mubarak, he has kept the authoritarian regime intact and, in fact, has intensified its repressiveness in recent years, thus exemplifying the Arab world's "freedom deficit" pointed to in the AHDR. Parliamentary elections are contested by numerous "opposition" parties, but the Muslim Brothers, who seem to constitute the true opposition, are excluded from running except as independents. The legal "opposition" parties in fact are co-opted into the authoritarian system by being allowed to win a handful of seats and a share of state patronage. Elections are manipulated through patronage and by various forms of repression and fraud to guarantee that the president's National Democratic Party repeatedly gets overwhelming control of the People's Assembly, which in any case hardly amounts to more than a rubber stamp. The real ruler, that is, the president, is approved in plebiscites--unopposed--in which he always fails only a few percentage points short of unanimous approval.

While there are many domestic factors working against any successful transition to--and eventual consolidation of--democracy in Egypt, most of these are shared with other Third World countries that in many cases have made far greater progress in this area. The key difference between Egypt (and other Arab countries) and states in other regions that have undergone greater democratization is that, in the former case, Washington is allied with authoritarian regimes, without which its dominant position in the area would not be viable. Despite its "democracy promotion" programs and its rhetoric about its mission of supporting democracy everywhere, it has not expected Arab countries ruled by U.S. client regimes to democratize. While the rhetoric recently has accelerated, the reality of reliance on authoritarian regimes may be more entrenched than before.

Only if Arab grievances were removed would the U.S. be able to have the sort of amicable relations with democratic Arab countries that it has had with the client authoritarian regimes. Salient among these grievances is the alliance with such regimes itself. Considering the deep-seated concern of Arabs and Muslims for this issue, democratization of countries such as Egypt would not suffice for this purpose without an end to the heavily U.S. supported apartheid system in Palestine. But my vision of future accelerated demands for the democratization of Greater Israel/Palestine-which present Israeli policies undermining the prospects of a settlement based on the indigenous people's acceptance of a bantustan in 22 percent of their homeland may inadvertently be making way for--remains for treatment in another article.


(1.) United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development, Arab Human Development Report 2002: Creating Opportunities for Future Generations (New York: UNDP, 2002), p. 2. This was followed by another study sponsored by the same organizations: Arab Human Development Report 2003: Building a Knowledge Society (New York: UNDP, 2003). These reports will subsequently be called AHDR 2002 and AHDR 2003.

(2.) Samuel P. Huntington, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century (Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991), p.3 and passim.

(3.) AHDR 2002, p. 28. One analyst uses the term "liberalized autocracy" for regimes such as Egypt's, involving a "trademark mixture of guided pluralism, controlled elections, and selective repression." Daniel Brumberg, "The Trap of Liberalized Autocracy," Journal of Democracy 13 (Fall 2002), p. 56.

(4.) For example, President Husni Mubarak's announcement in 1987 that a referendum would be held on the question of dissolving the People's Assembly was quoted as "say[ing] a lot about" his "concern with legitimacy and legality that makes him so different from his predecessors [and] many other leaders in the postcolonial Arab world." Mary Curtis, "Mubarak Moves to Shore Up Egypt Democracy," Christian Science Monitor, 6 February 1987, p. 9.

(5.) May Kassem, In the Guise of Democracy: Governance in Contemporary Egypt, with a foreword by Raymond Hinnebusch (Reading, U.K.: Ithaca Press, 1999) and Eberhard Kienle, A Grand Delusion: Democracy and Economic Reform in Egypt (London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 2000). Another promising work, Maye Kassem, Egyptian Politics: The Dynamics of Authoritarian Rule (Boulder, CO. and London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2004), was not published in time for me to consult it in preparing this article.

(6.) Kienle, Grand Delusion, pp. 2, 176.

(7.) See Fareed Zakaria, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad (New York: W. W. Norton, 2003).

(8.) This includes what Kienle, Grand Delusion (pp. 10ff and passim) calls "positive liberty" (the right to participate) but also much of what is included under the rubric "negative liberty" (freedom from government control). While freedom of religion may be less clearly connected to democracy than is freedom of expression, the deprival of a large segment of the population of such rights would tend to disrupt the democratic process, but--to cite a small case in point--the limitation of toleration to the "three heavenly religions" (as in Egypt, where fringe cults such as alleged devil worshipers sometimes face crackdowns) and penalties for those who are contemptuous of heavenly religions, whatever one might think about such a denial of freedom, would not necessarily undermine democratic rule. Imposition of state control over mosques constitutes a much more serious example of stifling the freedom of expression necessary to make electoral processes meaningful. (On this matter, see Kienle, Grand Delusion, pp. 104-105, 113-114). A broader treatment of this issue may be found in "International Religious Freedom Report 2002: Egypt," published by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State (<>). Thus by shifting from the "freedom deficit" to the "democracy deficit" some freedoms that have great value (positive or negative) in their own right may get down played.

(9.) Robert A. Dahl, Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition (New Haven, CT. and London: Yale University Press, 1971), p. 8 and passim.

(10.) Although this apparently now is being modified, one egregious violation of the inclusive principle in Egypt is the denial of citizenship (and with it, the franchise) to children of an Egyptian mother and a foreign father, but in relation to the total population of the country this represents only a relatively minor deviation from inclusiveness.

(11.) According to a United Nations report prepared by the Public Administration Research & Consultation Center (PARC), only 24.1 percent of the eligible voters participated in the 2000 election, reflecting "an evident decline in voter turnout." The percentage was even lower in the big cities--12.6 percent in Cairo and 7.4 percent in Alexandria. In part, the report explained this in terms of "A general feeling of the uselessness of political participation [that] prevails among wide sections of society, especially among the cultured." Reporting on the Millennium Development Goals at the Country. Level: Egypt (Cairo, August 2002), pp. 83-84. All of this is at odds with official figures that show exceedingly high voting rates.

(12.) See especially Samuel P. Huntington, Political Order in Changing Societies (New Haven, CT. and London: Yale University Press, 1968) and Samuel P. Huntington and Joan M. Nelson, No Easy Choice: Political Participation in Developing Countries (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press).

(13.) In fact, Dahl (pp. 6, 11) speaks of a "third dimension" that would be necessary to transform polyarchy into true democracy. However, that is different from the Third Dimension of polyarchy itself that I am proposing.

(14.) For an excellent summary treatment of parties, see the Appendix in Kassem, In the Guise, pp. 185.

(15.) See Kienle, Grand Delusion, pp. 98.

(16.) See Kassem, In the Guise, pp. 135.

(17.) See Jason Brownlee, "The Decline of Pluralism in Mubarak's Egypt," Journal of Democracy 13 (October 2002), p. 8

(18.) See Kienle, Grand Delusion, pp. 27, 55.

(19.) Kassem, In the Guise, p. 1.

(20.) Id: p 168.

(21.) Ibid: p. 120.

(22.) Ibid: p. 10.

(23.) "Egypt's Emergency without End: Rushed Renewal of Repressive Legislation," HRW Document on Egypt, Human Rights Watch (<>)

(24.) See Abeer Allam, "Rights Groups Criticize Egypt's Change in Court System," New York Times, 8 September 2003, p. A12.

(25.) For extensive documentation, see Human Rights Watch, "Egypt's Hostage-Taking and Intimidation by Security Forces," Vol. 7, No. 1, January 1995 (<>).

(26.) Providing a classic example of the way the reality so often has been presented through rose-colored glasses, one writer points to multiparty elections and declares that, "By general and not only Third World standards, Egypt seems at present to be a functioning democracy." Only at the end of the essay does he qualify this with a statement that "political competition--the essence of democracy-stops ... before reaching the top executive post." He also refers to "the occasional stagnation of the democratic process," admitting that "Egypt remains a maturing rather than a mature democracy." Bahgat Korany, "Restricted Democracy from Above: Egypt" (Ch. 3), in Political Liberalization and Democratization in the Arab World, Volume 2, Comparative Experiences, Bahgat Korany, Rex Byren, and Paul Noble (Eds.), (Boulder, CO. and London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1998), pp. 40, 62, 63, 65.

(27.) Kassem, In the Guise, p. 26; also see, p 39 and passim.

(28.) Brownlee, "The Decline," p. 6.

(29.) See Kienle, Grand Delusion, pp. 7, 8. On the president's "grip on legislation," see p. 65. Also see Kassem, In the Guise, p. 35.

(30.) See Kienle, Grand Delusion, pp. 14, 75-76, 85 and Saad Eddin [Sa'd al-Din] Ibrahim, Egypt, Islam, and Democracy: Twelve Critical Essays (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 1996), especially p. 166.

(31.) See Glenn E. Perry, "The Islamic World: Egypt and Iran" (Ch. 4), in Politics and Religion in the Modern World, George Moyser (Ed.), (London and New York: Routledge, 1991), pp. 97-134.

(32.) Some of the most important classics dealing with requisites of democracy include S.M. Lipset, Political Man (New York: Doubleday, 1960), Chs. 2-3 and Dahl, Polyarchy, p. 33, which presents an elaborate set of favorable and unfavorable conditions.

(33.) Jeffrey Allen, "No Economic Growth Without Democracy, Says UN Development Chief," OneWorldUS 22 October 2002 (<http://www.>).

(34.) See Halim Barakat, The Arab World: Society, Culture, and State (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1993), pp. 116 and passim and Hisham Sharabi, Neopatriarchy: A Theory of Distorted Change in Arab Society (London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1992). For classic analyses of the relevance of such matters to democracy/polyarchy, see Dahl, Polyarchy, p. 140. For the results of the survey on worldwide attitudes toward democracy and authoritarianism, see AHDR 2003, p. 19.

(35.) Huntington, Third Wave, pp. 13, 172.

(36.) Kienle, Grand Delusion, p.32. For broader discussion of judicial independence, see p. 124.

(37.) In fact, the negative effects of the Israeli occupation of Arab territories and of other conflicts are rightly considered in the 2002 Report (pp. 1-2). Responding to Arab criticism of the 2002 report, the 2003 Report (pp. 21-27) gives more attention to "the regional and international dimensions," including the new colonization of Iraq.

(38.) Glenn E. Perry, "Democracy and Human Rights in the Shadow of the West," Arab Studies Quarterly 14 (Fall 1992), pp. 1-22. Also see Said K. Aburish, A Brutal Friendship: The West and the Arab Elite (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997).

(39.) As Human Rights Watch reports have pointed out, the ban under the current emergency law on the assembly of five or more people without permission is based on the Illegal Assembly Law that the British imposed in 1914.

(40.) See Elizabeth Rubin, "Fast Friends," The New Republic, 30 December 2002 and 6 January 2003, p. 15. What I thought might be taken as a provocative accusation in this Quarterly in 1992 (Perry, "The Shadow ... ") of United States opposition to democracy in the area has now been stated with almost equal forthrightness in such a venue as the National Endowment for Democracy's Journal of Democracy. Thus according to Brownlee ("The Decline...," pp. 11-12), "Successive U.S. administrations have tended to oppose democratization in Egypt--as they have in the Muslim Middle East generally" on the ground that free elections would bring Islamists to power. Brownlee goes on to opine that this consistent support for the Mubarak regime's "aggression against its domestic political opponents" has been "reinforced" since September 2001, with Secretary of State Colin Powell even citing it as "ahead of us" in this matter (p. 13). Thomas Carothers admits that "the United States lacks credibility as a pro-democratic actor" as a result of "its long-standing support for nondemocratic regimes in the region." "Is Gradualism Possible? Choosing a Strategy for Promoting Democracy in the Middle East," Democracy and Rule of Law Project, Number 39, Working Papers, Middle East Series. New York: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, June 2003, p. 5. In claiming that Washington was turning a new leaf, even President George W. Bush in effect joined the "blame-America crowd" in verbally renouncing "Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East." David E. Sanger, "Bush Asks Lands in Mideast to Try Democratic Ways," New York Times, 7 November 2003, pp. A1, A8.

(41.) Lawrence Wright, "Back in Egypt," The New Yorker, 1 April 2002.

(42.) There is a "neocon scenario" in which democracy would be forced on the Arab countries, who promptly would make peace with and befriend Israel. See Arnaud de Borchgrave, "Iraq and the Gulf of Tonkin," The Washington Times, 10 February 2004. In fact, the opposition to Israel comes from the masses. It is the authoritarian regimes that have failed to sincerely support the Palestine cause and, in some cases, have been more-or-less secretly in cahoots with Israel. See Glenn E. Perry, "Israeli Intervention in Inter-Arab Politics," International Journal of Islamic and Arabic Studies 2 (1984), pp. 11-31. In the case of Egypt, it would be very difficult for a democratic government to maintain the peace with Israel as long as the injustices against the Palestinian people are not rectified.

(43.) With respect to talk in Washington about promoting Arab democratization, warnings have indeed appeared to "be careful what you wish for" and concern over "how much latitude would" Jordanian and Egyptian leaders "have to maintain relations with Israel if Jordan and Egypt were true democracies?" Steven R. Weisman, "... And in Iraq, Trying to Plant a Seed," New York Times, 9 November 2003, section 4, p. 5.

(44.) Sanger, "Bush Asks ... "

(45.) For a convenient collection of statistics demonstrating the post-2001 "pattern of increasing military and other aid to Middle Eastern countries that are intensifying authoritarian practices and rolling back political reforms to contain domestic dissent," see Jawad Muaddi, "Preaching Democracy, Rewarding Authoritarian Rule," Middle East Report 226 (< mer/mer/226_chart_jawad.html>).

(46.) See Lutz Kleveman, "The New Great Game." The Guardian, 20 October 2003.

(47.) Glenn Kessler and Philip P. Pan, "Turkey to Send Troops into Iraq,'" Washington Post, 22 March 2003, p. A19.

(48.) See Dilip Hiro, "One Iraqi, One Vote?" New York Times, 27 January 2004, p. A27; Naomi Klein, "Of Course the White House Fears Free Elections in Iraq," The Guardian, 24 January 2004, and Naomi Klein, "Democracy and Robbery," The Guardian, 10 February 2004. (49.) See Eyal Press, "In Torture We Trust?" The Nation, 31 March 2003.

(50.) DeNeen L. Brown and Dana Priest, "Deported Terror Suspect Details Torture in Syria," Washington Post, 5 November 2003, p. A1.

(51.) Human Rights Watch, "Egypt: Security Forces Abuse of Anti-War Demonstrators" (<>).

(52.) Human Rights Watch, "Egypt: Crackdown on Antiwar Protests: Use of Torture, Excessive Force by Cairo Police," HRW Documents on Egypt (<>).

(53.) Human Rights Watch, "Egypt: Halt Emergency Court Prosecution of Dissidents," HRW Documents on Egypt, 5 December 2003 (<>). Also see Human Rights Watch, "Egyptian Activist's Detention Extended," 17 July 2003 (http://org/press/2003/07/egypt071703.htm>).

Glenn E. Perry is Professor of Political Science at Indiana State University.
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Author:Perry, Glenn E.
Publication:Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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