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Book Review

Examining the evolution and maintenance of authoritarian rule in Egypt

Laila Juma

A Grand Delusion: Democracy and Economic Reform in Egypt by Eberhard Kienle. Pub: I B Taurus, London & New York, 2001. Pp: 274. Hbk: $24.50.

Eberhard Kienle, a senior academic at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, comes straight to the point. In the first sentence of this book, he tells us that his object is to “make a contribution to two debates: on the political liberalization and democratization of countries in the ‘Third World’, and on the modern and contemporary history of Egypt.” And that is precisely what he does. On both counts, he seriously challenges the prevailing wisdom of both popular perception and most academic scholarship, and he backs up his arguments with convincing empirical evidence, albeit evidence which perhaps focuses overmuch on one particular aspect of his subject at the expense of others.

Kienle begins by challenging the common periodization of Egypt’s political history, which contends firstly that Egypt’s formal independence in 1919 (it remained under effective British rule until the Free Officers’ Revolution in 1952) was followed by a series of quite distinct political regimes; and secondly that Egypt had a burgeoning liberal tradition in the nineteenth century, and until 1952, and that the period since has been characterised by increasing liberalization in a gradual return to that tradition.

According to the dominant view, this has particularly been the case since the 1970s and 1980s. Although Gamal Abdul Nasir’s single-party system had already been relatively pluralist for a regime of its kind, the introduction of pluri-partism under Anwar Sadat in the late 1970s appeared to have further liberalized Egyptian politics. Since that time, observers have claimed to see ëdemocratic traits’ in Egypt, in such features as presidential and parliamentary elections, courts reputed to be relatively free, and a media that has often not hesitated to criticise the government virulently.

Kienle, however, argues that, despite the various political ruptures that punctuate Egypt’s modern history, politically there have been fundamental continuities ever since 1952, and even with the pre-Revolution period. The result is political evolution around a core that has remained essentially constant, rather than any significant movement towards liberalism. This core has been one of oligarchic authoritarian rule, which has remained largely insulated from change despite the trappings of liberalization and democracy that have been carefully developed.

He points out that Egypt’s political regime consistently conforms to current definitions of authoritarianism used by political analysts. He quotes, as an example, Roger Owen, who states that authoritarianism is a political order “in which power is highly centralised, pluralism is suspect, and where the regime seeks to exercise a monopoly over all legitimate political activity.” He also cites Juan Linz, who writes that:

Authoritarian regimes are political systems with limited, not responsible, political pluralism; without elaborate and guiding ideology (but with distinctive mentalities); without intensive or extensive political mobilization (except at some points in the development); and in which a leader (or occasionally a small group) exercises power within formally ill-defined limits but actually quite predictable ones.

To demonstrate how Egypt conforms to these definitions of authoritarianism, Kienle examines the evolving structure and working of Egypt’s political system with particular emphasis on the status of personal and political liberties. For this purpose, he adopts the well-known distinction defined by Isaiah Berlin between negative and positive liberties — the freedom from external interference and intrusion, and the freedom for positive choice and action.

In the first three chapters of his book, Kienle describes how individual liberties in Egypt are severely circumscribed at virtually every significant level. He provides a guide to changes in the law and political procedures, showing how their effect has been to restrict freedoms and protect the regime, even when their apparent purpose has been the opposite. He points out that the activities of political parties, professional syndicates, trade unions and chambers of commerce are all restricted, with popular involvement being restricted largely to those spheres of public life where the regime’s interests and authority are not affected. He also provides convincing evidence that this is not simply a response to the rise of political Islamic movements, but was a systematic policy long before Islamic groups became politically significant.

Kienle then goes on, in the last two chapters of the book, to evaluate the impact of the economic (and to a lesser extent political) liberalization of the last two decades. Although the book has been described as a work of political economy, the emphasis is rather different: it is on the impact and function of economic policy on the political system rather than the other way round. Kienle argues that, although the regime has reduced its direct control over economic affairs, this economic liberalization has not led to political liberalization (as would be anticipated by democratization theorists) because of “certain social, cultural and political factors”.

He points out that the major beneficiaries of the economic reform program have been the “class of owners of capital” who are well established in the highest levels of the state, such as the military and the official National Democratic Party (NDP). Although the regime and this class are not synonymous, they have a common interest in maintaining the status quo and keeping others out of power. What is more, this is not a new situation created by the liberalization; this class has dominated Egypt for decades, maintaining high positions and close links with successive regimes despite political changes; hence the fundamental continuity to which Kienle refers.

Kienle’s prognosis for the future of political reform in Egypt is as grim as his analysis is clear, blunt and insightful. He considers that there are few signs that Egyptian society is becoming any more liberal in real terms, and that “no major constitutional or political reforms are to be expected within the coming few years” because of the absence of significant internal pressure (the main internal opposition, the Islamic movement, is severely repressed), or of external ones, such as “political conditionality” from major aid donors, ie. America.

This book provides a clearer analysis of the working of both Egypt’s political system over the last two decades than has previously been available in English. Although his emphasis on and definition of liberties as a measure of the working of the political system may be queried, it certainly provides a framework on which he has developed a detailed and convincing account of the evolution of Egypt’s authoritarian regime. In the process he has utterly debunked the arguments of those who regard Egypt as a model for political liberalization in the Muslim world.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 31, No. 21

Shawwal 27, 14232003-01-01

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