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Triumph of the Bureaucracy: A Decade of Aborted Social and Political Change in Egypt

[Soldiers carrying each of the flags corresponding with their branch of the armed forces. Photo credit is to: Hipster Ntvqi via Wikimedia Commons] [Soldiers carrying each of the flags corresponding with their branch of the armed forces. Photo credit is to: Hipster Ntvqi via Wikimedia Commons]

The developing military-backed regime under Abdel Fattah al-Sisi signals the triumph of the Egyptian bureaucracy, with all of its military, security and civilian components, over three processes of political change in the last decade. The first was the political project led by Gamal Mubarak and his allies to succeed his aging father Hosni Mubarak. The succession project aimed at altering the political elite composition and redefining the state’s economic role. The second abortive process was the January revolution, which was not a clearly defined political project. It was rather a massive protest movement that challenged state authoritarianism and corruption. Continuous protest following Mubarak’s ouster aimed at deconstructing the Egyptian authoritarian state in favor of a democratic order based on human rights respect and social justice. The third project that was intercepted was the Muslim Brotherhood’s overtaking of state power in the aftermath of the January revolution and especially after Mohamed Morsi rose to the presidency in July 2012. These processes aimed at modifying the composition of the ruling elites at the expense of recruits from the state bureaucracy, or the redefinition of state-society relations to the detriment of state control over the public sphere and economic resource management.

The state bureaucracy in its multiple representations has emerged triumphant after aborting three political processes of socio-political and social change. It has functioned as a bulwark of conservatism. The state bureaucracy has not always been a uniform actor with a clear political project. It has rather traditionally hosted a great variety of groups, networks and agencies. Some have had a corporate identity while others had only personalized interests to serve. However, at this juncture, all of these interests came to converge with the military leading the way and appealing to broader social constituencies that found a direct representation of their respective interests in the state and its project to preserve and reproduce the status quo.

State Bureaucracy as a Socio-Political Actor

Whereas the concept of the “state” can be too abstract, ambiguous, and subject to conflicting academic and ideological definitions, “state bureaucracy” is much more concrete. State bureaucracy refers to governmental agencies and bodies staffed with employees and officials that are vested with authority and control over economic resources in the name of public good. The state bureaucracy as a socio-political actor may assume three forms.

The first is the bureaucracy, with its multiple agencies and branches: civilian, judiciary, military and security becoming a concerted unified actor. This requires the existence of an overarching political project with the aim of imposing a certain relationship pattern between state and society. State agencies, bodies and networks could hence reach a general and minimal consensus on a political objective such as supporting Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s drive to the presidency, crushing the Brotherhood, or resisting the January revolution.

The second way in which the bureaucracy behaves as a socio-political actor is when certain bodies and agencies formulate and pursue their immediate economic and political interests.[1] Such a pursuit of interest is often too particularistic and thus cannot be expressed in a broad political project with popular appeal. Moreover, such a mode of interest articulation is usually a source of intra-bureaucratic competition and even conflict. The ability of certain bureaucratic bodies to express their interest hinges on their enjoyment of a collective corporate identity as the case with the military, the intelligence, the police, and the judiciary. These are social groups within the state that often have a clear collective identity and a perception of public order. They also often have the capacity to mobilize collectively, either through strict hierarchy or through representative associations, such as the case with the various Judicial Clubs. This is also the case with parts of the civilian bureaucracy such as the Central Bank, the Central Auditing Authority, the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Petroleum (along with its agencies and subsidiaries), and the Ministry of Culture.

The third form that the bureaucracy as a socio-political actor may assume is a set of informal networks that permeate through some bureaucratic agencies and bodies. Such bodies often lack single concerted corporate identities and thus have problems formulating and collectively expressing particularistic interests. This may be the result of many factors, such as excessively large numbers of employees, low payment, fragmented administrative structures and competitive relations within or among relevant bodies. However, the expression of interests in those parts of the bureaucracy more often than not takes a localized and personalized form through networks of loyalty and patronage such as the case with the ministries of education, health and supplies and local administration. These informal networks do not possess a clear vision of how state and society should be related and they usually fail in finding a political expression that may appeal to the public. However, they are quite relevant politically if they take the form of localized and continuous resistance and sabotage against political leadership. In such instances, the administrative bodies in charge of the implementation or overseeing of some policies do not cooperate in the implementation of the decisions taken by the political leadership. This has been apparent with the micro-resistance that faced Gamal Mubarak’s project and the Brotherhood’s attempt to penetrate the bureaucracy.

Gamal Mubarak’s Project

The first failed process challenging the bureaucracy was the political project led by Gamal Mubarak and his allies in the 2000s to succeed his aging father Hosni Mubarak. The succession project was an amalgam of socio-political and economic processes that visibly aimed at altering the political elite composition on the one hand and at redefining the state economic role on the other. The rise of Mubarak Jr. was based on the promotion of a handful of big businessmen in executive, party, and parliamentary positions. Gamal Mubarak’s men—businessmen as well as technocrats—were distinctively neoliberal in ideology. During Prime Minister Ahmad Nazif’s decade (2004-2011), the privatization of state-owned assets accelerated, economic liberalization and deregulation advanced considerably, and the Egyptian economy could attract unprecedented amounts of foreign direct investment. The succession project too seemed to have irritated the military, from whose ranks each and every Egyptian president came since 1953.

Altering state-economy relations in a short period of time unleashed social and political protest due to high inflation, layoffs in privatized companies and what was perceived as rampant corruption and an unholy marriage between wealth and power. Either because of the lack of competence or loyalty, the neoliberal reformers of the 2000s could not rely on the traditional economic bureaucracy. There was a subsequent need to cultivate parallel structures, such as the Industry Modernization Center and the ministers’ offices in the Ministries of Trade and Industry, Supplies, Investment and the Central Bank. Loyal technocrats and appointees of business background staffed these newly established bodies. They largely received a broad mandate at the expense of traditional layers of the bureaucracy.

When the protest movement culminated in the January 2011 mass protests, it took Mubarak and his family and cronies as prime targets. Gamal Mubarak’s team was the first to be sacrificed. Most were removed from office as an early response to the protests. Later on, and following Mubarak’s ouster, many were prosecuted for corruption charges including Ahmad Nazif, the former Prime Minister, Rashid Mohamed Rashid, the former Minister of Trade and Industry, Zoheir Garana, the former Minister of Tourism, Mohamed Al-Maghrabi, the former Minister of Housing and Youssef Boutros Ghali, the former Minister of Finance. The list also included the Mubaraks themselves and their in-laws. Eventually, succession was aborted, Mubarak was forced to step down and the principal nodes of the crony capitalist networks were tried and jailed, such as the Mubaraks and Ahmad Ezz, or fled the country, such as Yassin Mansour from 2011 to 2012.

January Revolution Contained and Derailed

The second abortive attempt at social and political change was the January revolution, which was a succession of massive popular protest waves. Unlike Gamal Mubarak’s project and the Brotherhood’s subsequent attempt, the January revolution was a bottom-up process. It may be farfetched to talk of the January revolution as a political project: it had no leading figure, political organization, or unified ideology. However, the revolution can indeed be viewed as a complex and extended process that consisted of successive waves of popular protest. Politicized protest was the prime vehicle for challenging what the protestors deemed as a corrupt and authoritarian state apparatus.

The revolutionary process that ensued after the toppling of Mubarak in February 2011 posed a serious challenge to the authoritarian state by the repetitive calls for purging corrupt officials, the restructuring of the police, and the “cleansing” of the judiciary. Multiple groups raised such demands through continuous mass rallies and rampant protests and strikes all over the country. Moreover, this was implemented on local scale as well in various government agencies and state-owned enterprises.

Most state agencies and bodies, including the military, police, the judiciary, and parts of the civilian bureaucracy resisted these calls for change. The state, through the many transitional periods after 2011, dealt with the revolutionary movement with either containment or repression. It may be difficult to claim that the January revolution is over given all the social and political forces it unleashed. However, it is not inaccurate to state the protest movement failed to secure any radical democratic concessions from the state. Four years after the revolution, political authority has fallen back into the hands of the military, the backbone of the authoritarian Egyptian state since July 1952. The partially free political arena that emerged after the revolution no longer exists. No meaningful progress has been attained in the areas of freedom of association, labor activism, civil society, universities, or media independence, not to mention the current status of human rights and the effective curtailing of the right to strike or to demonstrate. Four years after the revolution, the state bureaucracy has been able to outlive the protest movement, and reproduce the same old authoritarian state-society relations in the name of salvaging the state and restoring public order and stability.

The Brotherhood Precluded Power Consolidation

The third abortive process of socio-political change was the attempted power consolidation by the Muslim Brotherhood between 2011 and 2013. When Mubarak was ousted, the Muslim Brotherhood was the single most organized politico-religious group in Egypt. The military, especially following the first post-revolutionary parliamentary elections, could clearly single out the Brotherhood as the only possible and plausible partner in the formation of the post-Mubarak order. The Brotherhood’s attempt depended on brokering a deal between the military, police, and the official religious institution of al-Azhar on the one hand, and a broad Islamist alliance led by the Brotherhood on the other. The primary goal was the reaching of a power-sharing settlement with the military and security agencies, which would neutralize them in the short term in the broader political conflict with non-Islamist forces. This formula was achieved more or less with the 2012 constitution.  

Whereas the Brothers chose reconciliation with the military, police, intelligence, and the formal religious institution of al-Azhar, they chose to clash with other parts of the state, namely the judiciary and certain parts of the civilian bureaucracy with the aim of breaking and remaking them and cultivating their own networks inside. There are multiple explanations for this. One of them is that unlike the military, the police and al-Azhar, the judiciary and the civilian bureaucracy lacked a clear hierarchical representation. This made it hard for the Brothers to reach compromises as clear-cut as the ones attempted with the other agencies. Another plausible explanation is that the Brothers found colliding with the civilian bureaucracy and the judiciary less costly, compared to clashing with armed bodies that are in charge of controlling public order.

The judiciary came under fire early on. However, material steps in the name of purging and cleansing came to the fore during the constitutional declaration crisis of December 2012, when Morsi removed the public prosecutor and installed another with Brotherhood sympathies. There was talk after the ratification of the constitution of introducing amendments to the law regulating the judiciary in view of forcing over one third of the judges to retire overnight. Local battles took place as well in certain areas of the civilian bureaucracy, where the Brothers were accused of trying to infiltrate or Ikhwanize the civil service by promoting their members or individuals generally sympathetic to their cause. The battle for the Ministry of Culture was the most visible. Local fights were reported in other governmental bodies as well such as education, petroleum and supplies, and social security.

The Brotherhood leadership soon faced resistance from within the civil service. It became clear in many instances that the Brothers lacked strong support from within and that the attempts at consolidating their power were being met with either apathy or full-fledged resistance. Due to the polarized nature of the process of constitution writing, the Brothers grew more and more dependent on the state bureaucracy, especially the military and security bodies, to force their arrangement on their political rivals.

Yet even though the Brothers had done all that they could to appease the military and the police, this was not enough to ensure that they could employ these forces for the suppression of their rivals.[2] To start with, the accommodation of the military, police, and Azharite interests in the constitution was widely considered temporary, with no guarantees that it would be sustainable once the Brotherhood grasp on power became assured. Besides, there were trust-building problems given the sect-like structure of the Brotherhood and hence the barriers to broadening the ruling coalition. Moreover, the Brothers were already replacing local networks in less critical areas of the state bureaucracy with their own allies—whom they needed to reward—officially in the name of fighting corruption.

Eventually the Brotherhood was caught between a rock and a hard place, becoming increasingly dependent on their rivals within the state body. It made sense that the state with its various components would join forces with the political rivals of the Brotherhood. With the massive protests of 30 June 2013, the pretext for the military intervention was there. In a classical scenario, the state rebelled against its leadership, ending with its toppling. In the wake of the 30 June mass protests, sufficient popular support was found to boost the military’s return to power, and the reestablishment of the authoritarian state. This was conducted publicly in the name of salvaging the state, and restoring peace and stability. The context was ripe for the unfolding of a conservative political project led by the military and for rallying popular support to fight terrorism and to put an end to chaos.

The Historical Roots of the Bureaucracy’s Autonomy

The Egyptian state bureaucracy did not become an autonomous socio-political actor overnight. Rather, this is the result of a long and complex historical process that followed independence in the 1950s and especially after the military takeover of July 1952. Historical studies have often held the state to be a powerful and autonomous actor because of the chronic weakness of Egyptian civil society, and mainly the big bourgeoisie.[3] This weakness has traditionally been attributed to the colonial context where early capitalist development was subjugated to foreign capital at the expense of indigenous forces. These were then denied opportunities to develop substantial economic, and extension political, power. Al-Wafd, the most prominent representative of Egyptian nationalism between 1919 and 1952, could never overcome the colonial state represented by the British and the Monarchy. The downfall of al-Wafd, together with Egypt’s constitutional order in 1953-1954, dealt a final blow to the remnants of a once powerful representative of the civilian elite.

Egypt’s political independence in 1956 and the subsequent liberation of the economy from foreign presence did not translate into more room for the indigenous bourgeoisie, be it large or small, to expand. The state instead became the prime mover of modernization, industrialization, and development through a series of nationalization decisions and the erection of a large public sector that dominated virtually all the upper echelons of the Egyptian economy until the 1990s.[4] In such a context, state elites—a mix of military officers, bureaucrats, and technocratic allies—displaced the bourgeoisie in the management of the country’s assets and the push for modernization and nation-state building. It was a typical case of top-down authoritarian development. During that period of time, the state bureaucracy—both civilian as well as military/security—had a wide sway over economic resources and political legitimacy. The state became the core of a distributive social coalition that nurtured the urban and rural middle classes through free public education, an ever-expanding bureaucracy, a public sector, and land reform.

Even though this formula came to face tremendous fiscal and economic problems in the aftermath of the 1967 defeat and especially through the 1970s and 1980s, the state remained the key socio-political force vis-à-vis a weakened civil society and an infantile and dependent bourgeoisie.[5] By the 1990s, and through a series of economic liberalization and privatization decisions, the private sector, broadly defined as all privately-owned productive assets, came to supply the largest share of the country’s GDP, investment, and employment. However, the formal private sector, and namely big private business that can constitute the big bourgeoisie, retained a rather humble share of total employment (sixteen percent of all labor force as of 2007 according to CAPMAS[6]) and remained quite dependent on state-owned banks, state-allocated land, and a highly cronyistic environment where access to assets and market shares had been greatly shaped by connections with the state. The state remained the principal owner and allocator of land, the owner and manager of the biggest banks in terms of assets, deposits, and loans, and the biggest employer in the country. According to CAPMAS, forty eight percent of all wage employees in 2007 worked for the state, without counting in the self-employed.

In the wake of the 2011 revolution and the turmoil that ensued, it became clear that Egyptian civil society had failed to generate a viable political alternative that could take over the state after a massive popular uprising. The democratic camp remained fragmented and could not go beyond its protest discourse towards a more sophisticated and better-defined political agenda. The Islamist-secular divide proved lethal for the political arena that the revolution had opened up after temporarily crippling Mubarak’s police state.

By late 2012, and after Morsi’s controversial constitutional declaration, democratic rule was no longer an option. The question had rather become, who could reestablish state authoritarianism? With the failure to build consensus over the basic features of the newly forming political system, the only option left for the Brothers was to suppress the resistance of their rivals. Political transformations that are not based on consensus and that depend on imposing a set of choices on rivals usually do not lead to a democratic outcome[7]

However, the real problem that the Brothers faced was their inability to force their choices on their rivals after failing to reach a compromise with them. The Brotherhood lacked the legitimacy and the capacity to do so. To the contrary, the military was better equipped than any of the Islamist or secular rivals to establish sustainable authoritarianism, and was by far more legitimate before the public. After all, the state has historically been the sole political representative of the middle classes since the late 1950s: this fact was never meaningfully altered ever since. The failure to transform the January revolution into a social democratic viable project, and the inability of the Brotherhood to impose their own stripe of authoritarianism led many Egyptians back to the military as the representative of the nation and of the state.

However, the bureaucracy’s triumph is likely temporary and far from conclusive. The Egyptian state as a set of authoritative relations with society has been in crisis for decades. Significant social strata have come to contest authoritarian paternalistic state-society relations. Economically, Egypt’s transformation towards a capitalist market-based order is another open-ended question. The establishment of viable market relations that can guarantee an economy that grows and generates jobs requires broad reforms in the state bureaucracy in the areas of economic policy making, the rule of law, and state control—including that of the military—over resources. As the late Samer Soliman (2011) once held in his Autumn of Dictatorship, economic transformation in Egypt requires nothing less than the redefinition of the relationship between the state and the economy with subsequent political changes. The ability of the state bureaucracy to undermine attempts at changing such relations without itself being able to introduce reforms that could resolve such contradictions can only mean a prolonged crisis and a low-low equilibrium of a weak state facing a weak society.


[1] For an interesting reading of the state bureaucracy, see El-Sherif, Ashraf (2012) “‘An Dawlat Muluk Al-Tawa’if Fi Misr,” Jadaliyya.

[2] For an excellent analysis on the Egyptian police force in post-Mubarak Egypt, see Ennarah, Karim (2012).“Al-taifa Al-shoratiyya wa Hukm Al ra’is Morsi,” Jadaliyya.

[3] For more detailed accounts of the history of the Egyptian state see Ghoneim, Adel (2005) Azmat Al-dawla Al-misriyya Al-Mu’assera,” Cairo: Dar Al-Alam Al-Thaleth; Ayubi, Nazih (2001) Overstating the Arab State: Politics and Society in the Middle East. London and New York: I.B.Tauris and; Abdelmalek, Anouar (1968)Egypt: Military Society: the Army Regime, the Left, and Social Change under Nasser. New York: Random House.

[4] Waterbury, John (1983) The Egypt of Nasser and Sadat: The Political Economy of Two Regimes. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[5] Soliman, Samer (2011) The Autumn of Dictatorship: Fiscal Crisis and Political Change in Egypt under Mubarak. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 

[6] Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (2007) Labour Forces Survey, CAPMAS.

[7] McFaul, Michael (2001) Russia's Unfinished Revolution: Political Change from Gorbachev to Putin, Cornell: Cornell University Press.  

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