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New Texts Out Now: Jason Brownlee, Democracy Prevention: The Politics of the US-Egyptian Alliance

[Cover of Jason Brownlee, [Cover of Jason Brownlee, "Democracy Prevention: The Politics of the US-Egyptian Alliance"]

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

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

Jason Brownlee (JB): I had a series of experiences in 2009 that got me thinking about the intersection of US foreign policy and human rights abuses in Egypt. First, I was in Egypt in January 2009, during the massive protests against Operation Cast Lead (Israel's military assault on the Gaza Strip, which ended just before Obama took office). The demonstrations eclipsed in size anything organized by Kefaya (the Egyptian Movement for Change) and other political reform movements during prior years—at least since the anti-Iraq War protests of March 2003. This showed me that if I wanted to understand what the opposition in Egypt wanted, I should pay more attention to their critique of Mubarak's foreign policies, including his alignment with the United States. (This epiphany got a timely boost from a critical Al Jazeera documentary on the thirtieth anniversary of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.)

The next phase of this awakening for me was reading literature of leading Egyptian dissidents that summer, books by Mohamed El Sayed Said, Tarek El Bishry, Ibrahim Eissa, and Fahmy Howeidy. Their works underscored the importance of the US-Egyptian alliance as a subject of critique from intellectuals across the political spectrum. With this inkling of an idea, late in summer 2009, I participated in a conference of Egyptians and Americans who talked about, among other things, US "democracy promotion" in Egypt. But US collaboration with Mubarak's repression was off the table. When I said the surest way for US officials to promote democracy in Egypt would be to stop participating in authoritarianism, you could hear the crickets chirp. I realized then that I was probing something un-discussable in polite company, the realm of the "taken-for-granted," to use a Gramscian phrase. That fall I wrote and presented the paper that was the germ of this book.

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

JB: The book shows the bipartisan US tradition of backing the Egyptian regime, since 1973, to guarantee Egypt's alignment in US geostrategy. It embeds domestic challenges to Sadat, Mubarak, and the SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) in an account of the bilateral relationship based on untapped primary materials. Researching this book, I interviewed nearly all the former living US ambassadors to Cairo, several members of the George W. Bush administration, and top Egyptian officials involved in the US-Egyptian alliance. I also drew upon the Wikileaks cables. The evidence from these sources shows the United States prioritizing stability in Egypt over democracy—in order to maintain the protection of US military forces in the Persian Gulf and preserve the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.

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

JB: My prior book, Authoritarianism in an Age of Democratization, as well as several articles, focused on the domestic sources of robust authoritarianism. I focused on the role of ruling parties in maintaining electoral dominance, the impact of elections in enabling democratic transitions, and the conditions that encourage hereditary succession in modern autocracies. Democracy Prevention follows the general problem of authoritarianism and popular emancipation beyond the borders of Egypt. The book shows that contemporary authoritarianism is transnational, co-constituted by domestic and foreign elites.

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

JB: I tried to keep the book concise and punchy. Not counting the notes, the main text runs 177 pages and it is written in plain English. I hope anyone who wants to learn what US and Egyptian officials have been doing privately (while they publicly talk about democracy) will pick it up.

J: How would you like to see this book affect current political and intellectual debates regarding Egypt, particularly in terms of US-Egyptian relations?

JB: I did not write the book with a policy audience in mind, although I think practitioners can benefit from it. My hope is that the book will give laypersons in the United States, Egypt, and elsewhere a resource for exploring their own questions about the US-Egyptian alliance. More ambitiously, I would like to see it shift the discussion away from superficial talk of democracy promotion and toward reformulating the priorities and interests that make Egyptian authoritarianism so valuable in the eyes of US policymakers. Rethinking US policies toward Egypt, I think, should begin with taking public opinion in Egypt seriously.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

JB: I am exploring whether the argument from the book applies to other bilateral relationships that the United States maintains around the world. I think this is a valuable side of US foreign policy that political science research on international politics has ignored. If we look around the world, we can find many other post-cold war autocracies that have been strategically vital for the United States. Further, toward these pro-US regimes in places like Bahrain and Uzbekistan, Washington placed security interests ahead of local democracy. The US-Egyptian relationship, therefore, is not unique. It is an instance of a broader phenomenon.

Excerpts from Democracy Prevention: The Politics of the US-Egyptian Alliance


Just as officials within each government have their differences, participants in the US-Egyptian network periodically disagree. More importantly, however, they share certain assumptions, taken-for-granted ideas that establish the conceptual frameworks within which they identify and solve problems. For example, the primary functions of post-1973 US-Egyptian relations—Israeli security and US force projection to the Gulf—are not on the table for discussion; they are the frame of reference for everyone at the table. Two other core assumptions undergird the bilateral alliance: distrust of popular sovereignty and an acceptance of US primacy.

Although some US officials advocate liberalizing reforms in Egypt, they accept that a sudden opening of public participation could bring unknown figures to power and jeopardize strategic cooperation. No US president, much less his Egyptian interlocutors, wants Egypt to follow the way of Iran, whether through elections or revolution. Indeed, even a subtler mix of populism and nationalism could jeopardize Egyptian support for US strategy. It follows that elections and political reform are welcome only insofar as they impede extremists and enhance stability.

The second area of consensus is a binational hierarchy. Despite the two countries’ codependency, Egypt has been a vital subordinate in US foreign policy, not an equal partner. This arrangement stems from political and economic asymmetries that thirty years of linkage have not ameliorated.

US antagonism towards overt Islamist movements shows the power of the unspoken assumptions of the US-Egyptian alliance.[1] After the USSR collapsed, US policy makers began regarding religious conservatism in the Muslim World as a strategic challenge to US power. Washington opposed any traditional Islamic group taking power, even through elections, at the expense of a pro-US government. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs Edward Djerejian vowed the United States would not accept “one man, one vote, one time."[2] He implied that Islamist movements would use democracy to take power then shut it down after they had won elections. Given US reticence about democracy, however, his stance had more to do with preventing assertive nationalism than preempting authoritarianism. When Djerejian spoke, the only serious electoral challenge to Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP) in Egypt was the Muslim Brotherhood, a leading critic of US and Israeli policies. The problem for Washington was not that pro-US authoritarianism would be followed by more authoritarianism, but that the successor government, democratic or not, could turn Egyptian policies away from US preferences. Hence, US officials worked to check Islamic political activity, either by cultivating a liberal option between the NDP and the Muslim Brotherhood or by squarely backing Mubarak.


On November 6, 2003, with the US presidential election only a year away, Bush delivered the seminal address of the Freedom Agenda. The occasion was the twentieth anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), Reagan’s creation for aiding anti-Soviet dissidents and the backbone of US democracy programs after the Cold War.[3] Bush declared “a new policy, a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East." He dismissed doubts about rapid reform, calling them a form of the same “cultural condescension" that had wrongly forecast undemocratic fates for Germany, Japan, and India. His volume rising with indignation, Bush scoffed, “Time after time, observers have questioned whether this country, or that people, or this group, are ‘ready’ for democracy—as if freedom were a prize you win for meeting our own Western standards of progress."[4] The United States would emulate prior administrations that had nurtured democracy after World War II and after the Berlin Wall fell. Already, Bush saw “the stirrings of Middle Eastern democracy" in Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman, and the “multiparty political system" of Yemen. He challenged Saudi Arabia to give its people “a greater role," and he pronounced that “The great and proud nation of Egypt has shown the way toward peace in the Middle East, and now should show the way toward democracy in the Middle East." The line drew hearty applause. Democratic development would take time, but Bush implied that the clock was ticking: “Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe—because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty."[5]

The implications for US foreign policy were potentially vast. If officials genuinely saw democracy inside Egypt as a precondition for US security, then the United States would need to shift from backing an iron-fisted autocrat to accepting popular sovereignty, wherever that might lead. However, the strategy behind Bush’s words did not entail such a radical break. Even the most ardent democracy promoters did not want to risk, much less seek, Mubarak’s downfall. The septuagenarian had no vice president, and White House officials wondered about succession.[6] Opinion polls from Egypt showed an almost total rejection of US strategic priorities—attitudes that would surely shape official Egyptian policy if there were ever to be a democratically elected government. In the absence of a clear and friendly successor, opposition figures—whether religious conservatives or secular nationalists—could take power and potentially revise their country’s international alignments, especially since Egypt’s top-heavy political system granted the president tremendous discretion. In November, concerns grew that the Egyptian regime might face a sudden change of ruler; midway through a nationally televised address, Mubarak faltered and took an unscheduled thirty-minute break. Members of the presidential entourage called it a case of severe flu, but Egyptian and foreign observers speculated anew about how long Mubarak would last.[7]

Within the Bush administration, there were two main perspectives about the urgency of pressuring Mubarak to adopt stabilizing reforms that would ensure the US-Egyptian alliance against disruptions. One camp contended that Mubarak needed to broaden the political system to give more space to non-Islamist movements that were sympathetic to US interests. A more competitive playing field would safeguard Egypt’s alignments in two respects. First, it would eliminate the binary choice Egyptian voters and US policymakers faced of dealing with either the NDP or the Muslim Brotherhood. Second, it would provide Mubarak’s successor an institutional basis of legitimacy, mitigating the need for that figure to drum up anti-Americanism to garner public support. An alternative view, more consistent with the approach of prior administrations, was that the United States should encourage political change holistically, by continuing to support gradual socioeconomic development, and should not try to directly influence how Mubarak handled succession or other domestic policy matters. Advocates of this approach also emphasized the need for progress on Arab-Israeli peace talks. In sum, there was a group for “democracy promotion," aggressive about raising issues of political reform but still interested in stabilizing the regime, and a constituency for “diplomacy promotion," which sought to maintain a productive bilateral relationship with Mubarak on regional issues and envisioned reforms in Egypt occurring over the long term.


[1] Fawaz A. Gerges, America and Political Islam. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

[2] Edward P. Djerejian, “The US and the Middle East in a changing world," US Department of State Dispatch, June 8, 1992, accessed November 3, 2009.

[3] “The objective I propose," Reagan had said then, “is quite simple": “to foster the infrastructure of democracy, the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities, which allows a people to choose their own way to develop their own culture, to reconcile their own differences through peaceful means." “Address to Members of the British Parliament," June 8, 1982, accessed December 15, 2010.

[4] Office of the Press Secretary, “Remarks by the President at the 20th Anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy," Washington, DC, November 6, 2003, accessed December 8, 2004.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Mubarak’s tenure in office and the absence of a clear second-in-command may not have been coincidental. With no clear successor beneath him, the Egyptian president mitigated the chance for rival power centers like those that had initially bedeviled Sadat.

[7] Nadia Abou El-Magd, “Interruption in Egyptian President’s Speech to Parliament Focuses Attention on Succession," Associated Press Newswires, November 19, 2003.

[Excerpted from Jason Brownlee, Democracy Prevention: The Politics of the US-Egyptian Alliance. © 2012 by Cambridge University Press. Excerpted by permission of the author. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]

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