Hani Awad, The Dilemma of Authoritarian Local Governance in Egypt (Edinburgh University Press, 2022).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Hani Awad (HA): The book emerged from the aftermath of the Egyptian revolution. I was struck by the deep reach of Mubarak's authoritarian rule, which affected even the smallest details of daily life. While we largely understand how this regime maintained its control on a macro scale, its influence on smaller political areas, like towns and villages, remains unclear. This is particularly important in Egypt, where a centralized bureaucratic system often overshadows local efforts and pushes against decentralization. Local elections have seen weak public involvement and little competition. Even with many reform efforts from different groups—government, civil, international, and non-governmental—the basic structure of local governance has not changed for years. This raises questions about the idea of “authoritarian upgrading,” which suggests that authoritarian regimes reform to strengthen their hold on power. The main goal of this book is to explore how highly centralized authoritarian regimes attempt to upgrade authoritarian local governance but still keep their central power intact. By studying the Egyptian case, this work offers a new theoretical approach to better understand the balance between centralization, decentralization, and strategies to maintain power in authoritarian settings.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
HA: The book employs an interdisciplinary approach that borrows and synthesizes concepts and theories from different fields—public administration, politics, sociology, and anthropology—to present a chronological analysis of the evolution of local politics in Egypt. At the macro level, this study conceptually draws on Steven Heydemann’s “authoritarian upgrading” perspective, which is useful for examining the institutional reconfigurations inside the authoritarian regime in Egypt. At the meso level, it employs an institutional approach (Paul Hutchcroft et al.) to study the relationships between administration and politics in Egypt. At the micro level, the analysis resorts to historical sociology (Azmi Bishara and Nazih Ayubi) and anthrophony (Pierre Bourdieu et al.) to understand the metamorphosis of local politics in its different aspects. The book, therefore, offers a multi-layered perspective to understand what I call “the dilemma of authoritarian system of local governance in Egypt.”
In exploring local politics in Egypt, the book focuses its investigation on the changing patterns of political practice at the local level from the early 1980s to the eve of the January 25 Revolution in 2011. In this respect, the role of the ruling party, the National Democratic Party (NDP), in the system of local governance is critical. This is because the party, as the largest institutional patronage machine, was one of the main vehicles through which the authoritarian regime, not only intended to dominate local politics, but also, as contended in my book, contributed constantly to redefining it.
Under Mubarak (1981-2011), the strategies of upgrading shifted the political roles of the local leadership of the ruling party from being based on societal mediation among locals and keeping the “domestic peace” (al-silm al-'ahly), to include navigating and exploiting the public service delivery system in favor of more authoritarian control. The regime was hoping by upgrading its style of governance not only to move a part of its developmental mission to local communities in order to reduce the cost of public expenditure, but also to manage local patronage networks and enhance their political efficiencies. Nevertheless, the upgrading strategies always faced a structural dilemma. While the regime was relatively able to manage the authority-power relations that constituted the system of local governance with minimal costs, it was unable to increase the system capacities of mobilization (that is, popular support). This dilemma always created conditions for the emergence of alternative local politics, and especially the danger of the politics of identity and Islamic activism.
The weakness of the mobilizational capabilities of the system of local governance paved the way for the Islamic movement to challenge the regime’s political domination over local politics. What marked this movement and made it a real challenge for the regime was that its political mobilization was not based on patronage politics but rather on ideology, which proved to be more effective. To put it differently, patronage politics, despite all its upgrading strategies over more than three decades, could not overcome the challenge from identity politics. The authoritarian dilemma was that regime strategies were effective on a micro rather than macro scale.
J: Your book critiques the overstated role of kinship networks and clans in MENA politics. How does it challenge the prevailing understanding?
HA: Much received wisdom in the study of Middle Eastern social politics considers kinship structures and “familial ethos,” as a “subaltern counterpublic” alternative to western “civil society.” It has been presumed that social identity in the MENA has been closely linked to status in the network of kin relations. My book, however, shows that political clannism in the Cairo peri-urban fringe is a very modern phenomenon that was a result of authoritarianism developing mechanisms to manage its state-society patronage networks. This situation encouraged notables to politicize kin-based networks in their struggle over the political field. Even so, the effectiveness of political clannism and kin-based political mobilization was limited to the micro scale, and therefore could not, by any means, counter the Islamic movement sort of mobilization, which was based on identity politics, and thus worked efficiently on the macro scale.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
HA: The book holds important lessons for scholars of public administration, local politics, social mobilization, identity politics, patronage politics, and authoritarian upgrading. It develops an institutional methodological framework that helps to encompass the administrative structures of the state and its informal networks in one analytical unit. It shows scholars and experts of public administration that restricting the analysis to the administrative formal structures, without considering the role of informal networks, will definitely distort our knowledge on how authoritarian regimes actually rule. This implies reconsidering many of the “good governance” international reports that suggest that the problem of local governance can be solved through increasing bureaucratic efficiencies and capacities (that is to say, reforming the system through apolitical agendas). This study shows that this is simply not possible. The problem with local governance in Egypt, for instance, is political not technical and it is structurally associated with the question of state legitimacy and democracy. There is no way that apolitical reforms will lead to a “good governance,” because the problem of the system is political.
The book could be also useful for scholars of local politics and political mobilization, at least in the Arab World. The historical empirical evidence suggests that no matter how authoritarianism improves its capacity to upgrade its control of extensive bureaucratic-patronage-based networks, it will fail to gain a robust base of local support unless it has other sources of legitimacy. This is simply because its huge quasi-structural informal networks share nothing except their closeness to the state. The absence of a state ideology renders the relationship between the authoritarian regime and its grassroots (and relations among the grassroots themselves), unreliable, unhealthy, and characterized by mutual mistrust. The fact that the NDP, the entrenched ruling party, despite decades of upgrading and monopoly over local governance, failed to encounter the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) without the regime’s coercion, shows evidence of that. The MB, though subjected to continuous suppression, continued to win popular support that actually brought it to power after the first (and until now only) democratic elections in Egypt, before the military coup prevented a democratic transition.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
HA: Currently, I am focused on researching post-Arab Spring authoritarianism in the Arab world. I am particularly keen on examining how its methods and strategies diverge from those of the pre-revolutionary era, with a particular emphasis on the relationship between the new regimes and their grassroots networks. Separately, I am working on a project to study the protest and resistance movements in the MENA region through the lens of institutionalism. While institutional approaches are often employed by regional scholars to analyze the MENA political systems and regimes, their application to protest and resistance movements within Arab nations remains limited. My research aims to bridge this gap.
Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 1, pp. 36-40)
During my field research in Kerdasa, I had the opportunity of investigating major aspects of the historical development of the Egyptian authoritarian corporatist style, and the way it functioned on the micro level in the towns of the Cairo peri-urban fringe during the three decades of Mubarak’s rule. Through examining the development of the system of local governance, I was able firstly to examine the capacity of the state inclusionary institutional frames that intended to incorporate social segments of local communities, and secondly, to explore the regime security approach to liquidate local politics that was seeking genuine autonomy from the state. It is my contention that while the Egyptian authoritarianism, during the examined period, was effectual in uprooting and liquidating any independent local organised politics, its inclusionary institutional frames had a major shortcoming in their mobilisational functions, and thus lacked popular support. The problem, as this book suggests, reflected the authoritarian dilemma in bridging the macro (the national) and the micro (the local).
Watched by security agencies, the NDP and the SLA were indeed the most prominent inclusionary institutional spheres that were employed to monopolise local politics and contributed continuously to redefine it in accordance with the state’s changing economic and political agendas. Local notables, who accepted the logic of subordination, strived to compete for the existent positions by mobilising different kinds of social resources and entrenching themselves in the power networks that penetrated all layers of the structure of authority. On the flip side, those who dared to take part in independent local politics through joining formal political parties, such as the New Wafd party in the late 1970s, or informal movements such as the Islamic movement afterwards, were repressed by coercion.
At the lowest level of politics, the establishment of local branches of the NDP in the towns of the Cairo peri-urban fringe from the late Sadat/early Mubarak era was accompanied by the regime reconfiguring the system of local governance to overcome the problem of the numerous networks of power at the subnational level. The fiscal pressures pushed the regime to innovate methods that could outsource networks of power and make the system’s inclusionary frames more competitive and effective. Thus, the institutional relationship between the ruling party and the SLA had to be informalised. Furthermore, general elections served as a ‘market system’ to regulate patronage politics and outsource the cost of political mobilisation and redistribution to the rent-seeking elite. Involving general elections in the system of local governance saw the emergence of local political field(s), at each level of governance, with a limited number of positions and a large number of competitors. However, the degree of competitiveness was largely dependent on the regime strategies of informal centralisation/decentralisation, which varied between one period and another.
The weakness of the mobilisational capabilities of the system of local governance paved the way for the Islamic movement to challenge the regime’s political domination over local politics. As Chapter 3 will show, Greater Cairo, starting from the early 1980s, experienced a rise of the da’wa movement that encompassed a variety of Islamic activism. This movement consisted of fast-growing local networks of devout youth led by populist sheikhs and newly graduated professionals, who quickly found themselves appealing to local communities by mobilisative Islamist rhetoric and public social work. The da’wa movement attracted thousands of local people who came in droves on a weekly basis to attend religious lessons for Islamic figures from the MB and a new salafi movement. What marked this movement and made it a real challenge for the regime is that its political mobilisation was not based on patronage politics but rather on ideology, which proved to be more effective. Nevertheless, the life cycle of this sort of activism proved to be short. After the 1989 parliamentary elections, which witnessed the return of the MB to electoral politics, the regime launched successive waves of a security campaign that wiped out most of the da’wa networks. By the late 1990s, it became clear that local politics as a field was firmly dominated by the regime’s inclusionary institutional frames and its networks of power, at its core the NDP networks.
Yet, despite all authoritarian measures taken to upgrade the system’s inclusionary and exclusionary strategies at the micro level, the regime’s inclusionary institutional frames failed to yield the desired political outcomes. Both the 2000 and 2005 parliamentary elections showed evidence of that. Electoral rigging, arbitrary arrests and employing balṭajiyya (street criminals) were at an unprecedented intensity and scale to prevent an electoral landslide for the MB. The system was effective in dominating local politics at the local level, but it could not translate its domination into political hegemony on a larger scale (i.e. on the district and governorate levels). To put it differently, patronage politics, despite all its upgrading strategies over more than three decades, could not overcome the challenge from identity politics. The authoritarian dilemma was that regime strategies were effective on a micro rather than macro scale.
The failure of the system of local governance to bridge the local (micro) and the national (macro) can be explained by Azmi Bishara’s thesis of the Arab Question, which he has defined as the failure of the post-colonial Arab state to pursue the nation-building process. The process, if it had been completed, would have created a collective national ‘we-ness’ that would be responsible for bringing the fragmented society together on the one hand, and connecting the state with society on the other, thus producing a civil society capable of resisting as well as reifying state-sanctioned relations. The unfinished process, according to Bishara, has allowed Arab authoritarianism to become entrenched in the state apparatuses, manoeuvring between formal and informal structures in order to preempt change. However, this has been at the expense of its political hegemony over society, which has been continuously eroded, leading to a constant conflict between state politics on the one hand and legitimacy on the other.
The fact that the MB, despite all repressive measures and continuous authoritarian upgrading, could overcome the NDP on the macro scale shows a power of ideology that the regime never had. As Chapter 3 will show, although the Islamic movement in the towns of the Cairo peri-urban fringe lacked the rootedness, or social capital, that the NDP enjoyed on the micro level, it instead possessed symbolic capital. Symbolic capital, according to Bourdieu, is a ‘denied capital’; it disguises the underlying interested relations by showing it as disinterested pursuits, not as emanating from the pursuit of self-interest. It is a form of power that is ‘not perceived as power but as legitimate demands for recognition, deference, obedience, or the services of others’. It is a form of accumulation that seems to owe nothing to the logic of exploitation.
Symbolic power enabled the Islamic movement to articulate its popular mobilisation with a broader collective ‘cultural framework’ that stresses the supranational Muslim community (umma), therefore, provoking religious emotions and identity politics. By contrast, lacking an ideological and cultural framework made the local branches of the NDP in the Cairo peri urban fringe more like ‘community organisations’ rather than branches of a political party. The NDP local leaders emerged from within local communities and were often perceived in their localities as clients of authoritarianism, or at best, as notables who provided direction and guidance in specific or varied areas of community life. From the late 1980s, they understood local politics as project-based work aimed at serving their localities and developing their amenities. This sometimes made them rooted, well-known and respected in their local settings, but unknown to other communities in the region or on a wider scale. It was, therefore, not possible for them to feel a sense of solidarity with other local NDP figures from neighbouring localities or even from the same town. In fact, they viewed them as rivals who competed with them on the political field and this rendered the party self-collapsing on the eve of any election. The reason was that the party’s huge networks shared no ideology. They had nothing in common except their closeness to bureaucracy.
The evidence presented in the following chapters suggests that the Egyptian regime, from the mid-2000s, was resigned to this conclusion. Therefore, NDP local leadership in the towns of the Cairo peri-urban fringe observed the authoritarian regime gradually abandoning them. Their role in the system of local governance was greatly marginalised and substituted by a new informal system in which the SSIS had the upper hand, and in which bands of balṭajiyya frequently appeared to be on the side of the police. It seemed to most of them that the rules of the game had been changed forever and their lifetime of political experience and of accumulating social capital were not respected. The old system of control was irreversibly dying and a new one was yet to be born.