The Middle East Channel

Egypt’s wide state reassembles itself

In all the tumult of the past month's events, one ephemeral development stands out in my mind as emblematic of the long-term processes at work in Egyptian politics. Less than a week before the June 30 demonstration calling for an end to Mohamed Morsi's presidency, I participated in a panel discussion with Egyptian political analyst Amr El Shobaki at the Bada'il Center, a research institute he heads in Cairo. Shobaki brought up the Balkanization of the Egyptian state, the term that I had once used to describe the way that various parts of the state apparatus operate autonomously and successfully insist that one from their ranks head the relevant ministry. (The minister of justice is always a judge; the minister of defense a senior general; the foreign minister a senior career diplomat; the minister of religious affairs a senior scholar from the official religious establishment; and so on). Shobaki made clear that he found the process troubling. Two weeks after this discussion, Shobaki unhappily demonstrated his own prescience when the state university faculty successfully blocked his candidacy for the ministry of higher education, insisting that a minister come from their own ranks.

The Egyptian leviathan is difficult to control for some poorly understood reasons. The concept of the "deep state" does provide some guidance, though the term's usefulness has been exaggerated. But the bigger problem for any kind of accountable governance in Egypt over the long term may not be the state's depth so much as its girth.  

Is there a deep state?

The term "deep state," is a Turkish export, though it has cousins elsewhere (such as "le pouvoir" in Algeria). Talk of the deep state has spread in Egyptian discussions since the 2011 uprising to refer to the group of senior officials or critical institutions that collectively manage the entire political system -- senior military officers, the security apparatus, intelligence agencies, and sometimes judges and some senior bureaucrats.

Did the Egyptian deep state bring down Morsi and is it now running the country? Sort of.

There is no doubt that the judiciary as a whole came to regard Morsi as an enemy; that the military was a dominant (though hardly sole) actor in the downfall of Morsi; and that the security apparatus played a dirty game against him. Any reader of al-Watan would see telltale signs of the security establishment's attitude from numerous bizarre stories about the Brotherhood, and its printing of leaked transcripts of sensitive conversations in which General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi seems always to face down his interlocutors, whether Morsi or U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson, with stirring assertions of manly determination and Egyptian patriotism.

But while these are powerful self-governing institutions, and while acting President Adly Mansour's July 8 constitutional declaration shows deep footprints of the deep state in its clauses, what strikes me is how much these various parts of this powerful phantom dislike each other. I have heard senior judges complain of the "state of baltagiyya (thugs)" to refer to the abusive security apparatus; others have voiced disgust at the use of military judges to try civilians. Judges tend to have a bit of disdain for their colleagues deemed too close to the intelligence and security apparatus. For its part, the military has shown its own disdain at ordinary policing and seems more interested in keeping itself unsullied than in hatching plots with its alleged co-conspirators. I have previously cast doubt on the idea that the Supreme Constitutional Court has acted as an agent of the old regime.

So yes, there is a deep state. But it might be a bit shallower and is certainly much less coherent than many of those who use the term imply. And while it is influential, there is much in the state that eludes its tight grip.

Balkanization within the state apparatus

Shobaki was not the only person to come under fire for having emerged as a ministerial candidate from outside the ranks of the institutions he was supposed to oversee. A new minister had the justice portfolio pried out of his grip (and given a new portfolio for transitional justice and reconciliation) because, although he was a judge, he was from the administrative courts rather than the regular judiciary, some of whose members complained for that reason. Kamal Abu Eita similarly drew fire when appointed minister of manpower. Abu Eita would seem to have all the qualifications -- he is a trade unionist from the union representing tax collectors. But that union was formed outside of (and in opposition) to the officially sponsored trade union federation, making him an alien to those who claim to speak officially for workers.

And Balkanization extends far beyond the choice of ministers. Family ties within personnel of state institutions, overlaid with residential and socializing patterns, make it common to come across an official body that appears to be halfway between a bureaucracy and a caste.  Someone taking a stroll along the Nile in Cairo would see a succession of clubs for the families of each of these bodies, some with puzzling names that only a mammoth bureaucracy could generate (like the Club of the State Cases Authority).

To understand the political significance of these phenomena, it pays to look backward at the way that authoritarianism matured in Egypt under Presidents Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. In the 1970s, Sadat inherited a system that was tightly controlled by the security apparatus, military officers peppered official positions, only one political party was permitted (and owned all press), and restrictions on political organization and speech led little room for dissent. But the system seemed to be on the verge of losing its grip; worse, some of those parts of the state apparatus provided a platform for Sadat's rivals. Over the course of the 1970s, the sole political party was disestablished; a nominally multiparty system was allowed to form (with what eventually became the National Democratic Party dominating the political system and ownership of the press transferred to a newly-created upper house of the parliament); opposition newspapers were permitted; the Muslim Brotherhood was allowed to re-emerge -- discouraged from formal political activity but providing a counterweight to leftist groups, especially on college campuses; the military gradually edged out of its political role; security services reined in; and a limited measure of judicial independence was restored. In the 1980s, most of these trends were deepened under Mubarak.

The course of this limited liberalization was uneven, and Egypt's leaders periodically bared their full authoritarian teeth (most notably in 1981 when Sadat launched a wholesale crackdown on dissent across the spectrum or in the 1990s when Mubarak used harsh tools against Islamists).

But the overall institutional effect of this evolution was clear: the Egyptian state was no longer micromanaged from the presidency. Of course, the presidency was still in a central position and, when push came to shove, had ways to override any law or procedure and impose its will. But push rarely came to shove, and critical state institutions were allowed a very considerable degree of internal autonomy. The presidency managed the state apparatus by appointing individuals to key positions (such as the prosecutor general or the chief editors of state-owned press), co-optation (doling out higher salaries, plum appointments, or other benefits to key individuals or institutions), and fostering institutional duplication (with an array of courts to use if one proved unreliable; overlapping security services, and so on).

The result was a strong sense of corporate identity among many state actors but there was also some tension within many of them between those eager to get along for personal or institutional reasons and those who chafed at what they saw as the cheapening or corruption of their cherished institutions. The emergence, for instance, of the "independence trend" among the judiciary, or an association of dissident religious scholars within al-Azhar were two of the most visible public manifestations of this tension.

Thus it was during these years that the "Balkanization" of the state took place. Each part of these assemblages of states-within-the state developed its own (often ossified) leadership, doling out benefits within its part of the state in order to cement ties of loyalty.

Everyone above the fray

The reach of the Egyptian state goes far in many directions. In economics, state-owned enterprises, regulations, and controls are still strong even after decades of liberalization efforts. In culture, the state sponsors much production; in media, state-owned or managed enterprises are still powerful; in religion, Egyptians are taught, pray, and are adjudicated in structures operated by various state organs.

And all of these structures have come not only to value their internal autonomy but to see themselves as representing the higher interests of state or the welfare of the people. The military openly proclaims itself to be loyal to Egypt (and pointedly not to the political leadership as an elaborately produced video after its July 3 coup made clear). The police have worked with surprising (though perhaps temporary) success in recent weeks to reassert their position as guarantors of public security. Al-Azhar sees itself not simply as propagating the most appropriate interpretation of Islam but also as the conscience of, and advocate for, the society. Judges represent impartial application of the law, securing the rights of the weak. The diplomatic corps operates within its sphere to advocate for the interests of state in the international realm.

All these institutions see themselves as above politics, and sometimes for good reason. Some do have a strong sense of professionalism and integrity, and the political realm has only offered interference, domination, and instability. They welcome public oversight as much as airline pilots yearn to hand the controls to their passengers.

Egyptian politics has become frustrating and fickle for such actors. And the limited autonomy that these institutions achieved over the past decade only deepened after the 2011 overthrow of Mubarak. Not only is the hand of the presidency no longer weighing heavily on their shoulders, but some institutions (such as the leadership of al-Azhar, the Supreme Constitutional Court, public prosecution, and the armed forces) have managed to secure legal and institutional changes that could make them virtually self-perpetuating bodies, no longer merely autonomous but virtually independent of any oversight.

But the problem for Egypt is that if so much state activity is to be insulated, politics (and the organizations, movements, and parties that populate political and civil society) is squeezed very much to the side. The width of the state leaves little room for the people.

Frankenstein's monster with no Dr. Frankenstein

In the aftermath of the 2011 uprising, I expected two battles to be set off by the Balkanization of the Egyptian state. First, there would be a contest over these institutions' autonomy or even independence, as each sought to throw off the yoke of the presidency but also found a reinvigorated political scene and stronger parliament eager to remold the state. Second, I expected a battle within each of these institutions, as younger or reform-minded members pushed against a senior leadership often closely associated with the old regime.

In fact, both these battles took place, but it is not clear that they resulted in much change. As mentioned above, some institutions have obtained more autonomy and are anxious to preserve it. The Brotherhood dominated lower house of parliament (which met from January to June 2012), the Morsi presidency (June 2012 to July 2013), and the briefly active upper house of parliament (with legislative authority from December 2012 until July 2013) each made forays at controlling some state bodies (the judiciary was one target; state-owned media saw changes in the senior ranks; the Ministry of Religious Affairs was made more Brotherhood-friendly turf) while working to placate or negotiate with others (such as the military, al-Azhar, and the security apparatus). Close to two and a half years after Mubarak's forced departure, the Egyptian state is more Balkanized than it was under Mubarak.

And the second battle -- over reform within each institution -- has been a dud. In the formation of the new cabinet, there was strong evidence of pressure within the ranks of certain ministries for or against particular candidates -- probably more pressure from below than ever existed in the Mubarak years -- but no evidence of any strong reform drive. Perhaps this will be a long-term generational struggle rather than a sudden burst of reform. And there has been some slow change at the top of some institutions, sometimes induced by retirement. But the burst of youthful energy on full display in Egyptian public squares sporadically over the past two and a half years has yet to be felt in the dark corridors of many Egyptian state organs.

Of course, social and political actors not anchored in the state are hardly irrelevant to Egyptian politics today -- in the period after June 30, elements of the wide state have had to bargain seriously with a host of non-Islamist forces. But that is the most that can be said right now.

Earlier, of course, the Brotherhood made itself a forceful presence (far less than much of the talk of "Brotherhoodization" of the state implied) but its foray in the direction of remolding state institutions now seems to have been fully blunted and many of its changes swiftly reversed. In the current negotiations over amending the constitution and the formation of the cabinet, there are strong signs of bargaining among a host of political actors (the formal party scene as well as newer mass movements), but it is not yet clear that social and political actors outside the state have had much effect.

The promise of constitutional reform, for instance, has begun with an offer only of amendment (rather than wholesale redrafting). The interim constitutional declaration seems to suggest that certain clauses protecting the military and the judiciary may be off limits and initial drafting will be dominated by judges nominated by their colleagues and law professors selected by state universities. Only then will political actors have their say and the people be allowed to vote. Just as occurred with the 2012 constitution, the process of amending that document is one of the Egyptian state constituting itself.

Egyptian political actors may gradually find ways to translate their seats at the table into real influence over outcomes, but it is difficult to see that process resulting in serious reform as long as political life is so polarized and atomized. And in the mean time, as I wrote a year and a half ago, "the odd result may be that just as Egyptians are beginning to realize truly democratic parliamentary and presidential elections, those positions with strong democratic credentials may be losing some of their authority to the forces of bureaucratic autonomy and professional expertise."

And I should add that many of Egypt's political actors are hampered in any quest for coordination by their tendency to betray the same attitude of so many state actors -- to identify their goals and interests with the interest of the entire country. Seeing themselves as representing all the people (or at least the good ones), their rivals become not simply mistaken or adversaries but public enemies in an environment where too many Egyptians seem motivated by a desire to liquidate the hateful and pulverize the intolerant. 

At best, this leads all actors to overlook how much over the years authoritarian practices have been woven deeply into Egypt's governing structures, laws, and patters of political behavior and how much the institutional framework of political life in Egypt is working against them. And at worst, those same actors do not ignore those practices but strive to exploit them against their enemies.

On June 30, a popular uprising occurred. But the aftermath reeks less of revolutionary than restorationist enthusiasm. The Egyptian state today resembles nothing so much as the various parts and organs of Frankenstein's monster attempting to assemble themselves -- but doing so without the assistance of Dr. Frankenstein and working not inside a secretive laboratory but instead in Tahrir Square, before a sometimes cheering crowd.

Nathan J. Brown is professor of political science and international affairs at the George Washington University, non-resident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and author of When Victory is Not an Option: Islamist Movements in Arab Politics (Cornell University Press, 2012).

KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images

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