Democracy Lab

"The Elite Isn't Going to Lose Control"

Middle East scholar Joshua Stacher explains why democratization in Egypt is only skin deep.

In the West, authoritarian regimes in foreign lands tend to be depicted as uniformly brittle and hollow, ever ripe for popular overthrow. But that blanket characterization fails to do justice to the differing natures of authoritarian systems, argues author and political scientist Joshua Stacher. Authoritarianism is not, by definition, "a stagnant governing approach," he writes in his timely and provocative new book, Adaptable Autocrats: Regime Power in Egypt and Syria.

His defining example of an authoritarian regime that is masterful at perpetuating its rule comes from Egypt, the Arab country he knows best. With last year's toppling of "ruler for life" Hosni Muburak and the recent election as president of Mohamed Morsi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood (and decidedly not of the military and other powerful state institutions), some analysts see a brighter prospect for democracy. "Democratization is becoming rooted in Arab societies," Egypt included, the historian Olivier Roy recently declared. But Stacher doesn't think so. Egypt, he says in his book, has not experienced a genuine democratic revolution. While "structural changes to the ruling coalition have undoubtedly occurred," the same old elites, especially the military (its power concentrated in the SCAF -- the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces), remain firmly in control of the country.

Syria, in this formulation, offers a contrast to Egypt. Because political and economic power is more decentralized in Syria, with Damascus having only a tenuous hold on events in the outlying regions, Bashar al-Assad's ruling coalition might collapse. The result is apt to be an unstable power vacuum of the sort Egypt has so far managed to avoid. But in any case, Stacher concludes that "neither Egypt nor Syria is democratizing, and neither is likely to do so in the wake of the 2011 Arab uprisings." And Washington, he asserts, is complicit in this squelching of popular aspirations for grassroots democracy; its rhetoric notwithstanding, the Obama Administration, like its predecessors both Republican and Democratic, is generally comfortable with the diverse forms of autocratic governance in the Middle East. After all, in 2009, President Obama called Mubarak "a force for stability" in the region.

This bleak and somewhat harsh assessment begs tough questions. But Stacher, an assistant professor at Kent State University in Ohio, has earned the right to a voice in the debate about how the U.S. should respond to change in the Arab world. His knowledge of the terrain is hard-won and first-hand: He devoted three years of fieldwork in Egypt and Syria to research for the book, including, as he notes, "more than one hundred interviews with government decision-makers, political activists, journalists, academics, and dissidents." He speaks fluent Arabic and lived in the Arab world (mainly in Cairo), from 1998 to 2007. A native of a small town in southwestern Pennsylvania, Stacher first visited Egypt in 1997, on a college study-abroad program. "I fell in love with Egypt because of how chaotic it was," he recalled. "Back in '97, you had this major city, Cairo, where there were no traffic cops, no traffic rules." In the following interview, he fleshes out his perspective on events in Egypt and the Middle East as well as Washington's reaction to them:

Foreign Policy: How do Egyptians talk about democracy? Does it mean the same thing to them that it means to people in the West?

Joshua Stacher: They don't have the same exact conception of democracy that we do. What Egyptians are really looking for is equality of opportunity. Basic protection under the law. They want to feel like they're getting a fair shake -- in getting into school, getting a job, getting a car, getting an apartment. The problem is, they don't have basic rights protected. If you're Egyptian, and you get thrown into jail, what [social] class you're in determines whether you're going to get tortured or not.

FP: Certainly many people in the West also would include "basic protection under the law" as an element of their conception of democracy. Is part of your argument that, as a historical and cultural matter, Egyptians are more accepting of authoritarian rule than are people in the West?

JS: I don't believe that Egyptians think that authoritarianism in their lives is productive developmentally, politically, socially.

FP: So why, then, are you so pessimistic about the prospects for democracy in Egypt, if it represents  a strong popular urge?

JS: Because I don't believe the elites are going to lose control and that the population is actually going to be empowered. Elites by their nature are conservative. They want to preserve power and direct power to serve their interests. I don't believe that the transition in Egypt is haphazard or just sort of happening day by day. I believe that there are very structured processes, negotiated processes that are bringing about outcomes that are preserving military rule. If you like grand spectacle, like elections or protests or Mubarak being put in a cage in front of a judge, then yes, a tremendous amount of change has happened. But if you want to measure change in terms of how power is distributed, or how social hierarchies are being displaced, then there hasn't been that.

FP: Egypt has its first civilian president in Mohamed Morsi, a top figure in the Muslim Brotherhood. There's very little mention of the Brotherhood in your book. You don't see the Brotherhood's ascension as containing any seed or promise of democracy? And why do you see the Brotherhood as a relatively powerless force vis-à-vis the military?

JS: I've done a lot of work on the Muslim Brotherhood outside of this book. At the end of the day, they are a more or less an Egyptian institution. If you look at the Egyptian state, it is modeled on a very hierarchical, very top down, very class-ist way of operating. The Muslim Brotherhood functions in almost identical ways to this. If you go to the top of the Brotherhood, a lot of them [top officials] are intermarried and have family links.

FP: Do you know Mohamed Morsi?

JS: I know Mohamed Morsi extremely well. I met him in 2005, I interviewed him in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010, and I talked to him on the phone before he was named president.

FP: In what capacity did you talk to him?

JS: As a friend to a friend. The kind of research that I'm interested in doing requires that I develop personal relationships and commitments to human beings. I called him to basically congratulate him and wish him well -- that was it.

FP: The story line in the Western media about what's playing out in Egypt is in some respects at odds with your assessment. The main narrative is that there is this grand tension working itself out between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military, as seen, for example, in the current battle over reconvening the Brotherhood-dominated parliament seated earlier this year but afterwards dissolved by the courts. Make your analytic point: Why do you think that story line is essentially wrong?

JS: If we were to measure power on a 100-point scale, the army controls an overwhelming majority of that scale. Any time there is any type of negotiation or any type of interaction between the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi and the military, eight to nine times out of ten the Brotherhood doesn't get what it wants. This latest thing with parliament has proven that point very clearly. Morsi made some grand gesture: We're going to reconvene the parliament. Well, parliament reconvened for [a few] minutes. And that's the end of it.

Morsi has accepted the logic that there will be a new elected parliament. In the end, he didn't wrestle any executive power away from the SCAF, he didn't wrestle any legislative power away from the SCAF, and they're having new elections, which is exactly what the SCAF wanted.

FP: What's preventing the revolution from breaking out?

JS: In my opinion, it is the SCAF. I mean the SCAF is the one playing social forces off each other, they've been inciting these sectarian clashes, they allowed the storming of the Israeli Embassy. The SCAF has been involved with completely hijacking the constitution, writing themselves into the constitution, allowing the elections to reconstitute a political field that marginalizes the people in the streets from having a say in what was going on.

FP: Do you know any of the generals, have you talked to them?

JS: I haven't met any of the generals, no.

FP: You take a tough line on Washington's role as an actor in advancing democracy in places like Egypt, writing in the book that "despite its shifting rhetoric, the U.S. Administration is pathologically against the empowerment of Arab populations given its actions thus far." Pathologically? What's your evidence for that? Perhaps you'd like to take back that word?

JS: I don't want to take it back. I intentionally chose that word. I thought about that word for a long time. In what instance, in what place, have we ever seen the United States support democracy in the Arab World?

FP: Why wouldn't Washington want to see the empowerment of Arab populations?

JS: Because this is a structured relationship. Do you know how many times we use over-flights to fly over Egyptian airspace to go bomb something or do surveillance on something? And what about the unrestricted use of the Suez Canal? We don't want a democratically elected population to say, "Hey, look, you can't just go bomb Iraq without having evidence."

It's a lazy approach to empire. You rely on the local strongman to keep the natives in their place. That has been the policy, with pretty much bipartisan support in Washington, for the last sixty years in the Middle East.

FP: I thought you might say that the empowerment of the Arab populations could produce a much more anti-Israel posture in countries like Egypt.

JS: No doubt it probably would produce an anti-Israel posture, but that's something for the Israelis and these individual states to negotiate.

FP: Have you had the chance to present your analysis to decision makers in Washington?

JS: I had an opportunity to go the White House on January 31, 2011, to meet with senior members of the National Security Council, on Egypt. I made incredibly critical comments. The problem is that they think they are actually supporting democracy, when the bottom line is that the major line of communication with Egypt right now is going from the Pentagon to the SCAF.

The reason why the Obama Administration didn't go absolutely insane with what was going on in Egypt is because they never understood it as falling beyond the reach of the section of the Egyptian state that they were best connected to -- and that was the military. That was connected to the Camp David agreement. They got what they paid for.

FP: Let's turn to Syria. Democracy promotion in Washington sometimes takes the form of calls for armed intervention to topple autocrats. Right now, there are voices urging that approach towards the Assad regime in Syria. For example, former CIA officer Reuel Marc Gerecht is advocating a "coordinated, CIA-led effort to pour anti-tank, antiaircraft, and anti-personnel weaponry" into the hands of the Syrian rebels. Without such an effort, Gerecht says, there is apt to be a "protracted bloodbath" in Syria. Why not try something like this plan?

JS: Because if you topple the regime with outside assistance, the people that come in, the next elites that come in, are beholden to you. What you end up doing is creating more dependency than you do actual autonomy. If you want Assad to be toppled, the movements will find a way to overthrow him. The regime will fragment. It's already sort of happened. If I was Bashar al-Assad, I would not sleep well at night. I would think my days are numbered. Because that is the par excellence of a regime not adapting well. If you stop adapting, you become extinct.

KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/GettyImages

Interview

Unipolar Disorder

Why are American voters so all over the place when it comes to foreign policy?

One of the more challenging aspects of writing a column about the politics of U.S. foreign policy is trying to fully understand the views of average voters on national security and foreign-policy issues. In this regard, Benjamin Valentino, associate professor of government at Dartmouth College, has only made life more difficult. Last month he released a fascinating poll examining public attitudes on America's role in the world, the country's current alliance structure, and its foreign-policy preferences -- and it provided a somewhat schizophrenic and at times irreconcilable perspective on how Americans view the world and America's place in it. So rather than try to makes heads or tails of the results, I went to the source and sat down for an email interview with Valentino in which we discussed what he believes the poll tells us about current foreign-policy attitudes.

Foreign Policy: I'll start today with a rather broad question to get the conversation going: When I read through the poll results for the first time, I couldn't help but shake my head because for me the big takeaway is that voters have incoherent and often contradictory views about foreign policy and national security -- and I pity the policymaker who tries to glean from it what voters think about international issues (not to mention the political scientist)! For example, voters are generally supportive of the United States creating new alliances with states like Brazil and India and maintaining old ones -- while at the same time they think the U.S. can no longer afford its overseas commitments. Is there a consistent belief system in these results that I'm missing?

Benjamin Valentino: It's true that the poll results could be read as reflecting some kind of schizophrenia among the public. On the one hand, Americans showed little willingness to reconsider any of our major overseas commitments and even some readiness to establish new ones. On the other hand, although most of the public seems to recognize the increasing difficulty we face in paying for these commitments (more than 60 percent agreed that America "can no longer afford to maintain its commitments to defend all of its current allies around the world"), there was relatively little support for increasing taxes to help pay for them. Unfortunately, we get this kind of result all the time in public opinion polling. Americans want to have their cake and eat it too. I suspect that Republican respondents, who were the most supportive of expansive overseas commitments, would argue that we should pay for these policies through cuts in other government programs (just not Medicare or Social Security). Whether that is realistic or not, of course, is another question.

Still, my main takeaway from the survey is that the American public remains broadly supportive of the alliances and informal security commitments that America has today, even though many of them were forged over 60 years ago in a very different international environment. I saw very little evidence that the public would support a major retrenchment or Ron Paul-style foreign policy.

FP: This is one of the more interesting results from the poll: Republicans are broadly supportive of deficit reduction and yet strongly opposed to pretty much every possible solution for actually reducing the deficit -- military spending, cuts in Social Security or Medicare, and certainly not higher taxes. Along these lines, some of the results suggest a rather stark partisan divide. This shouldn't necessarily be that surprising -- one can imagine in a rather polarized political environment that Republicans would be more critical of current foreign policy and Dems more supportive. But on the big foreign-policy issues, do you detect a broad consensus of views? We hear a lot of talk about a bipartisan consensus in U.S. foreign policy; is there a bipartisan consensus among voters beyond the support for global commitments and alliances that you note above?

BV: Yes, given the strong anti-tax, anti-government spending mood in the Republican Party, I don't think we should be surprised at those answers. On that score, the results of this poll are broadly consistent with other recent polls on deficit reduction. Republicans want to decrease taxes and reduce the size of government, but it is difficult to get them to point to specific programs that they would agree to cut that could make a meaningful contribution to reducing the deficit. One of the few areas you can get Americans to agree on cutting back is, of course, is foreign aid, which accounts for less than 1 percent of federal spending. If Americans knew that a large portion of our foreign aid goes to Israel, which our poll shows gets a lot of support from Americans, I'm not sure they would even favor that.

The poll shows some areas of polarization and some areas of consensus. Perhaps the most polarizing foreign-policy question in the survey asked respondents whether they believed today that "Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when the United States invaded in 2003." Sixty-three percent of Republicans said yes, while less than 15 percent of Democrats did. You can also see pretty serious partisan divides on other questions regarding the use of force. For example, almost twice as many Republicans as Democrats were willing to use force to defend Taiwan if China attacked. Likewise, 47 percent of Democrats claim to have always opposed the war in Afghanistan (although many are clearly reconstructing history since close to 90 percent of Americans approved the war in 2001), while only 16 percent of Republicans do.

On the other hand, I see much more consensus than polarization in most areas of the poll. Although Republicans are usually more supportive of extensive foreign commitments than Democrats, almost across the board more people from both parties tend to support an engaged and active foreign policy than oppose it. Most Americans from both parties agree that "the United States should demand all nations respect human rights even if that means hurting our relationships with strategically and economically important countries." Majorities from both parties agree that the United States should use force "to stop massive human rights abuses by the government, such as the killing of thousands of civilians." And sizable majorities from both parties agreed that "The United States faces greater threats to its security today than it did during the Cold War," a proposition that many scholars who study the Cold War will surely find hard to accept.

What this shows me is that neither the long and difficult wars in Iraq and Afghanistan nor our current economic and budgetary problems have caused most Americans to fundamentally re-evaluate the expansive, interventionist post-Cold War foreign policy we have been pursuing since the early 1990s.

FP: Yes, in retrospect I probably should have noted, not one of the most interesting results of the polls -- but rather one of the more incoherent ones! I'm struck by a few things that you've said here, but especially the last sentence that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq -- and the country's budget challenges -- have had no discernible impact on the expansive, interventionist post-Cold War foreign policy we have been pursuing since the early 1990s. One could make the same comment about the foreign-policy elite, and I wonder if voters are, in part, taking their cues from policymakers on how they think about these issues.

But I also want to challenge this a bit. Question No. 8 is one of the most, I think, surprising in the poll. You ask, "How closely does America's current foreign policy reflect your own preferred foreign policy?" And while you'd expect Republicans to say that it does not, 60 percent of Democrats feel the same, along with a stunning 83 percent of independents (a higher number than Republicans). Only 25 percent of Americans think that current U.S. foreign policy is very or somewhat close to their own preferences. How do you explain that result? What about current U.S. foreign policy do you think most troubles voters? Something clearly is not connecting with voters, or is this result a bit of statistical noise?

BV: Indeed, it's my impression that there is even more consensus among elites on foreign-policy "activism" than the public. Ron Paul is the only politician with any kind of national recognition who challenges this kind of foreign policy, and most of his supporters seem to back him in spite of his foreign-policy positions, not because of them. So yes, it's probably true that this high level of elite consensus is one reason why we don't see more willingness among the public to re-evaluate our foreign policy today.

I agree that Question No. 8 is an interesting one. Of course it's not possible to know from this exactly what Americans are unhappy about, and the best bet is that it is not any single issue in particular. Still, if I had to pick just one thing, my guess would be the war in Afghanistan, which only around 13 percent of Democrats and 44 percent of Republicans support. Since this is probably the single-most visible aspect of our foreign policy, it seems likely that it's a big part of that result.

If so, I think this reflects the broader trends we've been discussing. There is no question that the American public is seriously divided about specific policy choices or interventions like Iraq or Libya. But on the broader questions of American grand strategy: Should we keep military forces deployed around the world? Do we have a responsibility to promote American values abroad and protect innocents from massive human rights abuses? Is it important to make sure America remains the most powerful country in the world? [On this] there is very little debate.

FP: To your last point about Americans wanting the U.S. to be the most powerful country in the world, the result that I found most disturbing in the entire poll was the answer to Question No. 57, in which Americans basically say that if given a choice between having their income double but China being the biggest economy in the world, and slower growth but America being No. 1, they chose the latter -- and overwhelmingly. It's a shocking result, and one that, I think, really speaks to the strong streak of exceptionalism in American foreign policy. In addition, when this poll was released there was, not surprisingly, quite a bit of fixation on two results in particular -- that a majority of Republicans have always believed Obama was not born in the United States and that a majority of Republicans believe that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, both of which have long been debunked and both of which were sort of tangential to your research aims! What for you was most surprising about the results? What about the poll did you consider to be the most revelatory or provide the most unexpected result?

BV: There were many surprises, including the ones you mention, but one of the most unexpected findings to me was Question 59, which asked whether respondents agreed that "During the Cold War, the fact that both sides had thousands of nuclear weapons made war less likely between the United States and Russia." Over 60 percent of Americans agreed, including majorities from both major parties, and only 9 percent disagreed. Given the concern about nuclear proliferation in other parts of the world today (sizable majorities in this poll also thought that if Iran obtained nuclear weapons it would be very or somewhat likely to use them against Israel), I was quite surprised to see that many Americans saw deterrence and nuclear weapons as a force for peace during the Cold War.

FP: The bookend to this is the poll result that suggested the vast majority of Americans believe the world is more dangerous today than it was during the Cold War. It seems that Americans now look upon the Cold War almost with a tinge of nostalgia. The world was less complicated, "we knew our enemy," etc. -- the whole nuclear annihilation thing seems to be put aside or at the very least remembered with oddly rose-colored glasses (does no one else remember The Day After and Red Dawn)?

How does one explain this -- is it simply a function of voters viewing the international environment today as one that is more inscrutable and thus more dangerous?

BV: Again, it's hard to say with confidence exactly what is driving this. I suspect that there is some kind of general psychological mechanism that causes people to exaggerate current threats over past ones. The fact that no open war with the Soviet Union actually occurred also might tend to increase the hindsight bias that such a war was never a serious danger. And, of course, our leaders from both parties (and many academics, as well) have been working hard since 9/11 to convince Americans that we are facing existential threats from terrorists and rogue states with nuclear weapons. As you know, the political scientist John Mueller has written a lot about this, arguing that these threats have been massively "overblown." But this poll shows that the American public continues to believe that despite America's massive military advantage and the lack of a true great-power rival, we still face threats that justify a foreign policy as activist and a defense budget as large as we had during the Cold War.

FP: OK, now that we've gotten some sense of what Americans are thinking (ish), I'm curious for your take on the political implications. The sense one gets is that Americans want, perhaps above anything else, for the United States to remain No. 1 -- even if they want to see U.S. allies share more of the foreign-policy burden. It's hard to see from this perspective how one makes the case for reform of our national security policy, a shift in Cold War alliance structures, even a serious reduction in defense spending. If you were a policymaker or, more important, a politician reading these results, would your takeaway be "just keep doing what we're doing" -- it has broad popular support?

BV: Well, one thing the poll made clear is that foreign policy is not the most important issue to the public right now. Only 6 percent of Americans said foreign-policy issues were more important than domestic ones in deciding their vote for president -- compared to 44 percent who said domestic politics were more important (the other 50 percent said they were equally important). This is nothing new and should come as no surprise to anyone who has been following the campaign. But I think it does mean that policymakers might have a bit more flexibility on these issues than they do on domestic affairs.

I'd agree that proposing major changes to our foreign policy would be a risky choice given these attitudes, and we know that policymakers tend to avoid risky choices. Nevertheless, it's always possible that public opinion could change if there were a concerted effort by one of the major parties to convince Americans that we need to rethink our foreign policy. A lot of research shows that the public takes their cues from elites, especially on foreign -policy issues. But right now, I think the broad consensus between parties on the overall shape of our foreign policy makes this highly unlikely.

FP: What's most interesting about this result, I think, is that you often hear critics of U.S. foreign policy say that there is a huge disconnect between how elites view America's role in the world -- and how the American people look at this issue. But your poll seems to suggest that the divide isn't as wide as we think and in fact that elites and non-elites have relatively overlapping views -- even if, as you note earlier, there are probably more outliers in the general public than among foreign-policy professionals. I'm curious if you share that view and if you have any final thoughts that you think readers should take away from what is really a rather fascinating set of poll results? 

BV: Yes, I think that's correct. While the public is obviously not as well informed about foreign affairs as elites (the poll found that only 37 percent of Americans know we are part of a formal alliance to defend Germany, while 55 percent incorrectly believe we have a treaty to defend Israel), they do seem to share the broad view of elites from both parties that the United States must continue to play the role of the "indispensable nation."

We discussed earlier that polls like this one often find that Americans want to have it all. We don't like to make hard choices or accept painful tradeoffs. We want an expansive foreign policy backed by the most powerful military in the world, but we don't want to pay for it. We want to protect human rights around the world, but we don't want to risk American military casualties to do it. We want to maintain a strong alliance with Israel, but we don't want to suffer the consequences of angering Muslims who oppose Israeli policies. Although it is understandable that the public might be attracted to such unrealistic views, ultimately America cannot escape reality.

The bills will come due. Change is always difficult, but it is important to remember that maintaining the same foreign policy America has pursued for the last 20 years is just as much a choice as is adopting a radically different one. The essence of political leadership lies in recognizing this reality and having the courage to change direction on our own terms rather than waiting for the world to force a new course upon us.

[A note about the survey methodology: This project emerged out of research Valentino is conducting on developing a sustainable national security strategy for the United States. The research has been sponsored by the Tobin Project, a nonprofit organization whose aim is to motivate scholars to work on policy-relevant research and help scholars share their research with policymakers. As part of the project, he solicited questions from more than a dozen political scientists and historians, which formed the core of the poll. The poll was conducted by the polling firm, YouGov, which interviewed more than 1,000 Americans.]

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