Is Egypt a Fragile State? Interview with Eberhard Kienle

Is Egypt a fragile state? Interview with Eberhard Kienle

In his recently published book Egypt: A Fragile Power (Routledge), CNRS Research professor Eberhard Kienle examines authoritarian rule, unresolved economic challenges, and the external dependency of Egypt in order to analyse the state’s contemporary political and economic characteristics while adopting a historical perspective. The author challenges common assumptions about Egyptian secularists, Islamists, and revolutionaries, and questions notions such as “modernization”, “economic reform”, and political stability.

For you, Egypt’s independence did not start when the United Kingdom declared Egypt a sovereign state through the Unilateral Declaration of Egyptian Independence of 28 February 1922. Why was this transition a long term process ? 

Under the 1922 Declaration, Britain remained in charge of decisions in a variety of areas, not least the security and defence of the Suez Canal. It maintained troops not only in the rather large Canal Zone but also across the country, even in central Cairo, between today’s Tahrir Square and the river Nile.

Conditions changed slightly with the 1936 treaty but in 1942 Britain did not hesitate to surround the royal palace with tanks to force a new government on the King. It was only after World War II, when Britain was no longer in a position to keep its empire, that Egypt finally managed to become politically independent. Accession to independence was a process in the sense that Egyptians fought for it at least since the end of World War I and that after World War II the global balance of power in that sense turned in Egypt’s favour.

You refer to Egypt as a “fragile power”. Has the Egyptian state ever failed? Would you define the Egyptian regime as an autocratic regime?

Defining Egypt as a “fragile power” primarily aims to challenge the common claim that the country and its government are forces of stability in an otherwise turbulent part of the world. This is not to claim that the country is likely to resemble Syria, Libya, or Yemen; for reasons discussed in the book, Egypt as a state is far more consolidated than these latter three, but serious economic challenges necessarily impact its domestic politics and its ability to act internationally. Let me illustrate the present situation before turning to the dynamics that produced it.

In office since 2013, the government under President Sisi has not managed to address key economic issues which its predecessors had to grapple with any more appropriately than they did. In fact, this government’s responses—like those of earlier governments—have compounded the difficulties and further removed the country from sustainable and inclusive development. Megaprojects such as the “new” Suez Canal and the new administrative capital are not viable launch pads for such development; the former was built on overly optimistic assumptions about future traffic, while the latter reflects a logic of consumption and representation rather than production. Authoritarian, in some ways autocratic, rule in Egypt continues to focus on rent-seeking and self-perpetuation; these objectives are particularly incompatible with approaches to developing human resources in ways that might foster critical thinking and thus innovation and productivity. No transition to the production of higher-value-added products has been initiated, nor has there been much success in terms of job creation for a growing population that now numbers more than 100 million people. Inequalities in income, wealth, and opportunities have not decreased, in spite of a few encouraging but unconfirmed figures that show no long-term trend.

Mosque in the new administrative capital in Egypt. Copyright: Shutterstock

Al Afatah Al-Aleem mosque in the new administrative capital, Egypt.
Photo by Moatassem for Shutterstock

By and large, the country continues to spend more resources than it produces, especially if one omits the volatile oil and gas sector, which only generates rents for those in power and their major constituencies, not least the military establishment. As in the past, transfers from abroad have kept the country more or less afloat until the International Monetary Fund had to be called in—twice already since 2013—and granted loans in exchange for a programme of macroeconomic stabilization that for most Egyptians boils down to austerity measures. Thanks to these measures, some macroeconomic imbalances have been temporarily improved, but in spite—or because—of attendant “structural” measures, sustainable development and the more equal distribution of wealth have fallen by the wayside. Sadly, under these conditions, the country will stumble along until the next crisis hits and another bailout follows—provided the logic of “too big to fail” will not cede to that of “too big to bail”.

Can you tell us more about this idea?

So far, the economic and social fall-out has been managed through a combination of nationalist propaganda and repression which will show its limits when material improvements remain a distant dream. If the government is afraid of unrest and a repetition of the 2011 protests, the result may as well be resignation, apathy, emigration—effects that hardly favour sustainable development.

However, as already pointed out, the current Egyptian government is only the latest one that has failed to produce viable answers to the country’s development conundrum. Following partly different, partly similar road maps, none of these governments has managed to lastingly reconcile expenditure with revenues. The only exception was the monarchy overthrown in the 1952 coup or “revolution” staged by the Free Officers around Nasser (and formally replaced by the republic in 1953). However, under the monarchy, governments pursued extremely limited development objectives at best, and already benefited from rents. The inability to generate the necessary resources cannot be disassociated from economic choices first made under British pressure, then occupation, since the mid-nineteenth century, which inaugurated a considerable degree of path dependency. For instance, until 1930, Egypt was unable to raise trade tariffs as it saw fit.

Nevertheless, considering Egypt a “fragile power” does not mean that it is anything like a “failed state” in the sense the expression is currently used—and abused. Unlike some of its counterparts in the Middle East, including Syria and Libya, the current Egyptian state has gradually emerged, consolidated—and been actively built—since the beginning of the nineteenth century. Never sovereign until the evacuation treaty negotiated in 1954 between Nasser and Britain, Egypt nonetheless was a distinct political entity with a territory, a population, and successive central governments in Cairo that, except for desert areas, parts of the coastline, and some shorter spans of time, did not undergo major changes. Metaphorically, one may say that over the decades and centuries the Egyptian state has put on weight and, as institutions do, weighed on its inhabitants in a manner that is in many ways similar to that of European states. It is certainly one of the Middle Eastern states that comes closest to what is frequently called a “nation-state”. Compared to many of its neighbours, it could itself be considered a “power”, even though the persistent resource gap has always rendered such power fragile, and now increasingly so.

Protests in Cairo. Copyright: Shutterstock
Protests in Cairo, 3 July 2013. Photo by Mehmet Ali Poyraz for Shutterstock

How fragile—or stable—is the Egyptian welfare state in the face of current challenges linked to the long-lasting COVID crisis, with its sanitary as well as economic consequences?

Established by and large in the 1950s after some limited initiatives under the monarchy, the Egyptian welfare state was to an extent part of the broader “Nasserist” project to catch up with the major industrialized countries and indeed former colonial powers: in other words, a development project that simultaneously aimed to guarantee Egypt’s independence. At the same time, this project was supposed to create a basis of support for the republican—largely military-based—political regime which the Free Officers and their successors built after the overthrow of the monarchy. Initially, the project succeeded and expanded thanks to the redistribution of wealth and—already—rents, either assets accumulated earlier for services rendered to Britain during World War II or strategic rents related to the Cold War.

However, the permanent and increasing difficulties to reconcile resources with expenditure soon limited and truncated these ambitions. Two balance of payments crises in the 1960s were followed by the cost of the 1967 war and defeat. Various ups and downs closely related to foreign funding and other forms of rent—relatively modest domestic production of oil and gas—on the one hand, and austerity measures on the other led to the redefinition and growing erosion of benefits over time. Public sector recruitments and attendant benefits slowed down, health services atrophied, food and energy subsidies were repeatedly cut; again under President Sisi, public investment in schools and universities failed to keep pace with growing numbers of pupils and students to the point that libraries were empty of books and teachers had to supplement their salaries through giving private lessons without which pupils would not be able to pass their exams.

As a result, Egypt was ill equipped to deal with the COVID crisis, even though it avoided disaster. Authoritarian rule compounded the difficulties through lack of transparency and even threats against doctors and nurses who required material, protective gear, and more decisive government action. The lack of transparency also led to the under-reporting of infections and deaths, as did the underfunding of public health services since at least the 1980s, not to mention the general difficulties of providing health care for the majority of people in lower middle income countries. Officially, the second IMF loan under President Sisi was prompted by the pandemic which, however, merely aggravated the persistent divergence between revenues and expenditure.

Interview by Miriam Périer.

Further online reading

Kienle, Eberhard (ed), "The State in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA): Diversity and Dynamics of a Moving Object," Dossier du CERI, October 2021, online publication.

Kienle, Eberhard, "Egypt's Current Economic Features and Policies," Rowak Arabi, September 2020, online publication.

Kienle, Eberhard, "Infection Rates in Arab Countries. A Tale of State Capacity," in Dossier du CERI, 20 September 2020, online publication.

Kienle, Eberhard, "The Corona virus in the Middle East and North Africa: "Arab Exceptionalism" Once Again?," in Dossier du CERI, 20 May 2020, online publication.

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