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Whatever Happened to Democratization in Egypt?

April 25, 2015

"Pathways of Post-Uprising States" according to Ray Hinnebusch's article in the most recent issue of the journal Democratization.

“Pathways of Post-Uprising States” according to Ray Hinnebusch’s article in the most recent issue of the journal Democratization.

Democratization theory–a continually developing effort to understand the stages of transformation of nondemocratic states to democracy–has not proved successful in analyzing Egypt’s political revolution because Egypt has certainly not become a democracy, nor is it clearly in any of the stages typically predicted by this theory.

On the other hand, writes Ray Hinnebusch in the most recent issue of the journal Democratization, neither has there been a uniform restoration of authoritarianism, as would be predicted by what he calls “postdemocracy theory.”

Instead, he states, in his article “Introduction: understanding the consequences of the Arab uprisings – starting points and divergent trajectories,” Hinnebusch argues that following the Arab Spring we find either state collapse–which leads to what he calls “competitive state making,” or state persistence, which leads either to “hybrid regimes” or “polyarchies.”

By state collapse, of course, he means states like Syria, Yemen and Libya, in which democratic uprisings so weakened the state that it collapsed or nearly collapsed, and “democratic prospects appear to be foreclosed for the near future.”

Competitive regime making occurs in collapsed states as Islamic groups, charismatic (and patrimonial) leaders, and the “remnants of bureaucratic state institutions vie to create order out of chaos.

States that do not collapse (like Egypt), Hinnebusch writes, fall into one of two other conditions:

Polyarchy as Hinnebusch uses it is apparently a term for the emergence of several centers of power that draw some or all of their authority from electoral claims and/or rule by law, and hence can be seen as a stage in a (possible) transition to democracy. Only Tunisia approximates this movement.

What we find elsewhere (including in Egypt, he writes) is a condition of competetive regime making,

the new post-uprising regimes are likely to be hybrids, mixing elements of co-optation, coercion, and pluralism – electoral authoritarianism –with middle levels of inclusion. Equally, the state establishments may take advantage of widening identity cleavages within society, such as that between secularists and Islamists, to divide and rule, including one segment in order to exclude the other, as in Egypt (Hinnebusch 2015: 208).

How did Egypt get to this state?

Hinnebusch suggests that there are two basic political science theories explaining the rise of popular protests in Egypt (and MENA generally), modernization theory and Marxist theory.

Modernization theory posits a steady evolution of societies toward democracy, such that as “societies reach a certain level of social mobilization (education, literacy, urbanization, size of the middle class) regimes that do not accommodate demands for political participation risk … revolutionary forms [of social mobilization] unless otherwise contained by exceptional means.”

Under modernization theory, as Hinnebusch articulates it, the protests thus arise from an imbalance of social mobilization and political incorporation.

Thus as Egypt’s working classes, middle class and elites became more and more literate, educated and urbanized, they became increasingly aware of the failures of the state in solving economic and other problems, and increasingly aware of the state’s failures to act in ways consistent with how they believe a state should act. The regime managed this discontent through increasing forms of authoritarianism. Eventually, these ceased to be effective and protests erupted.

What Hinnebusch calls Marxist theory, by contrast, locates the origins of the uprisings in a contradiction between the mode of production and the political superstructure.

In this case, the switch to neoliberal capitalism as a mode of production was contradicted by the rise of crony-capitalism among regime elites. The International Monetary Fund pushed the regime to structural adjustments like privatization of state-owned corporations, drastic cuts in public services, reduction of labor protection, and tax cuts for private corporations, all of which created unemployment and underemployment, and made life harder and harder for citizens whose incomes shrank as costs rose.

IMF, of course, expected the loss of public investment to be made up by a rise in private investment. This never happened either because the crony capitalism that emerged under the guiding hand of Gamal Mubarak interfered, or because neoliberalism just doesn’t work the way neoliberal economists think it does (and crony capitalism just made it worse).

Eventually these grievances exploded, driving people to Tahrir Square, and the rest is history.

Either way, whether taking the modernity or Marxist approach, writes Hinnebusch, the crisis “was a function of the relative degree of economic blockage and the imbalance between social mobilization and political incorporation.”

Large cross-class coalitions, involving revolutionary youth, union activists, Islamists, and the urban poor joined to overwhelm by sheer numbers the very substantial security forces and to converge on the center of power while no social forces – even the constituents of the large ruling parties – seemed prepared to defend the regimes.
In other words, the power of authoritarian upgrading to contain both popular demand to be part of the political process and to constrain economic grievances “had reached its limits and begun to produce negative side effects”–culminating in the 18 days in Tahrir Square and the aftermath(s) of Mubarak’s resignation.
Turning to social movements theory, Hinnebuschargues that two factors were essential to the uprisings themselves.
  1. First, grievances had to have reached a tipping point sufficient to mobilize a lot of people in spite of the risks of defying the state security apparatus, and
  2. second, opportunity structures needed to exist that are favorable for regime change.
The accumulation of grievances is likely to be deeper, and social mobilization against the regime more widespread in countries like Egypt, where people were reacting to more than thirty years of post-populism, Hinnebusch writes.
He does not define the term, but post-populism is usually understood to be a political phenomenon in which a regime continues the political style of populism that has succeeded in the past, and continues the rhetoric of popular inclusivism, but the adoption of neoliberal economic strategies and authoritarian security measures means that actual populist efforts to incorporate the people into economic and civil society structures has ended (Filc 2009).

But why did this process not lead to democratization?

The answer, Hinnebusch says, has to do with “anti-regime mobilization and varying levels of regime resilience in the face of this mobilization.”

Anti-regime mobilization has to do with the capacity of protests to continue in the face of authoritarian measures against them. One sign of strong anti-regime mobilization is that when the standard authoritarian measures failed, efforts by the regime to scale up their anti-protest actions often backfired, leading to greater protest:

How regimes responded to protests mattered; indeed one commonality was that the brutal over-reaction of security forces against protesters spread rebellion to much wider sections of the population. Videos of beatings and shootings escalated demands for reform into demands for the “fall of the regime”.

Authoritarian resiliance in Egypt refers to the deep structures that survived the resignation of Mubarak and subsequent elections and constitutional reforms.
In Egypt and Tunisia insider-outsider coalitions (for example, the army and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt) came together to engineer a peaceful exit of the president, ushering in a possible transition from authoritarianism. However, it is very difficult for the sort of unorganized mass protests, lacking leadership or organization, that characterized the Arab uprisings to bargain
with the power institutions that survived the fall of the regime.

This is particularly true in Egypt where the deep structure is characterized by neo-patrimonialism, “a hybrid of personal and bureaucratic authority in which there
can be considerable variation in the relative balance” between two sources of authority:

  1. co-optation, the capacity of a power structure to bring its opponents in line through sharing of power or wealth; and
  2. repression, the use of courts, military trials, states of emergency and other efforts to suppress voices that will not be co-opted.

This is a great article for teaching because it offers a primer of all the classic political science approaches to the Arab Spring, from democratization theory to post-democracy theory to modernization theory to Marxian theory to social movements theory laid out in a single coherent model.

Even if one finds these models contrived and simplistic, the clarity with which they are laid out is very useful for entering into discussions with students (who may find them quite compelling). I’ll probably be using it next year in my International Studies capstone on the Middle East.


Filc, Dani. 2009. The Political Right in Israel: Different Faces of Jewish Populism. Routledge.

Hinnebusch, Raymond. 2015. Introduction: understanding the consequences of the Arab uprisings — starting points and divergent trajectories. Democratization 22(2): 205-217.

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