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What Did Hosni Mubarak Mean By “Democracy”

November 30, 2016

neoliberalismThat democracy means different things to different people is a truism so obvious as to be banal. But the intercultural problem that raises remains perpetually interesting: what do people in different times and places mean when they say “democracy”?

An article in the most recent edition of the International Journal of Comparative Sociology looks at this question from the viewpoint of  speakers who use the term a lot: autocratic leaders in North Africa, including Hosni Mubarak. The author, Brandon Gordon, of the University of Albany in the US, analyzes 1935 speeches given between 2000 and 2010 by heads of state from five North African countries: King Mohammed VI of Morocco, President ʿAbdulʿaziz Butefliqa of Algeria, President Zin al-ʿAbedin Ben ʿAli of Tunisia, Colonel Muʿammar al-Qadhafi of Libya, and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.

Gordon’s data set includes 425 public speeches by Hosni Mubarak. Of these 171 (or 40%) mention “democracy.” There are 304 uses of the term in these 171 speeches.

Gordon draws on Erving Goffman’s concepts of frames, or “schemata of interpretation” that enable people to “locate, perceive, identify, and label” objects and experiences (1974: 21). Gordon likes the idea of framing because it focuses on the agency of the speaking actors, “the intentional ways that actors attempt to construct their self-presentations to gain the support of prospective constituents and actual or prospective resource providers.”

Autocrats, in other words, “need not be committed to a given cultural object in order to appropriate it.”

But Gordon wants to move beyond the obvious idea that autocrats use the language of democracy because it is culturally resonant with international institutions, powerful global actors, and local populations. He argues that these autocrats also sometimes attempt to challenge the  global cultural discourses they are appropriating by articulating frames that explicitly contradict them.

That is, they “discursively identify themselves with democracy while simultaneously avoiding substantive democratization.”

So what vision of democracy is revealed in Mubarak’s speeches?

  1. First, he overwhelmingly (92%) speaks of democracy as a good thing.
  2. Second, he insists that Egypt is a democratic nation.
  3. Third, he stands out from other North African autocrats in defining neoliberalism and privatization of the economy as key components in democracy. Unlike neighboring autocrats, he has almost nothing critical to say about neoliberalism.

(Not surprisingly, there is an upswing in positive discourse about neoliberalism after 2003, the year that Gamal Mubarak’s “new guard” of businessmen-politicians won their internal struggle within the National Democratic Party against the Nasserist/military “old guard”)

Mubarak’s appropriation of “democracy” to talk about neoliberal economic development allows him to accomplish a number of discursive tasks:

  1. First, he can “prove” that Egypt is a democratic country as evidenced by increases in economic growth and foreign investment.
  2. Second, he can appeal to important global constituencies like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
  3. Third, he can appeal to political patrons like United States, with its interests in “democratization.”

Gordon uses several theoretical concepts to make his argument:

  • Appropriation: Appropriation refers to the adoption and adaptation of foreign concepts, practices, or symbols with the goal of asserting authentic ownership over them. There are several ways of understanding apprpriation, including:
    • Exploitation: understanding appropriation as a process by which elements from a subordinated culture are commodified and incorporated into another culture by hegemonic or imperial groups.
    • Domination: an approach to appropriation in which exploitation is recognized as such by people, and may therefore be a potential site of resistance on behalf of oppressed groups
    • Exchange: Appropriation understood as a mutually beneficial, reciprocal exchange of symbolic and material resources between heterogeneous parties of approximately equivalent power 
    • Transculturation: An understanding of hybridity not as appropriation but as a basic cultural process, a feature of all cultures, because culture itself is a product of contact between peoples.
  • Resignification: investing cultural forms with new, adapted content that is often far removed from their ‘original’ content

This is a very interesting project, and it would be exciting to see it move forward into an analysis of contested meanings of democracy during the uprisings, into the appropriations of democracy by President Morsi, uses of democracy by Morsi’s opponents and, currently, uses of democracy by President as-Sisi. What continuities would we find? What transformations?

Here’s the abstract:

Political actors across the globe often use the language of democracy, but they do not all use the same language. Drawing on content analysis of 1935 speeches given between 2000 and 2010, this study examines how five North African autocrats appropriated the global discursive form of democracy by altering its content. These leaders proposed that the special circumstances of each country preclude any one-size-fits- all global definition of democracy, whose imposition in their countries, they claim, would be inappropriate, ineffective, or dangerous. Through their speeches, these rulers redefined democracy by engaging in active ideological work, weaving together discourses that combined global norms, state interests, and local values. This suggests that, in addition to being a benchmark by which to measure modes of governance, ‘democracy’ is also a language game played between actors on a global stage. By synthesizing theoretical frameworks drawn from world polity and social movement studies traditions, this study shows that peripheral actors may adapt global discourses purposefully and strategically rather than encountering them as passive participants in a purely mimetic cultural diffusion process. This has implications for a wide range of global norms that are open to appropriation by local actors drawing on domestic and external political developments and experiences


Goffman, Erving. 1974. Frame Analysis. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Gorman, Brandon. 2016. Appropriating Democratic Discourse in North Africa. International Journal of Comparative Sociology 57(5): 288–309.

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