Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1180, (16-22 January 2014)
Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Issue 1180, (16-22 January 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Deemo karassi

Democracy Prevention: The Politics of the US-Egyptian Alliance, Jason Brownlee (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), trans. Ahmed Zaki Othman, Cairo: Dar Al-Thakafa Al-Gedida, 2013, pp.260

Al-Ahram Weekly

 The title of this book immediately brought back the late Libyan “leader” Muammar Gaddafi claiming that the term “democracy” was made up of two Arabic words: deemo (“keep” or “preserve”) and karassi (literally “chairs” but also “positions of power”). People had eagerly monitored Gaddafi’s speeches for the comedy value of his peculiar views and uncanny explanations — something that grew rife after the Arab Spring hit Libya. Of course, there was always a grain of truth in Gaddafi’s statements: Arab-style democracy was really deemo karassi in practice, with heads of state staying in power for decades on end...
Jason Brownlee is a Texas University Middle East scholar who had published Authoritarianism in an Age of Democratisation in 2007, dealing comparatively with Egypt, Malaysia, Iran and the Philippines. He opens his post-Arab Spring volume with an account of the inevitability of a spontaneous uprising toppling Washington ally Hosni Mubarak ever since minor protests began springing up in 2006. He cites two major factors that account for the persistence of autocracy: interior repression and foreign support. Neither factor was diminished or eliminated since there were no divisions within the Mubarak regime, and so popular uprising brought it down. Yet, Brownlee goes on to say, the regime did not change entirely since the military continued to monopolise power. For a long time the US government prioritised Egypt’s rulers over its people, with US aid intended to protect US interests in the Middle East. With comprehensive research, Brownlee traces the history of the US aid to Egypt, its status during Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s presidency, how frequently it was stopped under Nasser compared to Anwar Al-Sadat and Hosni Mubarak’s terms and how most of it goes to the military.
Democracy Prevention attempts to illustrate the US goal of seeming to encourage political change in Egypt but actually aims to prevent various possible Arab-Israeli wars and secure Gulf oil. US policymakers regard religious extremism in the Arab world as a strategic challenge facing the US after the collapse of the Soviet Union. According to former US assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs Edward Djerejian, speaking in 1992, any Islamic movement would exploit democracy as a staircase to dominate power and close the door behind it for any other democratic experience. Yet since then, Brownlee argues, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt seemed to undergo a kind of awakening in which, as it appeared to form a challenge for Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party to contend with, the Muslim Brotherhood seemed to be evolving into a more genuinely democratic entity.
Successive US administrations sough to strengthen state security and police in Egypt following the Camp David peace accords, with US aid gradually becoming a major factor in the regime’s survival and Washington turning into an actual decision-maker on the Egyptian political scene. One of the main reasons behind US aid to Egypt was to protect the Egyptian regime from the kind of military coup that was occurring widely in Africa at that time, rescuing the Sadat regime after major protests in 1977. When president George W Bush took office, Mubarak was already 72 years old and had survived an assassination attempt; at the time the US administration made a slight change in its approach to the Egyptian regime, preparing for either the Muslim Brotherhood or Mubarak’s son Gamal.
During the Egyptian uprising, a term the writer insists on using as opposed to “revolution” — using the latter only as a formal term, capitalised — the US administration sided with a transition period headed by the Armed Forces, one of the strong wings of Mubarak’s regime, so that the US-Egyptian alliance could continued as before. According to Brownlee, had 25 January not happened, Egypt would have been on its way to a “soft coup” with popular approval to stop the project of bequeathing the presidency to Mubarak’s son. The book attempts to explain American support to maintain authoritarianism in Egypt, with the various US administrations trying to look like they were supporting democracy and telling their people they can handle any regime in Egypt — a disingenuous approach on the part of administrations that research all the possible scenarios early enough, leaving nothing to chance.
Reviewed by Soha Hesham

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