Cover page

Series page

Hot Spots in Global Politics Series

  1. Samer Abboud, Syria
  2. Christoph Bluth, Korea
  3. Alan Dowty, Israel/Palestine, 4th edition
  4. Kidane Mengisteab, The Horn of Africa
  5. Amalendu Misra, Afghanistan
  6. Gareth Stansfield, Iraq, 2nd edition
  7. Jonathan Tonge, Northern Ireland
  8. Thomas Turner, Congo
Title page

Copyright page




Egypt, China, and Iran are the three great empires of antiquity that exist today as nation states, the sovereignty of which extends over much the same territory ruled by those ancient empires. This remarkable durability attests to the special if not unique natures of both rulers and ruled in these countries. Those ruling have been able to assert their authority and claim on loyalties for millennia, while the ruled have shared sufficient in common to remain united as political communities over this longue durée.

Egypt is especially remarkable in these regards, reflecting the unique unifying force of the Nile River. Relative ease of communication and transportation, combined with remarkably fertile arable land, enabled successive governments to organize and control populations and to extract the resources necessary to sustain centralized government. Further benefits to the state and its peoples derived from Egypt's strategic location at the junction of two continents and the gateway to a third. Since Roman times trade between Asia and Europe has passed through Egypt. The most important legacies of Egyptians having been governed as a united people over millennia have been a sense of common national identity combined with loyalty to political community and the institutions governing it.

Given this extraordinary record of national endurance and unity it would seem rash to even speculate that Egypt's contemporary nation state is at risk of fracturing. Yet, the pressures to which it is currently subjected and which are bound to intensify are already straining the ties that hold the political community together, while rendering ever more difficult the task of governing it. As Egyptians become steadily more divided by class, religion, region, ethnicity, gender, and contrasting views of how, by whom, and for what purposes they should be governed, so do their rulers become ever more fearful, repressive, and unrepresentative. Caught in a downward spiral in which poor governance is both cause and consequence of mounting political, economic, environmental, regional, and other pressures, Egypt is facing a future so uncertain that it could come to resemble neighboring countries that have essentially collapsed under similar loads, albeit having had weaker states to bear them.

Egypt, in sum, is not just a temporary hotspot, it is an exemplar of a broader trend in the Middle East and North Africa (hereafter, MENA) of the collapse of political orders and of the economies, environmental resources, and societies upon which those orders have been based. No small political changes, such as replacement of Egypt's President Abd al Fattah al Sisi by another general, or even by a civilian so long as he remains subordinate to the existing power structures, will arrest the decline. So Egypt exemplifies a broader problem and in that sense is a hotspot, but not one that is going to cool any time soon.

This book will seek to explain how a country with such a long and impressive history—successfully transitioning from empire to a modern state that came to dominate its region and become a leader of the then Third World—has arrived at this parlous condition. The structure of the argument and the book is that the key explanatory variable is the manner in which state power has been acquired and exercised, while the dependent variables are measures of the country's performance, whether economic, societal, environmental, demographic, infrastructural, or its role in the region and the world. As the economy and society weaken, the environment and infrastructure deteriorate, population growth accelerates, and Egypt's roles in the region and the world become more marginal, the task of governing becomes ever more challenging. The performance decline also indicates that the country faces not just a temporary political crisis, but an existential one, aggravated yet more by the forces of economic globalization to which the country is ill-prepared to adjust.

Egypt is thus caught up in a vicious circle. Its unaccountable, unrepresentative, authoritarian government undermines the structural and resource foundations upon which a more accountable, representative, and capable government could be built. Such a government is essential if Egypt is to confront the rising tide of domestic threats and take advantage of the opportunities provided by the forces of economic globalization, rather than just be buffeted by them. Reversing this downward spiral is an ever more difficult challenge, not only because of continued erosion of the structural and resource foundations upon which government rests, but because alternatives to the political status quo become steadily fewer, less appealing and less likely to have the competence and support to reverse the downward spiral. The Egyptian “hot spot” thus seems destined to become steadily hotter, with ominous implications for its peoples, its neighbors in the MENA, and for Europe and beyond.

The book's chapters can be thought of as composing four steps. The first, comprised of Chapter 1, will provide an historical account of the rise and decline of the capacities of state and nation, thereby setting the stage for the investigation of the causes and consequences of that decline. The second step in the following three chapters will be to investigate the nature of the military government in order to explain why it has failed to adequately develop the polity and economy and the human and physical contexts in which they operate. Chapter 2 focuses on the “deep state” itself. Chapter 3 then investigates how it controls the state “superstructure,” while Chapter 4 focuses on its manipulation of political and civil societies. The third step will be to review in Chapter 5 the intensifying crises of the economy, of human and physical resources, and of foreign relations. The conclusion in Chapter 6 will present and assess three scenarios for the country's future as its rulers and people grapple with the challenges outlined in the preceding chapters.


Having lived and worked in and studied Egypt intermittently for more than half a century, my debts of gratitude to scores of friends, colleagues, and fellow students of the country are huge. Regrettably many of them cannot be acknowledged here without fear of retribution as they continue to live or visit there. I would like to single out those who read and commented on the manuscript or who indirectly contributed to it through discussing with me either theoretical or empirical material contained in it. In alphabetical order they are Zeinab Abul-Magd, Amr Adly, Soha Bayoumi, Gerhard Behrens, Kirk Beattie, Guilain Denoeux, Philippe Droz-Vincent, Khaled Fahmy, Anthony Gorman, Hazem Kandil, Giacomo Luciani, Tamir Moustafa, Roger Owen, Donald Reid, Glenn Robinson, Ron Wolfe, and Polity's anonymous reviewers.

Most of the book was written while I was the Kuwait Foundation Visiting Scholar at the Middle East Initiative of the Belfer Center at the Kennedy School of Harvard University. Harvard faculty Middle East specialists Nicholas Burns, Melani Cammett, Ishac Diwan, Tarek Masoud, and Gary Samore went out of their way to welcome me into their ranks and share their information and thoughts about contemporary Egypt, as did Bill Granara, Director of Harvard's Center for Middle Eastern Studies. The staff of the Middle East Initiative, led by Director Hilary Rantisi and including Chris Mawhorter and Julia Martin, spoiled me far beyond the call of duty.

Nathalie Tocci, Deputy Director of the Istituto Affari Internazionale in Rome, allowed me the opportunity on several occasions to present at the Istituto thoughts about Egypt and benefit from the feedback she and her colleagues provided.

The idea for the book was that of Louise Knight, my editor at Polity Press. She and her assistant, Nekane Tanaka Galdos, encouraged and guided me expertly through the writing and production processes. Tim Clark's editing greatly improved my frequently awkward prose.

I appreciate permission being granted by the editor of The International Spectator, Gabriele Tonne, to reproduce herein some of the material that first appeared in my article “Caudillismo along the Nile,” Vol. 51, Issue 1 (2016).

Finally, I have benefitted from the friendship, advice, and assistance of scores of Egyptians who over the years have welcomed me into their lives and country while candidly providing me with their thoughts and views on many of the subjects taken up in this book. It is to them and their fellow Egyptians that this book is primarily addressed, in the hope that it may be of some use to them in their struggle to overcome the baleful legacy of authoritarian government from which they have suffered most, if not all of their lives.



EFITU Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions
ETUF Egyptian Trade Union Federation
FDI Foreign Direct Investment
GCC Gulf Cooperation Council
GDP Gross Domestic Product
IMF International Monetary Fund
LAO Limited Access Order
MENA Middle East and North Africa
NDP National Democratic Party
NGO Non-governmental Organization
OAO Open Access Order
ODA Overseas Development Assistance
POMED Project on Middle East Democracy
PRM Popular Resistance Movement
R&D Research and Development
SCAF Supreme Council of the Armed Forces
SCC Supreme Constitutional Court
SJC Supreme Judicial Council
SSI State Security Investigations
UNICEF United Nations Children's Fund
USAID United States Agency for International Development