Jason Brownlee, Democracy Prevention: The Politics of the US-Egyptian Alliance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

In mid-June, as Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) grabbed both executive and legislative authority for itself, the State Department press corps gave briefer Victoria Nuland a slightly harder time than usual. The spokeswoman acknowledged that it was “Nile-like opaque” how the dissolution of Parliament could further a transition from Husni Mubarak’s one-man rule toward democracy. She voiced disapproval of the SCAF’s brief declaration of martial law and its later constitutional decree that divests the Egyptian presidency of most significant powers. But when asked if these moves would imperil the $1.3 billion in annual US aid to Egypt, most of which goes to the military, Nuland remained circumspect: “We are continuing to look for the various parties in Egypt, including the SCAF, to continue to meet the commitments that they’ve made to the Egyptian people…in terms of the democratic principles that are going to undergird the rest of the process.” By the June 30 inauguration of President Muhammad Mursi, of the Muslim Brothers, the pointed questions had ceased.

This episode occurred too late for inclusion in political scientist Jason Brownlee’s Democracy Prevention, but it could very well supply the preface, for it aptly illustrates his understated, but stinging critique of Washington’s policy toward its strategic partner on the Nile. The US goal of encouraging a political opening in Egypt, oft-stated as it may be, is not one of Washington’s core interests in the region, which Brownlee identifies as preventing a multi-front Arab-Israeli war and securing the outward flow of Persian Gulf oil. The US largesse bestowed upon post-Camp David Egyptian regimes, moreover, has so strengthened their coercive apparatus and so belied the State Department’s occasional scolding that Egypt is an example of “transnational authoritarianism.” “It was not that interests trumped norms,” Brownlee writes. He does not accuse US policymakers of hypocrisy or weakness of conviction. Rather, he demonstrates that, Democrat and Republican, liberal internationalist and neo-conservative, they have consciously chosen autocracy over the uncertain alternative.

The thesis is not surprising, perhaps, after the patent joke of the Bush administration’s “freedom agenda” or the Obama administration’s futile attempt to broker an “orderly transition” from Mubarak to a military intelligence chief with a penchant for torture. Readers looking for revelations of the skullduggery and personal corruption rumored to underpin the Pentagon’s dealings with Egypt will be disappointed. But Democracy Prevention’s value lies precisely in its aversion to the sensational: In keeping with his previous work, for instance his essay on the normality of father-son transfers of power, Brownlee shows that US backing for authoritarian rule in Egypt is institutionalized and ingrained.

It is partly that Washington has parroted the Egyptian regimes’ various excuses for holding its iron grip, as when State Department official Edward Djerejian implied that Islamists would allow “one man, one vote, one time” or when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that not every democratizer “moves at the same speed.” But it is mainly that when Washington has used its points of leverage over Egypt — debt forgiveness, the aid package and military collaboration — it has done so to compel adherence to US prerogatives that have nothing to do with Egyptian political reform and frequently offend the Egyptian people. In the book’s most cutting chapter, Brownlee details the 2006-2007 efforts in Congress to make US military aid conditional on Egyptian obedience in tightening the international siege on Gaza. There was talk then, too, of Egyptian government restrictions on NGOs and judicial independence, but it was not lost on Egyptians that the real impetus for Congressional action was to ensure Egypt’s cooperation in squeezing the Palestinians for having elected a party that the US and Israel dislike.

Lucid, deftly executed and easily digested, Democracy Prevention is the sort of book that all scholars should write but few do. The theoretical sections, where Brownlee expands upon his concept of “transnational authoritarianism,” will actually make sense to readers without doctorates in political science. The hardboiled conclusion, for instance, points out how much of the scholarly literature conjures a “conveyor belt” that bears dictatorships inexorably forward to democracy, when historically even popular uprisings have sometimes wound up reinvigorating authoritarianism instead. Indeed, the experience of Egypt since January 2011 shows that repressive regimes with strong external patrons can withstand very focused and widespread social turmoil, even a movement that overthrows a head of state.

Not all of Brownlee’s findings are so convincing. In comparing Egypt to Tunisia, he cites the far looser Pentagon ties to the Tunisian army as a major reason for Tunisia’s more successful journey toward participatory politics in 2011. If Egyptian institutions could develop with comparable freedom, then they might also open up. Such an outcome would require a “strategic overhaul” in Washington, Brownlee says, “one that renounces the Carter Doctrine,” by which the US declared Persian Gulf oil a vital national security interest that it would defend with military force, “and other interventionist strains of US military and intelligence policy.” If US policymakers would instead listen to what ordinary Egyptians want, they might “harmonize” their approach with “mainstream views in the Arab world” and need an autocratic Egypt less. Enticing as this scenario may be, one scans the American landscape in vain for a political figure who would advance such a far-reaching agenda or a social force that could demand it. Nor, thus far, have uprisings in Egypt or elsewhere midwifed successor states that challenge the basis of US-Arab relations in the post-Camp David era.

The Egyptian side of the alliance is not as richly sourced as the American, owing partly to the impossibility of access to relevant archives in Egypt. The advantages of subservience to Washington are clear enough, but in Brownlee’s account, they are distributed mostly to the presidential palace and the barracks, leaving one to wonder about the role of big business in particular. These minor problems notwithstanding, Democracy Prevention offers important, if largely dispiriting, insights into the subject and a Rosetta stone for decoding State Department commentary on the shadowboxing between the SCAF and President Mursi.

How to cite this article:

Chris Toensing "Brownlee, Democracy Prevention," Middle East Report 264 ( ).
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