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IA Forum Interview: Bruce K. Rutherford
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International Affairs Forum: Your book, Egypt After Mubarak: Liberalism, Islam and Democracy in the Arab World, makes a complex and interesting argument about the prospects for liberalism in Egypt. Would you explain its primary thesis to our readers? Dr. Bruce K. Rutherford: In the book, I argue that there are four key actors that shape the development of Egyptian politics: 1) the judiciary; 2) the Muslim Brotherhood; 3) parts of the business community; and 4) reformers within the ruling party. Each of these actors has significant reservations about democracy – defined as greater public participation in politics via competitive elections. In contrast, each of the four actors has articulated, and sometimes carried out, meaningful support for liberal reform – which entails constraints on state power, greater governmental accountability, greater transparency in government decision-making and greater protection of basic civil and political rights. As a consequence, the prospects for developing a more liberal political and legal system in the coming years are reasonably good. However, the prospects for democracy are considerably less bright. IA-Forum: Would you elaborate on the ‘hybrid’ regime concept further? Dr. Rutherford: The idea is to look at political regimes along a spectrum, with highly centralized autocracies at one end of the spectrum and fully consolidated liberal democracies at the other end. Egypt is somewhere in the middle of this spectrum and includes elements of both liberalism and autocracy. Going forward, the question is whether it will move toward the liberal side of the spectrum or slide further toward the authoritarian end. IA-Forum: What issues dominate in terms of importance for the average Egyptian today? For example, a lot of talk centers on the changing economy – with a state-led economy no longer sustainable – and the consequences this has for the people, especially the young. Is the economy and lack of employment the main concern of the Egyptian people or are there other factors? Dr. Rutherford: For a large majority of Egyptians, the primary concerns are economic -- rising prices and the corresponding decline in the purchasing power of their incomes, uncertainty over their employment, declining quality of education, less access to healthcare, and so on. In my conversations with Egyptian officials, they seem to recognize these concerns and argue that it is best to focus on economic policies that address these material hardships rather than deal with political reform. The counter argument that needs to be discussed is that political and legal reforms are very important for ensuring the success of economic reform. In order to facilitate economic growth, the country needs a legal framework that guarantees basic rights and an independent judiciary that is able to arbitrate disputes fairly. It also needs a freely-elected parliament with full power to draft legislation and monitor the executive. It is important to realize that the material problems faced by the average Egyptian can’t be solved solely by economic reforms. They must be accompanied by political and legal reforms that produce more accountable, transparent, and responsive government. IA-Forum: So, Egyptian officials prefer the state-led model of capitalism, characterized by China? Dr. Rutherford: Yes, Egyptian officials basically look to two models of development: one is South Korea (in the 1970s and 1980s) and the other is China (in the past 30 years). These are seen as models that achieved dramatic economic growth with little or no change in the basic political structures of the countries. However, there are some important shortcomings to these approaches. Probably the most fundamental is the high levels of corruption that often plague closed political systems – this has been a particularly serious problem in China. Another shortcoming is that economic growth under autocratic rule often leads to high levels of inequality, which is evident in the growing income disparities between the coastal and inland regions of China. In order to address this problem effectively, a country needs to develop strong civil society groups and political parties that lobby on behalf of the disenfranchised. Without these institutions, high levels of inequality have the potential to destabilize a political system. Another shortcoming of the authoritarian development model is that it can lead to large policy mistakes, due to the lack of transparency and accountability in the decision making process. One of the clearest examples of this problem in Egypt is the plan to create several new communities in the middle of the Western desert by redirecting some of the Nile’s water (this plan is known as the “New Valley” project – al-wadi al-jadid). This is an extraordinarily ill-conceived enterprise that has consumed billions of pounds of investment capital that could have been used more productively elsewhere. A more transparent and accountable political system would have reduced the likelihood of a major error such as this. It is also important to remember that China has recently undertaken some liberal reforms, including legal changes to secure property rights and improve judicial procedures. The Chinese are moving in a liberal direction, as opposed to say Russia which has regressed to a more authoritarian state, and one can see the economic consequences of these changes. If Egypt moves in a more liberal direction, it stands a good chance of achieving greater growth and economic development. IA-Forum: You make a distinction between ‘liberal’ and ‘democratic’ regimes. Is this part of the tradition, most recently exemplified by Fareed Zakaria in, The Future of Freedom? Dr. Rutherford: Yes, I agree with Mr. Zakaria and I have cited his book in my work. This distinction is quite valuable for understanding the Egyptian case. IA-Forum: Many commentators say that the Obama administration has returned to realism, when it comes to the Middle East – meaning that the ‘democratization’ agenda pursued by the Bush administration (being more ‘idealistic’) has taken a backseat now. How do you assess the policies of the Obama administration as well as its rhetoric (most notably reflected in President Obama’s speech to the University of Cairo ) with respect to the supporters of liberal reform – has the President and his administration hurt or helped them? Dr. Rutherford: The Obama administration has backed away from supporting political and legal reform. For example, American government funding for democratization programs in Egypt has been reduced by more than half from $50 million to $20 million. Funding to independent civil society groups has been cut by more than 70 percent and now all funds for civil society must be channeled to groups approved by the Egyptian government. Senior US officials have stated that neither economic nor military assistance will be conditioned on political and legal reform. These steps send a very discouraging signal to supporters of change. In essence, the Obama administration has concluded that the U.S. needs the Egyptian regime’s whole-hearted support in order to advance American foreign policy objectives in the region. It had become clear that U.S. calls for political and legal reform were an irritant in the relationship, so they were largely discarded. IA-Forum: On a related note, how can the U.S. help supporters of political and legal reform in Egypt? Dr. Rutherford: That’s an interesting question. The obvious example to think about is the Bush administration, which took a very high profile position supporting political and legal reform in Egypt. The Bush administration insisted that the Egyptian government take some concrete actions, such as releasing Saad Eddin Ibrahim and Ayman Nour. However, this sort of high-profile public pressure sparked a very negative response from the Egyptian government. Even if Egyptian officials were sympathetic to the requests that the U.S. made, they were reluctant to comply for fear of being seen as succumbing to pressure from a foreign power. The U.S. strategy should try to achieve meaningful reform without dictating it. The approach should be sensitive to Egyptian nationalism and pride, as well as to local realities. The key point is to persuade the regime that political and legal reform serves its goals by aiding economic reform and ensuring long-term stability. Furthermore, we can facilitate reform by using aid and trade as incentives, rather than simply threatening to reduce aid or trade if Egypt doesn’t take a particular step. Such policies – which command substantial local support – would help Egypt move in a liberal direction and would be in Egypt’s interest as well as America’s. IA-Forum: One reviewer of your book said that – despite your arguments – Egypt’s next leader may continue the 7,000 year tradition of an authoritarian regime (and that there are few prospects of a ‘liberal’ one), how would you respond to that charge? Dr. Rutherford: It’s certainly true that Egyptian autocracy has shown tremendous resilience over many centuries. However, the country faces a new set of challenges in coming decades that make political and legal reform particularly urgent and increasingly likely. The most fundamental of these challenges is demographic. Egypt had a 3 percent rate of population growth in the 1970s and 1980s, which produced a large pool of young people who have now entered the labor market and the political arena. Many of these people do not have meaningful employment; the official unemployment rate is 10 percent, but the real rate is probably closer to 20 percent. Furthermore, unemployment is especially severe in particular segments of society. For example, a 2008 report by the UNDP found that unemployment among those with secondary school diplomas exceeded 60 percent. College graduates face around 25 percent unemployment. In order to reduce the high unemployment rates in the educated class, the country will need to implement substantial economic reforms. However, for these economic reforms to be successful, the country also needs liberal legal and political reforms. In addition, these political and legal reforms are essential for creating a peaceful avenue for venting the public’s growing anger and frustration with the status quo. Without political and legal reform, the disenfranchised will have no option but to turn to violence, which would seriously undermine political stability. IA-Forum: Turkey and Iran are two large and influential Middle Eastern states, in addition to Egypt. They have a long history of influence in the region and the world with the Ottoman and Persian empires. Egypt too has had a long history of such influence, and is arguably the preeminent Arab state in the region. Why do you think the three countries have had such a different trajectory of political development despite having started out with strong, nationalistic leaders in the post-colonial period? From a comparative standpoint, how does your theory explain these differing developments? Dr. Rutherford: There are several ways to compare these countries. One of the most important is the structure and degree of autonomy of religious institutions. In Turkey, when Ataturk came into power he essentially smashed what little autonomy religious institutions had and made them state institutions. In effect, the Turkish state attempted to manage religion through the Directorate of Religious Affairs. One can make a similar observation in Egypt. Al-Azhar University was nationalized in the 1960s and the president of the republic still appoints the president of Al-Azhar. Religious institutions are tightly controlled by the state. This is very different from the situation in Iran prior to 1979. Prior to the revolution, the country had relatively autonomous religious institutions centered in Qom and other parts of the country. These institutions had a long history of independence from the monarchy. As a consequence, they became a credible and effective center for opposition to the Shah in the 1970s. . Another important issue is the difference between Shiite and Sunni Islam. Some have argued that Shiite Islam lends itself more readily to revolutionary action because of the central role that the martyrdom of Hussein plays in Shiite doctrine. Khomeini and his followers invoked this aspect of Shiite doctrine to justify and sanctify resistance to the Shah. On the question of how my theoretical approach applies to these cases, one of the most interesting points to consider is the structure of the private sector. In the Turkish case, following the economic reforms of the 1980s, we saw the emergence of a surprisingly dynamic and autonomous private sector. Many new small and medium enterprises emerged in central Anatolia, as well as a few large ones, which did not rely on the state for capital. They acquired capital from private creditors or from Turks working in Europe and elsewhere. Moreover, they did not depend on the state to buy their products -- they either exported their products or sold them directly to private consumers. This dynamic private sector produced a large and relatively autonomous middle class in Turkey which has had a major impact on the country’s politics, especially with regard to the rise of the AKP and the development of democracy. The structure of Egypt’s private sector is quite different. In Egypt, there are a few large private firms, a few medium-sized firms, and a huge number of small firms. One striking statistic is that more than 98 percent of Egyptian businesses have a capitalization of less than $18,000 and more than 75 percent have a capitalization of $1800 or less. The private sector in Egypt consists mainly of micro-enterprises with fewer than 10 employees. This sort of private sector structure does not lend itself to producing a large and autonomous middle class that demands more accountable, transparent, and representative government. Thus, the different political paths followed by Turkey and Egypt can be partly explained by the development of their private sectors. The interesting question going forward is whether the Egyptian private sector will eventually develop along lines similar to those in Turkey. IA-Forum: This argument of private sector development and middle class creation, and its impact on the polity is expressed by Vali Nasr in his most recent book too. Dr. Rutherford: Yes, I find Vali Nasr’s analysis insightful, and its application to Egypt is very interesting. The other author to think about with regard to Turkey is Hakan Yavuz, who has done very good work on the emergence of the AKP. He makes the argument that I just described. IA-Forum: While your book does not discuss the topic of Mr. Mubarak’s succession literally, who do you think is most likely to succeed him? There’s a lot of speculation about his son Gamal being groomed for the presidency; do you see him as the immediate successor to Mr. Mubarak? Dr. Rutherford: Gamal is widely seen as the front-runner to succeed Hosni Mubarak. A few other candidates are occasionally mentioned, including Mohammed El-Baradai (former IAEA Director); Amr Musa (Arab League Secretary General and former Egyptian foreign minister) and Omar Suleiman (the intelligence service chief). However, one needs to keep in mind that Hosni Mubarak may run for another 6 year term in 2011. This is entirely possible, since he considers himself to be the right man for Egypt; should he run, he will win, of course. IA-Forum: Thank you Prof. Rutherford. Bruce K. Rutherford is associate professor of political science at Colgate University and director of the university’s program in Middle Eastern Studies and Islamic Civilization. He earned the Ph.D. from Yale University and has held post-doctoral fellowships at Princeton University and Harvard Law School. His publications include Egypt after Mubarak: Liberalism, Islam, and Democracy in the Arab World (Princeton, 2008) and “What do Egypt’s Islamists Want? Moderate Islam and the Rise of Islamic Constitutionalism.” (Middle East Journal, 60:4, Autumn 2006, 707-731). Further Information: Egypt After Mubarak: Liberalism, Islam and Democracy in the Arab World is published by Princeton University Press and available at: http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/s8778.html. This link also provides access to the first chapter. More information on this book is available at: http://www.fareedzakaria.com/books/fof_main.html and an essay based on the thesis of the Future of FreedomI is available here: http://www.fareedzakaria.com/articles/newsweek/042103.html The argument runs that ‘rule of law’ – a liberal regime – is not the same as a democratic one – characterized by competitive elections. Full text of President Obama’s June 4, 2009, speech is available at: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Remarks-by-the-President-at-Cairo-University-6-04-09/ Steven Cook’s review, “Adrift on the Nile: Limits of the Opposition in Egypt” in Foreign Affairs (March/April 2009), also available at: http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/64834/steven-a-cook/adrift-on-the-nile Egypt Human Development Report, 2008 (UNDP, 2008). The specific unemployment statistics are taken from page 296, table no. 15. An electronic version of the report is available at: http://www.undp.org.eg/Portals/0/2008%20Egypt%20Human%20Development%20Report%20Complete.pdf Vali Nasr, Forces of Fortune: The Rise of a New Muslim Middle Class and What It Means for Our World (Free Press, 2009). Hakan Yavuz (ed), The Emergence of a New Turkey: Democracy and the AK Parti. (University of Utah, 2006). M. Hakan Yavuz, Islamic Political Identity in Turkey. (Oxford University Press, 2003).

Comments in Chronological order (2 total comments)

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Sun, December 06, 2009 07:16 PM (about 84215 hours ago)
I read all the various comments and/or contributions put forward by Dr. Rutherford and I noticed that he was very objective in his handling of the issues. I want to say I was very impressed. I have a keen interest in international relations, and this is the reason why I am reading information on this site. Thanks to Dr. Rutherford for wetting my appetite intellectually that I must return for another does.

Mr. Denny A. Pierre, BS - Assistant Lecturer at the T.A. Marryshow Community College, Grenada. I lecture in Caribbean Studies, Critical Thinking and Social Skills.
Thu, December 17, 2009 11:57 PM (about 83946 hours ago)
The argument that Egypt has never been liberal for millenia, so why should a liberal coalition emerge now, seems quite convincing. Prof. Rutherford's response does not address it quite well. The past is not destined to be the future, but neither is the future destined to be that much different from the past.
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