A discussion with Robert Springborg on his new book ‘Egypt’


The political situation in Egypt is currently among the most discussed topics at the international level. On 22 January the Middle East Directions Programme invited Robert Springborg to present his latest book Egypt, which  provided an opportunity to discuss and analyse the dynamics of politics and economics in Egypt.  Here are the main questions addressed to Springborg, the answers to which  illustrate the challenges that Egypt is currently facing.


Q1- What is the main argument of your new book “Egypt”?

The main idea  is to understand why Egypt has underperformed economically.  I tried to encapsulate  the answer  on the events of the  January–February 2011 by looking at both agency and structure. In terms of agency, the protesters in Tahrir square were politically naïve and not well organised; while on the other side, the Supreme Council of Military Forces (SCAF) was of course well organised and knew exactly where its interests laid. In structural terms, we can refer to democratic demographic deficits:Egypt’s population was too young , too rural, too poor, having too small a middle class, too economically insecure as reflected by the growth of the informal economy, subordinated to too much governmental control of material well being  and insufficiently well educated and trained. This was intended as  a sort of introduction to the argument about why this political economy has underperformed so profoundly.

I use three main theories to explore this issue. First,  Douglass  North’s Limited Access Order (LAO) suggests that  since 1952 Egypt has had such an Order that has protected elite interests  at the expense of the excluded population, .  Second, Michael Mann’s infrastructure power, meaning the capacity of the government to know about its citizens, and to monitor their lives and tax them, is a concept that accurately describes the situation in Egypt.. The third idea comes from Amr Adly’s work on the socio-fiscal trap, which suggests that the government is ever less capable of extracting resources from the population, while on the expenditure side of the budget r  it is committed to high   levels of entitlements  in order to sustain the social contract with its population.

The argument thus   took me to the related question of  how  the political elite  gate keeps this Limited Access order, which is  through the deep state. The Egyptian deep state goes back to the consolidation of power under  Nasser and  is composed of three main pillars: the president, the military and the security services. The book also looks at how this deep state penetrated the executive, legislative, and judiciary branches, so undermining their capacity to administer, legislate and adjudicate. I also review  civil society and how it was rendered too weak to take advantage of the 25 January opening. Finally, I look at how  economic underperformance  affects people’s lives, ranging across both human and physical infrastructure. The book ends by looking at future scenarios for this political order.

Q2- In answering your question about the underperformance of Egypt, you have not discussed the role of external actors in your book.  Do you think it plays a role?

You are right. I did not deal extensively with external factors, regional or global, because I think there is a lot written on them already. In addition, I also believe that Egypt controls its own destiny. When you look at Egyptian state institutions, you can see that the degree of freedom they enjoy versus foreign powers is more important than the degree of constraints. Unlike other Middle Eastern countries, the Egyptian state is centralised with a long history and is not  fragmented whether by  ethnic, tribal or even regional lines,  so the entry points for external powers  are  limited.  By the standard of the Arab world, Egyptian state institutions, and particularly the deep state, is among the least penetrated.

Q3- In your discussion of the deep state and its interests, you have not mentioned the ideological factor. Do you think ideas play a role in shaping the behavior of deep-state institutions?

I think that ideologies are less important than they used to be. And it is not only in Egypt, but it is a global phenomenon. Whether capitalism, socialism or Islamism, no “Ism” is looking good. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, Nasserism was a coherent idea: anti-western, profoundly nationalist, it implied some sort of social control of means of production. Now in today’s Egypt, it is hard to come up with similar coherent ideology. The same applies to the west– it is hard to think of an ideology that would motivate a successful political movement. The Five Stars movement in Italy or the victory of Trump in the US are clear examples.  With the absence of the motivational force of ideas, it makes it even easier for material-based interests to dominate the behavior of these deep-state institutions.