Egypt’s Messy Transition and the Meaning of “State Collapse”

Cairo, Egypt Protests

Protesters in Cairo, Egypt, in February 2011, around the time of the fall of the Hosni Mubarak government. Photo credit: RamyRaoof (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

Earlier this week, the head of Egypt’s military warned that his country was on the brink of “state collapse.” General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi’s pronouncement followed on sustained, angry protests in Cairo, and violence in Port Said and other areas. Most analysts read the general’s assessment as a thinly veiled threat of additional military intervention in domestic politics, and perhaps a coup. Unfortunately, many prominent news outlets have accepted this phrase – “state collapse” – at face value. Two years after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt is facing disorder and great uncertainty in its political affairs. We should not confuse this reality with the much more dire circumstances of state collapse.

According to Harvard scholar Robert Rotberg,

A collapsed state is a rare and extreme version of a failed state. Political goods are obtained through private or ad hoc means. Security is equated with the rule of the strong. (emphasis in original, p. 9, When States Fail: Causes and Consequences, 2004)

For the sake of argument, we could even define “collapsed state” and “failed state” as synonymous. Even in this context, it is simply not appropriate to describe Egypt as a failed state.

The people of Egypt and concerned outsiders should be very wary about accepting senior military leaders’ pronouncements at face value. Even though militaries can play the roles of public guardians, their record in democratization processes is spotty. Civilian control of the military is difficult to establish and sustain, but it is essential in the process of democratic development. Established democracies – such as the United States – must be vigilant in constraining the political ambitions of their soldiers, lest they replace the rule of law with the rule of the strong.

I close this post with a few more thoughts about why Egypt is not a failed state, and certainly not a society on the brink of state collapse. Here are some specific characteristics that are in Egypt’s favor:

  1. On the whole, the country benefits from a strong sense of national identity. Rooted in common language, ancestry, religious background, and historical experience, Egypt is not a culturally divided state, despite small ethnic and religious minority groups, such as the Coptic Christians.
  2. The large protests in Cairo and elsewhere are evidence of intense political engagement on the part of ordinary citizens. Instead of withdrawing from the state, citizens are seeking to reshape government and law.
  3. Despite serious strains and dysfunction, Egypt possesses a fairly large and internationally connected economy. Too many Egyptians face grinding poverty, but agriculture, industry, and tourism are all important sectors that provide livelihoods for many.

The tendency of public figures and journalists to loosely use rhetoric is dangerous. Though scholars can descend into needless arguments about semantics, words must be chosen carefully, lest they lead to undesirable actions, such as military coups.

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