How Strong Is the U.S. Lever in Egypt?

To help understand the impact of international forces on post-Cold War transitions from authoritarian rule, political scientists Steve Levitsky and Lucan Way (pdf) draw a helpful distinction between linkage and leverage. In their terms, leverage is about authoritarian regimes’ vulnerability to external pressure, while linkage is about the density of a regime’s ties to the West. More specifically:

  • Leverage on transitional regimes depends on at least three factors: 1) a state’s raw strength, based on its size and military power; 2) the extent of competing issues on Western foreign-policy agendas; and 3) the availability to the target regime of alternative sources of political, economic, or military support.
  • Linkage comes in at least five flavors: economic, geopolitical (e.g., alliances and treaty regimes), social, communications, and transnational civil society (e.g., NGOs and religious groups).

Based on the transitional cases they studied, Steve and Lucan concluded that linkage and leverage both influenced the extent of democratization, but “mechanisms of leverage such as diplomatic pressure, political conditionality, and military intervention were by themselves rarely sufficient to democratize post–Cold War autocracies. Rather, the more subtle and diffuse effects of linkage contributed more consistently to democratization.”

I’ve been thinking about Steve and Lucan’s work over the past few days as I’ve followed the news from Egypt about raids on the offices of democracy and human-rights NGOs and the U.S. response to them. From BBC News this morning:

Egypt has reassured the US that it will stop raids on the offices of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the US state department says. Officials said property seized in the raids would be returned to the groups, which include two based in the US. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta has spoken to Egypt’s military ruler by phone to discuss the issue, they added.

The raids in question happened a couple of days ago. Per the New York Times:

Security forces shut down three American-financed democracy-building groups and as many as six other nonprofit organizations on Thursday, in a crackdown that signaled a new low in relations between Washington and Egypt’s military rulers. Two of the organizations, the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, had been formally authorized by the Egyptian government to monitor the parliamentary elections set to resume next week. Critics said the surprise raids contradicted the military’s pledge to hold a fair and transparent vote…The raids are the latest and most forceful effort yet by the country’s ruling generals to crack down on perceived sources of criticism amid rising calls from Egyptian politicians and protesters and some Western leaders for the military to hand over power to a civilian government.

In theory, the flap over these raids should be an easy test of U.S. leverage, and it now looks like a successful one. The test should be easy because the stakes for the Egyptian junta are relatively low. The groups in question just aren’t very powerful, and they’ve already accomplished a fair amount of what they set out to do in support of the ongoing parliamentary elections.*

The success of this intervention will probably embolden people, like Andrew Exum, who are calling on the U.S. to push more forcefully on this particular lever in hopes of ensuring that Egypt’s military junta makes way soon for a fairly elected civilian government. I agree that the U.S. should loudly voice its support for democracy in Egypt, but I doubt that more forceful nudges would greatly affect the direction of the current transition. Steve and Lucan’s research implies that even the long lever of Egypt’s dependency on U.S. aid–an average of $2 billion each year since 1979, most of it for the military, says Reuters–may not be a very effective tool of democratization. Egypt is a large and powerful state in a region where the U.S. has many competing issues on its agenda (oil and Israel, to name two). Under the circumstances, a threat to terminate U.S. aid just isn’t credible, and SCAF surely knows it. My guess is that the face-saving agreement to stop raiding NGO offices is about as far as this particular lever is going to get pushed.

Again, skepticism about the effects of this lever doesn’t mean the U.S. should leave it lying in the toolbox. It just means we shouldn’t be under any illusion that the U.S. can exert much control over the direction of Egypt’s transitional politics. The fulcrum of Egyptian politics sits within its borders, not on them, and it is that domestic balance of power that will ultimately determine which way this transition tips.

* A few days after I wrote this post, the National Democratic Institute (NDI), one of the U.S. government-funded organizations in question, issued this helpful fact sheet on its presence programs in Egypt over the past several years.

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  1. the intervention ratchet’s lexicon: disaggregating mass atrocities response policy « Securing Rights

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