Egypt's Counterrevolution and the Return to Tyranny

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Jon Alterman: Since Egypt's 2011 revolution, Egyptian politics have been reshaped time and time again. This week we are joined by Killian Clarke, the author of a forthcoming book tentatively entitled TheReturn of Tyranny: How counterrevolutions emerge and succeed. He is an assistant professor at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. He received his Ph.D. from Princeton in 2020. And way back in the summer of 2008, he was an intern in the Middle East Program at CSIS. He's the first former intern to appear on Babel.

Jon Alterman: Killian, welcome to Babel.

Killian Clarke: Thanks for having me, Jon. It's really great to be back here.

Jon Alterman: You wrote a really interesting manuscript about to be published as a book called The Return of Tyranny: How Counter Revolutions Emerge and Succeed. What's it about?

Killian Clarke: The book is a study of counterrevolution, globally and historically through time. I theorize and conceptualize the topic of counterrevolution, which actually hasn't received a lot of treatment in academic scholarship. Then, perhaps most importantly for today's conversation, it's also a detailed study of Egypt's 2013 counterrevolution.

I have been working on Egypt for most of my academic career. I wanted to use the case of Egypt and what happened in Egypt in 2013 to understand how counterrevolutions work. One of the things that I was struck by when the 2013 coup in Egypt happened was that we didn't have a great sense of how common this was, how often it had occurred in other places of the world and other historical time periods. In classic comparative politics mode, I wanted to study this phenomenon of counterrevolution and understand how Egypt fits in

Jon Alterman: How common are counterrevolutions?

Killian Clarke: I built a dataset of counterrevolutions globally. I started with a dataset of revolutions because you need to have a successful revolution for a counterrevolution. I understand counterrevolution as the return of the old regime following a successful revolution. I identified 22 instances globally from 1900 to the present of what we saw in Egypt happening in other parts of the world.

Jon Alterman: What makes a counterrevolution more likely and what makes it less likely?

Killian Clarke: I split the outcome into two parts. The attempt of the old regime to return and whether it can do so successfully. Counterrevolutionary attempts are tied to things that you might expect, such as the structure of the old regime or whether the old regime has a very powerful military apparatus.

Counterrevolutionary success is attributable more to dynamics within the transition itself. Crucially, whether revolutionaries lose the crucial resource that they had at the end of the revolution, which is leverage over the old regime. That's really what I see as exemplary in the Egypt case. Revolutionaries after 2011 had a degree of leverage over the old regime, even though the military was powerful and the SCAF [Supreme Council of the Armed Forces] was hanging over the whole transition.

The coalition of revolutionary forces, at least for that initial period in Egypt, had a high degree of leverage over the military. They lost that leverage over the course of a year after Mohamed Morsi was elected president. It was only when an opportunity emerged for the military to come back that they were able to step in, seize power, and reclaim the role of the supreme leaders of Egypt. Without that opportunity that was formed in the spring of 2013, Egypt might have been able to continue its transition to democracy.

Jon Alterman: You suggest in the book that there was a sort of understanding between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military that helped the Muslim Brotherhood come to power in the 2011 elections.

Killian Clarke: There was an understanding at first. There was a tacit agreement essentially between the military and Muslim Brotherhood because they had a set of shared interests. They had an interest in establishing democratic institutions quickly and getting people off the streets and into electoral institutions. They had this convenient alliance at the end of 2011.

They formed an alliance once Mohamed Morsi was elected. Morsi, in my reading of events, did everything he could to try to placate the military. He tried quite hard to give the military what they wanted. When Abdel Fattah el-Sisi became the minister of defense, the relationship between Morsi and Sisi was not good. The alliance the Brotherhood and the military formed back in 2011 didn't prove to be very durable. By the middle of Morsi's presidency, things were not very strong between Sisi and Morsi.

Jon Alterman: In your judgment, was the Brotherhood's mistake that it was too conciliatory toward the military or not conciliatory enough? Or was there some other mistake?

Killian Clarke: The Brotherhood prioritized the wrong things. The government was not strong, so they were trying to manage all kinds of competing priorities. They were trying to manage a declining economy, satisfy the needs of different social groups, and figure out what to do with the old regime actors. They were also trying to figure out how to include, or not include, the other half of the revolutionary coalition, also known as the secularist half, in the government.

However, they should have prioritized keeping the cohesion of their revolutionary coalition, trying to govern more inclusively. Morsi should have offered genuine power and positions in his government to members of secularist groups and deprioritized the attempts to placate the old regime. If they had maintained that coalition unity and continued to maintain the social base of the revolution, then if the military had attempted a coup, the entire base of the revolution would have gone back into the streets and protested, successfully stopping a coup from occurring.

This has played out in other cases throughout history. Where you have a weak democratic government, a strong military attempt to come back to power, and the revolution is essentially rerun. People pour back out into the streets.

Jon Alterman: Where did that happen?

Killian Clarke: It happened after the 2014 uprising in Burkina Faso. In 2015, immediately after the uprising, the military attempted a coup. The entire revolutionary coalition poured back out into the streets. They reversed the coup within a week. In 1982, Bolivia similarly had a popular uprising; this has happened in several other Latin American countries. It also happened in certain countries in East Asia following democratic uprisings. There is clearly a pattern of comparable cases.

There are also miniature versions of this happening. When the SCAF charged a member of the secularist opposition with writing a document that would essentially give it extra-constitutional power, the revolutionary coalition went back into the street to protest and got them to reverse these things. I think you see miniature versions of this happening in Egypt as well. If this coalition had remained relatively united, at least rallied behind the revolutionary goals, then it might have been able to stop any coup that was attempted.

Jon Alterman: To play a counterfactual, it sounds like there's the possibility that the Brotherhood had a genuine democratic instinct. Did it have the potential to be profoundly democratic? For example, some of my friends who were aligned with the newer party, a Salafi party, felt that the Brotherhood was always exclusivist and hierarchical. It was always going to be hostile to genuinely engaging with the broader public. It was always an elitist institution, and therefore, was oriented toward following the military's model.

Killian Clarke: There are a lot of anti-democratic actors that function successfully in democratic systems. I don't know if the Muslim Brotherhood is committed to democracy. I don't know if it matters that much. If you have a political system in place with the right institutions and balance of power, then even actors that don't necessarily have genuine democratic commitments can be forced to operate by democratic rules of the game. If we had allowed the transition in Egypt to continue, we might have seen that kind of balance of power emerge. The Brotherhood was very unpopular by the middle of 2013 and if we had allowed those parliamentary elections to occur, they might not have done very well. A balance of power between a Brotherhood-dominated presidency and an opposition-dominated parliament could have occurred.

Jon Alterman: There was a lot of commentary after Sisi came to power that the security services, internal security services, the Mukhabarat, and other internal intelligence organs in Egypt had engineered the counterrevolutionary movement. How do you assess that? If it's true, how were they able to pull the strings in such a way that they got what they were looking for?

Killian Clarke: I looked into this pretty carefully for my book because I was really interested in this thesis. While the Tamarod movement, which is the counterrevolutionary movement that spearheaded the mass protests that created the opportunity for the coup, had connections to the security services and took money from them, the popular support behind the movement was not manufactured. People had all kinds of disaffections in Egypt by the middle of 2013, some political and some not.

Jon Alterman: The argument was that the intelligence services were creating cuts in electricity and worsening the traffic in Tahrir Square. There was a perception the country was falling apart, but there was also a perception that it was the deep state that was fraying people's nerves.

Killian Clarke: You have to assume the deep state has a lot of power and influence to imagine that they have the level of omnipotence in staging this event. I just don't think they're that good. There were perhaps incidents of meddling and attempts to sow unrest, but most of that was genuine. I traced it with the protest dataset. It goes back to before Morsi was elected. The power cuts, the social unrest, the issues over labor in the governments, all predate the spring of 2013 and even the start of the Morsi administration. There was something more genuine behind this mass movement. I also see this with the comparative cases in other parts of the world where we see successful counterrevolutions. There is a similar dynamic where society is aggrieved at the state of post-revolutionary affairs and they channel those grievances into support for restoration because they yearn for order and security.

Jon Alterman: In terms of the security services, you said, "I don't think they're that good." I was struck, however, that all 93 interviews in your book, which were conducted in 10 cities, are anonymous, partly for your security and partly for the security of the interviewees. How does the security concern influence the work you've done? How do you think it shaped how people were willing to talk to you?

Killian Clarke: The security concern was huge. It was so huge that I almost changed the project. I started this project in 2017, only a year after Giulio Regeni had been murdered. Regeni was a Ph.D. working on labor issues in Egypt who was most likely murdered by members of the security forces. I had a conversation with my advisor after that and we talked about maybe scrapping the project or fundamentally changing it. In the end, I went ahead with it but did so with a large number of security safeguards in place, including the ones that you mentioned.

It undoubtedly affected the types of people I was able to speak to. It was impossible to speak to the majority of the Islamist party, as the key figures were in prison. I largely spoke to Brotherhood leaders in exile. There was also fear in Egypt and elsewhere, so a lot of people wouldn't meet with me because they didn't want to discuss these issues. I did the best I could and was able to speak to more people than I thought I would be able to. I was doing research in Egypt in 2017 and 2018 before things got really bad. People were still willing to meet during that time, though it was difficult.

Jon Alterman: A lot of the interviews, seem to be elite-level interviews. What do you think you would have learned if you spoke to more non-elite people, and got more non-elite voices into your research?

Killian Clarke: I tried to speak to non-elites, but the interview part of the project is really an elite story. If I had done more interviews with non-elites—people outside of Cairo, et cetera—I would have had more evidence to support this piece of the story I just talked about. This sort of social disaffections emerged over the course of the transitions. Most importantly, I would have gained insight into how those ultimately were channeled into support for counterrevolution.

Jon Alterman: Let me ask you about your own professional trajectory. As we were talking about earlier, you did your senior thesis at Harvard on the Kefaya Movement, a protest movement, and then as you're getting your master's at NYU the Egyptian revolution breaks out. You're working for McKinsey and you say, "No, I think I really want to get a Ph.D. here," and you end up writing about the Egyptian counterrevolution. Can you help me understand from the Killian Clarke perspective what that arc is from the Kefaya Movement, which is seemingly ineffectual, to a revolution and a counterrevolution?

Killian Clarke: Great question. I began all of this through my undergraduate thesis. It was my first time doing research on this social movement called Kefaya, which was a pro-democracy social movement that emerged in 2005 to challenge the Mubarak regime. Everyone at the time, including me, thought was pretty ineffectual. In fact, the framing of the whole project was how do ineffectual social movements emerge under authoritarianism? As I was doing my master's thesis at NYU, the revolution happened. I was reading all of these accounts of what was happening, and it was tremendously exciting. All of these people that I had spoken to for the undergraduate thesis were giving interviews to The New York Times and Al Jazeera and BBC. I thought, "Gosh, this is interesting. These are the same people I was talking to." I went back that summer, and I did this research for my master's thesis.

The interesting thing was that at that point I was already planning to take a job at McKinsey after my master's degree. I wasn't planning to continue in academia. I had so much fun doing this research, however, and it was so exciting and invigorating, that I started the job at McKinsey knowing that I didn't want to stay. I worked there for two years and then applied to this Ph.D. at Princeton. At that point the counterrevolution had happened, so I wrote my PhD application proposing to do a project on counterrevolution. So, I've had these sort of three academic experiences, and each one of them has been tied to a different moment in Egypt's political history.

Jon Alterman: You've done other interesting work on mobilization, broadly considered in refugee camps in Jordan and other places. How does your Egypt work shape the way you think mobilization works?

Killian Clarke: Mobilization is the first step towards revolution. It's not this sort of teleological thing where every protest is inevitably one step toward revolution. Mobilization and revolution are in the same family of activities. I consider myself a scholar of protest and mobilization and social movements broadly. Sometimes that means studying revolution, and sometimes it means studying other types of protest or popular resistance like the project that looked at protests in refugee camps. The mechanisms that help explain mobilization are also useful for understanding protests or popular resistance.

Jon Alterman: You have returned to Washington at the School of Foreign Service and are writing about things of public policy importance. As you look at the work you've done, what do you think the policy implications are? What are the lessons the policy world should take from you or how should they apply it?

Killian Clarke: I have this concept of ambivalent allies in this article. It describes the role of the United States during the transition pretty well. The United States didn't really know how it felt about this transition. Part of this was because of differences within Obama's foreign policy team. There were some folks that were very enthusiastic about the prospect of democracy in Egypt and wanted to really support the transition. There were other folks that were really skeptical.

This manifested in a really inconsistent stance towards the Morsi government and the transition in general from the breakout of the revolution. That was extremely unhelpful in that case. The Morsi government misread those signals and only listened to the positive signals. They thought that they had strong backing from Washington, which informed their calculation to govern in a more exclusivist way because they thought they had a big powerful ally standing behind them. They then found out only too late that actually that wasn't true.

As the United States has done in other parts of the world, there can be a much more full-throated stance of support for these pro-democracy movements and these democratic uprisings when they happen. They continue to happen across the region. Relatedly, the U.S. government can do a lot more to rein in the primary counterrevolutionary actors in the region: Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The one common denominator in all the different places where there've been uprisings in 2011 and 2019 is the failures in the role of these two actors. The U.S. government can do more to rein these actors in so that these democratic transitions can be allowed to flourish and continue.

Jon Alterman: Killian Clarke, welcome back to CSIS, and thank you for joining us on Babel.

Killian Clarke: Thanks a lot, Jon. It's been great to be with you.