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Egypt after Mubarak:
Liberalism, Islam, and Democracy in the Arab World
Bruce K. Rutherford

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COPYRIGHT NOTICE: Published by Princeton University Press and copyrighted, © 2008, by Princeton University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means (including photocopying, recording, or information storage and retrieval) without permission in writing from the publisher, except for reading and browsing via the World Wide Web. Users are not permitted to mount this file on any network servers. Follow links for Class Use and other Permissions. For more information, send e-mail to

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Hybrid Regimes and Arab Democracy

ON APRIL 30, 2006, the Egyptian Parliament voted by a large majority to renew the emergency law. This law grants the president extraordinary powers to detain citizens, prevent public gatherings, and issue decrees with little accountability to Parliament or the people. The vote was a familiar ritual: the Egyptian Parliament has routinely approved the emergency law for most of the past forty years.1 However, this acquiescence to presidential power is not universal. A few months prior to the April vote, the Supreme Constitutional Court issued a ruling that substantially limited the scope of the president’s authority under the emergency law. The Court’s decision prohibited the president from using the emergency law to assert government control over private property in non-emergency situations, and admonished the prime minister for applying it in a manner that disregarded the constitutional rights of Egyptians.2 Many civil society groups also challenged the law, especially the Muslim Brotherhood. It organized several demonstrations to protest the parliamentary vote and criticized the law extensively in the media. Its parliamentary delegation denounced the measure as contrary to the principles of Islam because it ignored the wishes of the Egyptian people and failed to serve the public interest.3

These events illustrate a growing contradiction in contemporary Egypt. An observer could easily conclude that the country is a classic example of stable authoritarianism. The regime controls much of the media, dominates political life, and suppresses its opponents with a vast array of legal and extra-legal tools. It also carefully monitors and manipulates civil society groups and political parties. And yet, Egyptian political life includes several features that suggest a different picture. The country has a vibrant and aggressive judiciary whose rulings constrain the regime.4 It also has an increasingly assertive judges’ association (the Judges’ Club) that openly confronts the executive and lobbies for legal and political reform. In addition, Egypt has a large and well-organized Islamist organization (the Muslim Brotherhood) that calls for increased governmental accountability, greater respect for law, and improved protection of citizens’ rights. Although the Brotherhood has no formal capacity to constrain the state, it regularly challenges and delegitimizes abuses of power by invoking Islamic principles of law and governance.5

Some analysts may be inclined to dismiss these critics of executive power as marginal actors with little substantive impact on politics. However, this view neglects a fundamental change in the character of Egyptian politics since the early 1990s. The statist order created during the Nasser era has been undermined by economic crises, economic restructuring, and integration into the global economy. These changes have weakened key institutions of state control, particularly the public sector and the subsidy system. They have also eroded the ideology that legitimates the regime. This does not mean that the state is fading away. However, the state no longer dominates the economy and society. This situation has created opportunities for competing ideologies and institutions to emerge—most notably, a liberal conception of law within the judiciary and an Islamic conception of governance within the Muslim Brotherhood. These new approaches to constitutional order have grown into meaningful alternatives to the declining statism of the regime. Furthermore, these two alternatives share important features. Their agendas converge around a core set of reforms that embody the key features of classical liberalism, including constraints on state power, strengthening the rule of law, and protecting some basic rights. This set of reforms has also gained support from parts of the business community and the reformist wing of the ruling party. This development suggests that Egypt’s political future may include a steady deepening of liberalism and, possibly, democracy.


The possibility of sustained liberal and democratic development is novel in the Middle East. For most of the post–World War II period, political reform has been a low priority for both local leaders and the international community. The United States has a particularly undistinguished record in this regard. One of its earliest interventions during the Cold War occurred in Iran in 1953, when American agents assisted a coup that overthrew a popularly elected leader (Mohammad Mossadeq) and restored the authority of the shah. The United States then provided extensive military and economic aid to the shah’s regime over the next twenty-six years. The United States has also provided substantial support to other monarchies in the region, particularly in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, and Morocco. Its willingness to back autocracy reached a peak in the 1980s, when the United States provided military and intelligence assistance to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in order to strengthen its hand against Iran.6 The U.S. secretary of state at the time, George Shultz, candidly explained that “the United States simply could not stand idle and watch the Khomeini revolution sweep forward.”7

As Shultz’s comment suggests, U.S. policy toward the region was guided by its core strategic interests, namely, access to adequate supplies of oil at stable prices; the security of Israel; and the minimization of Soviet influence. With the success of the Iranian revolution in 1979, the containment of radical Islam—in its Shi’a and, later, Sunni variants—was added to this list. Building stable democracies was considered a secondary objective, at best. Whenever the issue of democratization arose, the prevailing view was, “Why rock the boat?”8 Democratization would almost certainly produce a period of transition that would increase instability. This instability, in turn, might jeopardize the smooth flow of oil and could provide opportunities for anti-American groups to expand their political influence. It simply made little sense to jeopardize global economic prosperity in order to embark on an uncertain path of political reform. When there were opportunities to promote democracy, they were pursued either halfheartedly or not at all. For example, in late 1991 and early 1992, Algeria’s president made the surprising decision to allow relatively free parliamentary elections. They led to widespread losses for the ruling party and unexpected success for an Islamist movement, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). In order to block the FIS from gaining control of the Parliament, the Algerian military intervened by declaring a state of emergency, canceling the election results, and imprisoning the leaders and activists of the FIS. The United States offered no objection. Speaking a few years later, the U.S. secretary of state at the time (James Baker) recalled that the United States chose not to defend the democratic process because it would have produced a government with views hostile toward the United States. In his words, “We didn’t live with [the election results] in Algeria because we felt that the fundamentalists’ views were so adverse to what we believe in and what we support, and to the national interest of the United States.”9 The United States had an even better opportunity to promote democracy during the Gulf War of 1990–91. Iraq under Saddam Hussein had invaded and annexed Kuwait in August 1990. The United States and its allies intervened with over 500,000 troops to expel Iraqi forces and restore the Kuwaiti monarchy. Some American politicians and analysts argued that American military action should be conditioned on Kuwait’s ruling family, the al-Sabah, agreeing to a specific timetable for democratization. In this view, American troops should not risk their lives to defend a feudal monarchy.10 Such reasoning was not incorporated into American policy. President George H. W. Bush’s speech on the eve of the American air war against Iraq is striking for its lack of reference to any political goal beyond the restoration of the Kuwaiti monarchy.11 A senior policy maker at the time observed, “I am among the unregenerate few who believe that American foreign policy must serve the national interest—which is not in every case to be confused with the furtherance of American ideals overseas.”12

This view that democratization takes a back seat to core strategic concerns has played an important role in the U.S. relationship with Egypt. This relationship is shaped by the strategic interests mentioned earlier— oil, Israel, the Soviet Union (until 1991), and radical Islam. It is also influenced by the United States’ eagerness after 1979 to sustain the Camp David peace agreement and, if possible, to extend this peace to other Arab regimes.13 In pursuit of these goals, the United States began substantial levels of economic aid in the mid-1970s.14 The assistance started with $370 million in economic aid in 1975. By 1978, this figure had risen to $943 million. It then rose further in 1979, to $1.1 billion, as a result of the peace agreement with Israel. A whopping $1.5 billion in military assistance was also added to the package. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, U.S. military and economic aid averaged roughly $2.2 billion per year. In 2000, the United States began to cut back on economic aid at a rate of 5 percent per year with the goal of reducing economic assistance by 50 percent over ten years. This reduction was part of a broader strategy to shift the U.S.Egyptian economic relationship from “aid to trade.” In 2006, economic assistance had fallen to $490 million. Military assistance remained at its well-established level of roughly $1.2 billion per year. By the end of 2006, the United States had sent over $62 billion in economic and military assistance to Egypt over the previous thirty-one years (in nominal dollars).15

Despite this extraordinary level of assistance, the United States never used aid as a lever for accelerating political reform. Indeed, the United States was skeptical of the value of democratization from the earliest days of the Nasser regime. At the time of the Free Officers’ coup in 1952, the U.S. ambassador concluded that Egypt was “not ready for democracy.”16 He believed that greater freedoms and free elections would merely provide opportunities for communists to expand their influence, and might produce social disorder that communists could exploit.17 This sentiment persisted over the next five decades. In the late 1980s, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt (Alfred Atherton) wrote a careful and thorough discussion of the U.S.-Egypt relationship without even mentioning democracy promotion.18 Similarly, a former National Security Council official who specializes in Egypt (William Quandt) wrote a seventy-seven-page essay on U.S.-Egyptian relations in 1990 without addressing the issues of democracy or political reform.19

Democracy and human rights were sometimes mentioned in official documents. For example, the U.S. State Department issued an annual report on human rights that drew attention to the Egyptian government’s record of torture, electoral fraud, and suppression of civil society.20 It also issued periodic statements that encouraged Egypt to develop more representative and accountable government. It even allocated some USAID funds for this purpose.21 However, political reform was understood by both sides as being subordinate to the strategic concerns that lay at the heart of the U.S.-Egyptian relationship.

This view of democratization in Egypt and the Arab world underwent a significant change following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Prior to September 11, U.S. policy makers assumed that stable and friendly authoritarian regimes in the Arab world were the best guarantee of American security and economic interests. In the wake of the attacks, U.S. leaders from both parties concluded that terrorism by radical Islamists was partially a result of the repression and economic stagnation of Arab dictatorships. These suffocating conditions produced a large pool of frustrated, hopeless, and angry young men who yearned for greater dignity and purpose in their lives. They were easy recruits for terrorist ideologues promising honor and martyrdom in a struggle against injustice.22

For advocates of this view, the key to defeating terrorism lay in ending repression and poor governance in the Arab world. In the words of the secretary of state, “for sixty years the United States pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the Middle East—and we achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.”23 In November 2003, President George Bush proclaimed that the United States had adopted a “forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East” that would be a central feature of American foreign policy.24 This posture was part of a broader plan to promote democracy throughout the world. The administration’s National Security Strategy, issued in March 2006, stated in its first paragraph, “The goal of our statecraft is to help create a world of democratic, well-governed states that can meet the needs of their citizens and conduct themselves responsibly in the international system.”25 It further argued that democratic regimes are more stable, more economically prosperous, and more peaceful toward their neighbors than any alternative form of government. As a consequence, promoting democracy is “the best way to provide enduring security for the American people.”26 This view was shared by other prominent Republicans, particularly John McCain.27

The Middle East was clearly the primary focus of this strategy. From 2002 to 2006, the administration allocated over $400 million to the newly created Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) that seeks to increase the fairness of elections, support civil society groups, strengthen judiciaries, and improve protection of women’s rights.28 Another $250 million has been proposed by Congress under the Advance Democracy Act, with most of it earmarked for the Middle East.29 USAID’s budget for democracy promotion in the Middle East also increased sharply, from $27 million in 2001 to $105 million in 2005.30 And, the United States invaded Iraq. The war was justified, in part, as an effort to bring democracy to the region. The administration argued that the democratic transformation of Iraq would “serve as a beacon of liberty, inspiring democratic reformers throughout the Middle East.”31

The goal of building democracy in the Middle East has attracted bipartisan support. Democrats voted in large numbers to fund the democracy promotion programs put forward by the Bush administration.32 The democrats’ deputy leader in the Senate, Richard Durbin of Illinois, stated in 2004, “I agree wholeheartedly with the president that one of the most important things this country can do to fight terrorism is to promote democracy in the Middle East. The lack of democracy in many Middle Eastern countries has led directly to Islamic extremism.”33 Hillary Clinton asserted in a 2006 speech that “human freedom and the quest for individuals to achieve their god-given potential must be at the heart of American approaches across the [Middle East]. The dream of democracy and human rights is one that should belong to all people in the Middle East and across the world . . . we must stand on the side of democracy wherever we can help it take hold.”34 Barack Obama held a similar view, claiming that the key to defeating radical Islam lay in “provid[ing] the kind of steady support for political reformers and civil society that enabled our victory in the Cold War.”35 Obama was also one of six cosponsors of the Advance Democracy Act, which called for the expansion of democracy promotion in the Middle East.

When the democrats gained control of the House of Representatives and the Senate in 2006, they sought to bring some of this rhetoric into reality. They incorporated funding for MEPI into their signature bill on national security, the “Real Security Act of 2006.”36 Several prominent democrats also initiated an effort to withhold $100 million in military assistance to Egypt, which provided further opportunity to voice their support for human rights and democracy in Egypt and the Arab world.37

America’s calls for democracy in the Middle East were joined by equally convinced—though less effusive—European allies. The German foreign minister, for example, agreed that the fight against terrorism required a much broader conception of security that included “social-cultural modernization issues, as well as democracy, the rule of law, women’s rights and good governance.”38 The European Security Strategy, adopted in December 2003, states that “the quality of international society depends on the quality of governments that are its foundation. The best protection of our security is a world of well-governed democratic states.”39 The European Union Commission president reiterated this view,40 as did other European leaders such as Tony Blair.41 The EU’s efforts are carried out primarily within the framework of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, which includes funding to strengthen civil society groups, human rights, and the rule of law. The funding for these programs increased substantially after the terrorist attacks of 2001.42 Individual European countries have also undertaken bilateral efforts to promote the rule of law and human rights in Arab countries, with Britain, Denmark, France, and Sweden taking the lead.43 In addition, European nations have cooperated with the United States on an annual conference in the region, the Forum for the Future. This event brings together G-8 ministers, ministers from Arab governments, businessmen, and civil society leaders to develop programs for political and economic reform.44 It is currently the only setting that allows democracy advocates to interact directly with government ministers and business leaders.

Of course, the United States and Europe still defend the strategic interests mentioned earlier. Democracy promotion has not trumped these interests. At times, it takes a back seat to them, which leads to variations in the strength of Western advocacy for democracy over time and between countries.45 However, this normal ebb-and-flow of interests should not be construed as insincerity. Since 2001, democratization has been elevated from an appealing afterthought among policy makers to a strategic objective in itself. True, it is only one objective among many. But it now carries significant weight among policy makers in the United States and Europe. Major Western governments now argue with increasing conviction that the absence of democracy in the region has a direct impact on regional and global security.46

This change on the international stage has been matched by a serious effort among Arab intellectuals and activists to promote democratic reform. The most systematic work in this regard is the Arab Human Development Reports (AHDR) of 2002, 2003, 2004, and 2005.47 These reports were prepared by a team of prominent Arab intellectuals under the auspices of the United Nations Development Program. They received wide distribution—for example, over 1 million copies of the 2002 report were downloaded from the UNDP’s website.48 The reports focus on three “deficits” that plague the Arab world: a lack of freedom, insufficient rights for women, and inadequate educational systems. They emphasize that all people are entitled to the full range of civil and political rights, and that each citizen has the right to participate in his own governance. The reports assert that these principles are fundamental to human freedom which, in turn, is the foundation for economic growth and human development.49

The reports also argue that the Arab world confronts several acute problems that can be managed only through skilled and accountable governance. The most formidable of these problems include the following:

A demographic “youth bulge.” Roughly 38 percent of the region’s population is under the age of fourteen. The region will need 50 million new jobs by 2010 in order to accommodate them. This demographic challenge draws attention to two core weaknesses of the current order: the poor quality of state-led economic management, which has produced weak economic growth; and the absence of political institutions that can represent the interests of these young people and respond to their concerns quickly and effectively. In the view of the AHDR, democratization addresses both of these problems. It increases the transparency and accountability of government decision making, thereby improving economic policy and performance. It also provides an orderly and reliable mechanism for including citizens in political life.

The political repercussions of economic restructuring. In order to improve economic performance, many countries in the region have adopted market-oriented economic reforms that shrink the public sector and reduce state subsidies. In the short term, these measures cause severe hardship, particularly to public-sector workers and unskilled labor. In the view of the AHDR, democratic reforms are essential for creating political institutions that can respond to the needs of these workers and provide a peaceful avenue for expressing and managing their dissent.

The growing power of Islamist groups. Throughout the Middle East, Islamist groups have developed broad popular support, effective social service networks, and a formidable capacity to mobilize their followers. The appeal of these groups is likely to increase in the future. In the view of the AHDR, democratic reforms are the only way to integrate these groups into the political process and give them a stake in peaceful change.

The authors of the AHDR believe that the current political structures of the Arab world are simply not up to these challenges. If the region is to cope effectively, democratization is essential. If it does not occur, Arabs face the prospect of “intensified social conflict . . . violent protest . . . [and] internal disorder.”50

Support for democratization is not limited to the small circle of intellectuals who wrote the AHDR. Opinion polls indicate significant public backing for democratic principles. A poll by the World Values Survey in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Algeria found that over 85 percent of respondents considered democracy “better than any other form of government.”51 The percentage of respondents who considered democracy the best form of government exceeded that of any other region in the developing world.52 The Arab respondents also expressed the highest rate of rejection (80 percent) of authoritarian rule.53 A poll conducted by the AHDR indicates that Arabs place a high value on freedom of thought, expression, and belief.54 Additional survey research reaches similar conclusions and suggests that the Arab public supports many democratic values, with the important exception of women’s equality.55

Public advocacy of democratization has also become widespread and forceful. Meetings of intellectuals, civil society organizations, and business groups frequently include declarations of support for democracy.56 The Arab media also increasingly advocates democratization, with satellite television stations leading the way. The most popular satellite station, al-Jazeera, has made political reform a central theme of its programming. A recent study of its broadcasts since 1999 found that roughly one-third of its talk show programs deal with this topic. They frequently include harsh attacks on the regimes of the region and vigorous demands for democratic change. In the view of the study’s author (Marc Lynch), al-Jazeera has helped to transform Arab political discourse by creating an intellectual climate where challenging political authority is not only tolerated, but encouraged. It is “building the foundation of a more democratic Arab political culture.”57

In addition, civil society groups and activists increasingly undertake demonstrations and other acts of public resistance in support of political change. For example, the Kifaya (“enough”) movement in Egypt organized thousands of demonstrators in the spring of 2005 to call for an end to President Mubarak’s rule and the convening of competitive presidential elections. The Muslim Brotherhood mobilized thousands of its followers to participate in these demonstrations. It also organized separate demonstrations to support political and constitutional reform. In Lebanon, the “March 14th” movement brought 1.2 million people onto the streets in 2005 to protest Syria’s presence. They organized several subsequent demonstrations to advocate political reform and national reconciliation.58 Significant public mobilization in favor of political reform has also occurred in Morocco and Jordan, despite the threat of imprisonment and fines.59


For the first time in the region’s history, there are strong indigenous demands for democracy backed by significant international support. These pressures have not yet led to democratic transitions. However, there have been some meaningful steps toward political reform. Improvements in electoral procedure and monitoring have produced more competitive elections in Algeria, Kuwait, Lebanon, Jordan, and Morocco. Judicial independence has increased in Egypt, Kuwait, Jordan, and Morocco.60 Judges in Egypt and Kuwait, in particular, have shown a willingness to challenge executive power.61 Parliaments have gained greater authority to question members of the executive and remove ministers in Jordan and Morocco. Changes in legislation and procedure have made it easier to form political parties in Morocco and Egypt. Strong civil society groups calling for political reform have emerged in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, and Jordan. And, press freedom has improved in Bahrain, Morocco, and Jordan.62

In addition, several countries in the region have undergone economic restructuring that carries important repercussions for political change. The massive welfare states that enhanced regime legitimacy in many countries have proven financially unsustainable. Persistent budget deficits and fiscal crises have forced cutbacks in key institutions of state control such as the public sector, the subsidy system, and the civil service. This is particularly the case in Egypt, Morocco, and Jordan.63 The state in these countries is certainly in no danger of collapsing. However, its capacity to control the economy and society has declined.64 At the same time, new institutions are emerging within the state (such as independent judiciaries) and within civil society (such as Islamist groups). These institutions challenge and constrain state power. As noted earlier, they may also offer an alternative conception of political order that competes with the regime’s ideology.

Although these developments are encouraging, we must be careful not to exaggerate their significance. As one might expect, there have been setbacks. Lebanon, in particular, has suffered from a recent descent into sectarian rivalries and violence. In addition, the autocrats of the Arab world have adopted countermeasures to protect their power and frustrate reform. The still-formidable ruling elites of the region have a substantial arsenal of tools at their disposal.65 Autocratic institutions are not being swept away in dramatic popular upheavals comparable to the “people power” of the Philippines or the colored revolutions of central Europe. Rather, the tools of centralized state power are gradually eroding. As this unfolds, new institutions emerge alongside these weakened—but still functioning—state institutions. In Egypt, for example, the country’s powerful security institutions and the legal codes that empower them are not being dismantled. Instead, increasingly assertive administrative and constitutional courts challenge their power and limit their authority.66 In Jordan, the state’s social service institutions and educational system are not shutting down. Instead, they continue to function in a fragmentary and incomplete fashion, and are supplemented by independent Islamic institutions that perform the same functions.67 Some institutions (such as independent judiciaries) may be products of the regime’s policies, but this does not mean they are controlled by the regime. Rather, they develop and function alongside the autocratic institutions of the state and often constitute a meaningful constraint on it.

The net political result of this process is neither authoritarianism nor democracy. Rather, the outcome is a hybrid regime that shares characteristics of both an autocratic order (characterized by a powerful executive with few formal checks on his authority) and a democratic order (which includes institutions that constrain the state and increase governmental accountability). Furthermore, these democratic institutions are often supported by Islamic thinkers and activists. Islamic political and legal thought plays an increasingly important role in defining and legitimizing the institutional alternatives to autocracy.

A full transition to democracy is not likely in any contemporary Arab regime. However, for regimes with these hybrid characteristics, a reversion to full authoritarianism is equally unlikely. In order to understand the future of democracy in the Arab world, we need to understand how these hybrid regimes emerge, why they remain stable, and whether they will transition toward democracy. The theoretical literature on hybrid regimes provides a valuable starting point for this analysis.


Scholars of authoritarianism have long been aware of regimes that contain both autocratic and democratic institutions. Linz’s classic study of authoritarianism discusses this topic in some detail.68 Diamond, Linz, and Lipset also examine it in their extensive multi-country study of democratization. They begin by observing that all democracies fall short of the democratic ideal. However, some regimes fall so far short that they cannot be described as democratic. The authors identify several types of regimes that fall within this “grey zone” between democracy and autocracy: “semidemocracy,” in which competitive elections occur among multiple parties but there are serious flaws in the electoral process or sharp restrictions on the powers of representative institutions; “low-intensity” democracy, in which vibrant and relatively fair elections take place, but governments lack meaningful accountability during the period between elections; and “hegemonic party systems,” in which free elections occur, but one party thoroughly dominates the electoral process and precludes any meaningful competition for power.69 Each of these is an example of a hybrid regime that exhibits a different mix of authoritarian and democratic institutions.70 Ottaway describes hybrid regimes in similar terms.71 They may contain legislatures, independent judiciaries, and civil society organizations. However, they do not allow the transfer of power through elections and, therefore, are not fully functioning democracies.72

Hybrid regimes have been part of the political landscape for several decades.73 However, their number grew dramatically after the end of the Cold War. The demise of the Soviet Union led to the withdrawal of external support from many of the world’s dictatorships. Russia had neither the resources nor the will to continue supporting communist regimes around the world. With the Soviet menace gone, the United States had little reason to support right-wing dictatorships that counterbalanced communist influence. This termination of external support precipitated severe economic crises in many dictatorships in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Autocrats had little choice but to open their political systems in order to retain power, but they did so in a manner that fell short of full democratic transition.74 The result was a sharp increase in hybrid regimes.

The Soviet Union’s collapse also left the West in a position of political and economic preeminence. Communist and socialist models of development had lost their credibility and popularity. The Western democratic model swept the global competition of ideas and became the natural choice for advocates of political reform in authoritarian regimes. Furthermore, after the collapse of the USSR, the West held a virtual monopoly on economic assistance. Autocrats who wanted a piece of this pie would need to show at least rhetorical support for the principles of democracy and accountability. Several Western countries went a step further and explicitly incorporated democracy promotion into their foreign policies. As noted earlier, this was particularly the case for the United States and the members of the European Union.75

These measures were reinforced by a growing network of transnational civil society groups that promoted democracy and human rights.76 These organizations included human rights groups, international party foundations, and media advocacy groups. They drew international attention to human rights abuses and lobbied Western governments to monitor and punish autocratic regimes.77 Some of the groups also sought to protect and strengthen pro-democracy forces through lobbying, funding, and training.78 In addition, international election observers became an important force for identifying and documenting electoral fraud. Their efforts led to substantial improvements in the fairness and transparency of elections.79

These changes in the international setting dramatically increased the incentives for authoritarian leaders to adopt at least the trappings of democracy. As Levitsky and Way conclude, “for most governments in lower-and middle-income countries, the costs associated with the maintenance of full-scale authoritarian institutions—and the benefits associated with adopting democratic ones—rose considerably in the 1990s.”80 Diamond reaches the same conclusion and observes that “one of the most striking features of the ‘late period’ of the third wave [of democratization] has been the unprecedented growth in the number of regimes that are neither clearly democratic nor conventionally authoritarian.”81 He estimates that, by 2001, roughly one-third of the world’s regimes could be described as “hybrids.”82 Furthermore, these regimes have shown remarkable durability. Many hybrid regimes have existed for fifteen years or longer, which exceeds the life span of most bureaucratic-authoritarian regimes in Latin America.83 This durability suggests that hybrid regimes cannot be characterized as “stalled” or “prolonged” or “incomplete” transitions to democracy.84 Rather, they are a distinct regime type that needs to be understood on its own terms.85

As hybrid regimes became more numerous and long-lived, scholars of comparative democratization began to study them with greater care. Levitsky and Way undertook a project that analyzed thirty-seven of these regimes. They found that traditional authoritarian regimes assume a hybrid character through the emergence of four arenas where opposition forces challenge autocratic incumbents: elections, in which opposition candidates run successfully against members of the regime; legislatures, where opposition parliamentarians challenge and constrain the government; the judiciary, where judges repeal repressive laws and limit the scope of executive power; and the media, where independent journalists investigate and expose abuses of power by the regime.86 Their careful study of change in each of these arenas suggests that hybrid regimes emerge through three processes:

Elite calculations for survival: Ruling elites in autocratic regimes often confront periods of crisis brought on by poor economic performance, military defeat, excessive repression, or a similar event. They may also face external demands to democratize as a condition for economic aid or membership in international organizations. In order to cope with these pressures, ruling elites may adopt limited reforms such as releasing political prisoners, expanding civil and political rights, and allowing some political competition. These measures are carefully calibrated to enhance the regime’s legitimacy and international stature without allowing genuine competition for power.

Change in the relative power of institutions within the state and society: Authoritarian regimes are based upon control of several key institutions. The most obvious are the security services and police, which provide the “hard power” to maintain order and repress opponents. However, these regimes also rely on “soft power,” which shapes the priorities of citizens by providing them with incentives to support the existing order. At the heart of this “soft power” are economic institutions such as the public sector, the subsidy system, and the bureaucracy. These institutions provide jobs, food, housing, education, and a host of other important services. A successful authoritarian regime utilizes them to maintain the loyalty and cooperation of its supporters. These institutions are also valuable tools for co-opting or harassing the regime’s opponents.

These institutions may be undermined by economic crises, economic mismanagement, or economic restructuring. When these institutions are weakened, the regime’s patronage network erodes and it can no longer provide the services that are essential for preserving its legitimacy and power. This can lead to two institutional outcomes that contribute to the development of a hybrid regime. First, governing elites may allow the emergence of new institutions within the state in order to enhance the regime’s economic performance. They may, for example, allow the development of an independent judiciary in the hope that it will create a more attractive investment environment by protecting property rights and ensuring reliable enforcement of contracts. Second, the weakening of the institutions that provide public services creates an opportunity for private service organizations to emerge and grow. These may take the form of charitable organizations, religious groups, or commercial firms. They help to meet the basic needs of society in fields such as housing, medical care, and education. Thus, a hybrid regime may emerge through the combination of autocratic institutions weakening and alternative institutions expanding within the state and civil society.

Erosion of the political ideas that legitimate the regime: Autocratic regimes often rely on a set of ideas to justify their centralization of power and their denial of civil and political rights. For example, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in Mexico stressed the goal of reordering society to achieve the justice and equity promised by the Mexican revolution. Tanzania under Julius Nyerere tried to implement African socialism, which was based on Nyerere’s unique mix of socialist and tribal principles. Egypt under Nasser sought to advance Arab nationalism, which combined Egyptian nationalism, anti-colonialism, and aspirations for regional leadership. Political ideas such as these may not be sufficiently rigorous or systematic to warrant the label “ideology.” Nonetheless, they matter for legitimating an autocratic regime and justifying its monopoly on power. These legitimating ideas often erode due to the death of the founding leader, poor economic performance, excessive repression, military defeats, and other practical failures of governance. As these ideas erode, alternative views of political order have the opportunity to develop and build support within the state and society. The growth of these alternative conceptions of law and governance is another important step in the creation of a hybrid regime.

Thus, hybrid regimes emerge through a combination of elite calculations, institutional change, and ideational competition. However, as scholarly interest in hybrid regimes increased, research tended to concentrate only on the short-term maneuvering of autocratic elites.87 The literature focused particularly on the role of elections in authoritarian regimes. Works by Schedler, Magaloni, Geddes, Pripstein Posusney, Lust-Okar, Lucas, Brownlee, and others examined the tactics and political dynamics of elections under authoritarianism with care and precision.88 However, this literature leaves several important aspects of hybrid regimes underexplored and unconceptualized. While providing insight into the short-term calculations that sustain these regimes, it neglects the longer-term institutional interaction and ideational competition that produce them, determine their stability, and shape their development. These institutional and ideational considerations include: changes in the size and functions of the state; deterioration of the state’s capacity to monitor and control society; erosion of the political ideas that legitimate the regime; and the emergence of competing ideas and institutions that constrain the state and further weaken its legitimacy. These longer-term processes are the underlying explanation for the emergence of a hybrid regime. Elections are merely a symptom of the regime’s weakness and a tactic for managing it. This does not render them unimportant. However, analysis of this tactic for regime survival tells us relatively little about the underlying institutional and ideational dynamics that determine the regime’s character and stability.

In a similar vein, the focus on elections has tilted the literature toward study of elite calculations at a given moment in time within a fixed set of institutional and ideational constraints. It does not analyze the origins of the institutional and ideational context that shapes the options open to elites, affects their choices, and influences how those choices unfold. The literature also assumes that these institutional and ideational constraints are constant when, in reality, they are undergoing steady change in many hybrid regimes.

In addition, the concentration on elections has steered analysis into an arena of politics where the regime has extensive capabilities to manipulate the outcome. In most hybrid regimes, the government controls every dimension of how elections unfold. It determines who may register to vote. It defines the nature of the electoral campaign, including which candidates may participate, the amount of money they may spend, the size and frequency of their rallies, and their degree of access to the media. It also controls the polling process itself, including who may have access to the polls, who counts the votes, how the results are announced, and how the electoral outcome is translated into political power (number of seats in parliament, in municipal councils, etc.). Concentrating only on elections produces two biases in our understanding of hybrid regimes. First, it yields an exaggerated sense of the regime’s capacity to control the polity. It gives the impression that the regime can manipulate every corner of political life as thoroughly as it controls the electoral process. Second, a focus on elections neglects those aspects of political competition that are not part of the electoral process. These include institutional dynamics that can constrain the power of an autocratic state (such as the emergence of an independent judiciary) and ideational competition that involves actors who are either excluded from elections or whose participation is tightly constrained (such as Islamists).

This emphasis on elections is largely the product of scholars assuming that hybrid regimes are transitioning toward democracy. This assumption leads many scholars to base their research upon the theoretical literature on democratization. This literature argues that democracies emerge through a two-stage sequence. The first stage is a democratic transition, which is defined as the holding of free and fair elections. The second stage is a protracted process of democratic consolidation. This entails forming institutions that constrain executive power (such as an autonomous legislature), increase transparency (such as independent media outlets), and establish the rule of law (such as an independent judiciary). Consolidation also involves the widespread adoption of democratic political ideas such as popular sovereignty, equality before the law, and governmental accountability.89

Scholars of hybrid regimes have implicitly accepted this sequence and focused tightly on elections, which are the first step along the road to democratic transition and consolidation. However, hybrid regimes are not necessarily in transition. They occupy a stable middle ground between democracy and autocracy. They combine the institutions of autocracy and democracy. As a consequence, institutions that scholars of democratization defer to later in their analysis—such as independent judiciaries, strong civil society groups, and independent media outlets—assume a prominent and early role in the analysis of hybrid regimes. Similarly, political ideas that are generally associated with the consolidation phase of democratic development—such as regime accountability, popular sovereignty, and respect for individual rights—may emerge quite early in a hybrid regime and develop support within parts of the state and civil society.

The key feature of a hybrid regime is that these democratic institutions and ideas emerge alongside the institutions and ideas of an autocratic regime and co-exist with it. Furthermore, this phenomenon is not simply the outcome of careful calculations by autocratic elites who manipulate the political arena to their advantage. It is also the result of institutional and ideational competition. It is the product of an autocratic regime’s declining power amid the emergence of institutional and ideational alternatives. The regime may tolerate this development, often because it lacks the power to stop it or the cost of stopping it is unacceptable. But, this acquiescence does not mean that the regime controls it or supports it.

In order to more fully understand hybrid regimes, we need a framework that pays due attention to the short-term calculations of elites. However, it must also place these calculations within the broader context of institutional development and ideational competition. Historical institutionalism offers the basis for such a framework.


The defining feature of a hybrid regime is the development of democratic institutions alongside well-entrenched authoritarian institutions. This phenomenon of a polity containing multiple—and conflicting—institutions has received considerable attention from scholars of historical institutionalism, particularly Skowronek, Hall, Skocpol, Steinmo, Mahoney, Pierson, and Thelen.

One of the leading scholars of this approach, Peter Hall, defines institutions as “the formal or informal procedures, routines, norms and conventions embedded in the organizational structure of the polity or political economy.”90 The historical institutionalists regard the polity as an interlocking set of institutions that were created at different times, often to serve different purposes.91 This mosaic of clashing institutions is a persistent feature of the political landscape that pushes development along particular paths. It creates a structural context that defines the relative power of actors and the range of options available to them.92

In the historical institutionalist perspective, political change occurs as a result of critical junctures that weaken old institutions and strengthen others. There are different types of critical junctures, which produce different opportunities for change. The major types include the following:

Military defeat: Loss of a war can smash a regime’s legitimacy and rob it of the resources needed to govern, thereby setting the stage for institutional change. Argentina’s defeat in the Falklands war is a good example.

Succession crises: The legitimacy of newly established regimes is often built around the charismatic appeal of a single national leader, such as Nasser in Egypt, Khomeini in Iran, or Attaturk in Turkey. To the extent that these leaders construct institutions, they are usually designed to reinforce and extend the personal power of the leader rather than create a rational-legal basis for authority. The death of the charismatic leader often leads to a period of crisis, as potential successors compete for power and as institutions seek to secure the resources and authority needed to sustain their influence.

Economic decline: Rampant inflation and unemployment can undermine public confidence in a political and economic order and produce social despair that fuels calls for change. It can also sap the state of the resources needed to sustain key institutions, patronage networks, and social services. The collapse of the Weimar Republic and the rise of German fascism occurred amidst this type of critical juncture.

Technological change: The introduction of new technologies can weaken the state and strengthen opposition groups, thereby facilitating the decline of a political order and stimulating the emergence of new institutions. For example, improvements in communications technology in Iran in the 1970s greatly aided the dispersion of radical Islamic doctrine that undermined the legitimacy of the shah’s regime and contributed to its overthrow in 1979. More recently, the widespread dispersion of satellite television in the Middle East since the early 1990s weakens the state’s monopoly on the dissemination of information and exposes citizens to alternative conceptions of politics and society. This development erodes state power and legitimacy and creates opportunities for change.93

The direction of change at one of these critical junctures is shaped by two factors:

1. The relative strength of major institutions, which is the result of institutional histories and the effects of the critical juncture. The strength of an institution is a function of its degree of adaptability, complexity, autonomy, and coherence.94

2. The conception of politics embedded95 in each of the clashing institutions.96 The range of political ideas on offer at a specific critical juncture defines the menu of choices available to political actors. The amount of influence exerted by an idea is shaped by the strength of the institution in which it is embedded.

Thus, in order to understand the direction of change, we need to analyze changes in the strength of major institutions and the ideas of political order embodied in these institutions.97 It should be stressed that this approach emphasizes the importance of both ideas and institutions. Ideas exert a sustained impact on politics only when they are embedded in an institution that provides financial resources, personnel, and an effective organizational structure.

This historical institutionalist perspective suggests that an authoritarian regime can develop into a hybrid regime through the following scenario:

  • Critical junctures (such as an economic crisis or a military defeat) weaken key institutions of state power. The institutions affected may include political institutions (such as the presidency), security institutions (such as the armed forces), or economic institutions (such as public-sector companies or the subsidy system).
  • Regime elites try to preserve their power under these new conditions by adopting political, legal, and economic reforms. For example, they may strengthen the judiciary and the rule of law in the hope that this step will improve the efficiency of the state and attract essential foreign investment. Or, they may adopt laws that expand civil and political rights in the hope that these measures will enhance the regime’s popularity. These reforms create opportunities for competing conceptions of the polity to emerge and grow.
  • Institutions that espouse alternative conceptions of the polity (such as the judiciary or Islamist groups) exploit these opportunities. They may be joined by other actors—such as lawyers, human rights activists, intellectuals, and businessmen—who support political change due to their normative beliefs or their self-interest (or both). This interaction between reformist institutions and key actors in civil society broadens and deepens the constituencies for political change. It also defines the agenda for reform and determines which institutions command the greatest influence as the reform process unfolds.
  • The government permits this process to proceed either because it is unable to stop it, or because the reforms it produces provide benefits to the regime. These benefits might include economic growth stemming from a strengthening of the rule of law, or enhanced regime legitimacy produced by improvements in civil and political rights.
  • The resulting hybrid regime not only tolerates multiple conceptions of the polity. Its operation is grounded in the regular interaction of these competing ideas and the institutions that embody them. In this environment, political entrepreneurs can pursue several strategies: they may look for opportunities to broaden their support by cooperating with major institutions and co-opting their ideas; they may regard existing institutions and ideas as threats to their power and seek to isolate and weaken them; or, they may try to create entirely new institutions that break new conceptual ground and mobilize new groups into the political process. The mix of cooperation, conflict, and innovation determines both the stability of the hybrid regime and the trajectory of change from it. In order to understand the development of this regime, we must trace the changes in the relative strength of major institutions, the ideas that these institutions embody, and the behavior of political entrepreneurs.

This is an analytical approach that not only examines key actors and the tactics that they employ to maximize their interests. It also considers the institutional setting that constrains these actors and the ideas that these institutions espouse. It explicitly analyzes the institutional and ideational context that shapes the interests, options, and decisions of the major actors within the polity.

This perspective suggests the following strategy for studying the emergence of a hybrid regime:

1. Delineate the major conceptions of political order that compete for preeminence in the polity. These constitute distinct schools of constitutionalism that offer alternative visions of the country’s political future.98 In order to understand these distinct conceptions of politics, the analysis will focus on each school’s ideas in two areas:

  • Its approach to governance, which includes its views regarding constraints on state power, governmental accountability, protection of civil and political rights, and public participation in political life.
  • Its conception of law, which consists of its ideas regarding three issues: the institutions that are empowered to draft, interpret, and implement law; the source of law’s legitimacy (whether it lies with the people, the state, or God); and the purpose of law. This last point asks: is law intended primarily to protect citizens from the state and regulate their interaction with each other? Or, is it primarily an instrument of state power that aids the implementation of policy? Or, is it a reflection of divine will that aims to create a divinely guided community on earth?

2. Identify the institutions that espouse these competing conceptions of constitutionalism and analyze their development.

3. Study the critical junctures that weaken the autocratic institutions of the state. These include military defeats, succession crises, economic crises, and moments of disruptive technological change.

4. Examine the regime’s efforts to adapt to these critical junctures through political, legal, and economic reforms.

5. Assess how these reforms strengthen institutions that compete with the regime and create opportunities for alternative conceptions of constitutionalism to broaden their support within the state and society.

6. Examine how these competing conceptions of constitutionalism produce a distinctive trajectory of political change. This entails studying their points of convergence and difference regarding the character of governance and the source and purpose of law. Interaction in these two arenas determines the nature of the hybrid regime, its stability, and the type of regime it will transition toward.


The following volume applies this analytical framework to Egypt. This country is a particularly insightful and important case for understanding the prospects for democracy in the Middle East. All three conceptions of political order that compete for preeminence in the Arab world—liberal, Islamic, and statist—have deep historical and institutional roots in Egypt. Furthermore, the competition among them has been relatively open. It can be examined through study of sources that are easily accessible and through interviews with relevant actors. Thus, the Egyptian case provides an opportunity to analyze the competition among ideas and institutions that shapes the entire region. Furthermore, Egypt is the key to promoting democracy in the Middle East. It has the Arab world’s largest population (81 million in 2008), largest military, and second largest economy. It is the cultural leader of the region and an important source of Sunni religious thought and tradition. The country also serves as a model for political development in other Arab states. Its political and legal institutions have been emulated to varying degrees in Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Iraq, and Syria. All of these factors give Egypt unique stature and influence. Its experience with liberalism, Islam, and democracy will exert a profound demonstration effect on its neighbors. It will shape the timing, character, and success of democratization throughout the Arab world.

The analysis of Egypt begins in chapter 2, which studies the emergence of liberal constitutionalism. It examines the historical foundations of Egyptian liberalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and observes that this conception of governance became tightly integrated into the development of the legal profession. As a consequence, lawyers and judges became the most dedicated advocates of liberal reform. The Bar Association played a leading role in promoting the liberal cause for most of the twentieth century. However, changes in its membership and steady regime repression eventually fragmented the Bar and undermined its effectiveness. The judiciary, in contrast, has retained a strong sense of liberal identity and has developed a robust conception of liberal constitutionalism. In order to understand this approach to law and politics, the chapter studies the decisions of Egypt’s major courts (the Supreme Constitutional Court, the administrative courts, and the Court of Cassation). It uses this body of jurisprudence to analyze the judiciary’s views with regard to four core elements of constitutionalism: the rule of law, constraints on state power, protection of basic rights, and public participation in governance.

Chapter 3 examines the development of Islamic constitutionalism, which is based in the Muslim Brotherhood. The chapter begins by studying the re-emergence of the Brotherhood since 1970 and the political pressures that have pushed it toward a moderate conception of Islamic governance. It then analyzes the writings of four contemporary thinkers who play a critical role in defining the Brotherhood’s view of constitutional order: Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Muhammad Salim al-‘Awwa, Kamal Abu al-Majd, and Tariq al-Bishri. The analysis focuses on their positions regarding the same four aspects of constitutionalism discussed in the previous chapter: the rule of law; constraints on state power; protection of civil and political rights; and public participation in politics.

Chapter 4 begins with a concise summary of the statist conception of political order that underlies Egypt’s current autocratic regime. It then documents the economic contradictions that brought this order to the point of crisis in the early 1990s. In response to this crisis, the regime adopted reforms that enabled liberal constitutionalism and Islamic constitutionalism to broaden their influence and support. The analysis examines the growth of these two alternative views of constitutionalism through the actions of their most determined advocates: the de facto professional association for judges (the Judges’ Club—Nadi al-Quda) and the Muslim Brotherhood. The analysis finds that political competition under Egypt’s repressive regime has pushed advocates of liberal constitutionalism and Islamic constitutionalism toward common ground. Their political agendas converge in several areas, particularly with regard to key elements of liberalism such as constraints on state power, strengthening the rule of law, and protection of civil and political rights.

Chapter 5 observes that the implementation of market-oriented economic policies since 1991 has strengthened the political influence of the business community. Egypt’s most powerful businessmen have used this opportunity to articulate a distinctive conception of market liberalism through the publications of a prominent think tank, the Egyptian Center for Economic Studies. The chapter documents and analyzes this view of the state, law, and the economy. It also notes that this approach to market liberalism has been adopted by the ruling National Democratic Party and implemented by the reformist prime minister who assumed power in 2004 (Ahmad Nazif).

Chapter 6 observes that the path of institutional change advocated by these market liberals shares important areas of agreement with the reforms advocated by supporters of liberal constitutionalism and Islamic constitutionalism. Each of these groups favors the creation of a more liberal state with effective constraints on its power, a clear and unbiased legal code, and protection of civil and political rights. However, there is no comparable degree of consensus on the value of broadening public participation in politics. This fact suggests that liberalism and democracy have become de-linked in the Egyptian case. Liberalism is likely to progress steadily in the future, while democracy is likely to advance slowly and unevenly. This trajectory may eventually lead to democracy at some point in the future, particularly if liberalism enhances the private sector’s independence from the state and leads to a more autonomous and politically active middle class. However, this outcome is not inevitable. Recent amendments to the Constitution in 2007 were particularly disappointing to democrats. They suggest that Egypt is likely to remain a hybrid regime that contains some legal and institutional constraints on executive power, but which falls short of Western norms of democracy.

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File created: 11/10/2008

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