Regional States and Egypt’s Democratic Transition



The Arab Spring protests of 2011 brought immediate optimism among hundreds of millions of Arabs that the authoritarianism that pervaded the Arab world for decades may be breaking to open the door for democratizing the Arab state system. But seven years later, only Tunisia shows signs that the hope of changing the traditional Arab status quo is possible with compromise among political elites over state institutions, political party competition, and general sociopolitical change.

On the other hand, Egypt went through the motions of democratic change from the regime of President Hosni Mubarak; but it did so under the leadership and guardianship of its Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). In July 2013, the Egyptian military under the leadership of then-Minister of Defense Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi staged a coup against duly elected President Mohamed Morsi and led the country to a “new authoritarianism.”[2] The coup plotters declared a roadmap for a transitional period and appointed an interim president, Adli Mansour. His tenure ended after Sisi’s 2014 election to become the new president under whom the country has practically done away with democratic freedoms, imprisoned thousands of activists, and violated human rights.

This paper examines the role regional states played in Egypt’s transition from authoritarian rule and its reversion back to authoritarianism, despite international criticism. The first section will propose the hypothesis and the related theoretical propositions that it aims to analyze and defend. The second will discuss the literature on the different forms that international influences on democratic transitions can take and will propose that only regional actors had an impact on Egypt’s case. The third section will relate how the United States, as Egypt’s influential international ally, failed to help democratic change in Egypt despite the Obama Administration’s pontification about it since 2009. A fourth section will discuss how Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates viewed and dealt with Egypt’s transition to democracy after 2011 and what factors affected their positions. Finally, a concluding section will look at some theoretical lessons learned from the Egyptian case about regional influences on democratic transitions or lack thereof.

Hypothesis, Questions, and Propositions

As a country experiencing wrenching change since 2011, Egypt stands out as the polity that reverted to authoritarian rule after the collapse of its short experiment with democracy. This paper argues that Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates were the most influential external actors in Egypt’s transition whereby Qatar respected the will of Egyptians in a democratic transition from authoritarian rule while Saudi Arabia and the UAE thwarted the democratic opening and helped reestablish authoritarianism. More specifically, the paper intends to show that Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE succeeded in replacing the traditional influence of the United States on the Egyptian state and its institutions. Contrary to common opinion that Washington had unparalleled influence on the Egyptian armed forces at the time of Egypt’s transition, in reality the United States could not dissuade Egypt’s army from organizing a coup against Morsi, one that led to today’s openly authoritarian rule.

By proposing this hypothesis, the paper tries to answer essential general and specific questions regarding the role played by regional powers in both helping and aborting Egypt’s democratic transition. Such questions include the following: How do regional actors replace international actors regarding transitions to democracy and their opposite, and how do they try to protect their interests in an important foreign policy arena? In Egypt’s case, how did the United States fail to help the Egyptian uprising succeed in establishing and consolidating a democratic system in Cairo? What regional conditions helped to abort the democratic transition that was begun in Egypt after the 2011 protests? Is the fear from a demonstration effect enough to justify Saudi and Emirati interference in Egypt’s political development? Finally, can Egypt under the current Sisi regime be fully independent in its foreign policy given its reliance on Saudi and Emirati financial assistance?

The chapter uses the observational case study research method to test a set of essential, and clearly interlinked, theoretical propositions. First, regional states endowed with financial resources can replace a powerful international actor when they feel that their interests are threatened. The United States, as the most important international player in Egyptian affairs, appeared confused and indecisive regarding helping democracy because Mubarak was a reliable ally. In the first two years after the transition, Qatar assisted Egypt’s changes, which included the Muslim Brotherhood’s success in parliamentary and presidential elections. Leading up to the July 2013 coup and in the period following it, Saudi Arabia and the UAE chose to throw their economic weight behind the Egyptian military. Today, Egypt is arguably beholden to both Gulf states because its political and military leaderships are dependent on their financial largesse.

Second, during Mohamed Morsi’s presidency, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates exploited Egypt’s instability through its military in order to thwart the ongoing democratic transition. Although Morsi allowed the military to keep its traditional prerogatives and privileges, he and his associates were always suspected of harboring a desire to diminish the influence of the top brass and subject them to the country’s political leadership. This internal schism between President Morsi and the military provided Saudi Arabia and the UAE an opportunity to interfere in Egypt’s domestic politics.

Third, given the financial investment Saudi Arabia and the UAE have made in Egypt after its resort to authoritarianism, the longevity of their influence may very well depend on Cairo’s ability to successfully resolve its economic problems. Relatedly, President Sisi may likely remain Egypt’s ruler so long as the two states believe he is capable of controlling the country’s institutions and the Egyptian street.

External Factors in Democratic Transitions

Transitions from authoritarian rule do not simply occur in a vacuum, and this is no different in Egypt. Domestic factors, such as economic inequality, elite politics, or sociopolitical agitation, among others, may on very rare occasions be sufficient for such a transition. But successful transitions from authoritarianism are mostly accomplished by a combination of the domestic and the external; and the same works in cases of democratic reversals. In the case of Egypt’s hybrid regime,[3] international factors were important when the late President Anwar Sadat established his state-controlled political platforms in an effort to convince the world that his regime was allowing democratic development.

In studying the countries of southern Europe (Turkey, Greece, Spain, and Portugal), Segal surmised that the location and type of the state where change is required are essential factors and may also decide the success of external pressures. In the cases he studied, there was an obvious use of political and economic pressures to arrive at a democratic opening, which indeed took place between the 1970s and 1980s.[4] On the other hand, Whitehead has posited that superpower preferences during the cold war may have been decisive factors in pressuring autocratic regimes to liberalize and join western democracies.[5]

Looking at the factor of linkages between the democratic polities and the developing countries suffering from authoritarian rule, Haggard and Kaufman posited that a country’s domestic environment and the international economic and financial institutions can be decisive in transitions. They argued that elites in developing countries have come to see that economic and political liberalizations are closely intertwined. Aid donors have come to the conclusion that “good” government precedes economic reform and political liberalization, and “political conditionality” “should be added to economic conditionality.”[6] Advocating for conditionality, Schmitter writes that it can carry a “deliberate use of coercion, by attaching specific conditions to the distribution of benefits to recipient countries on the part of multilateral lending institutions.”[7] Similarly, Brown sees that it is important to link financial assistance to policy reforms, although this might create unwanted pain for the general population.[8]

Like Haggard and Kaufman, Levitsky and Way emphasize the importance of linkage between elites in autocratic regimes and democratic states. They argue that this linkage can help to apply the strong tools of leverage on autocratic state leaders to force them to allow an opening. They posit that the impact of this leverage is determined by three interconnected factors: the size and level of economic and military strength of the receiving state, the existence of competing issues important to the pressuring state (such as economic interests in the Middle East), and the existence of alternative powers. They write that “[l]everage raises the cost of repression, electoral fraud, and other government abuses”;[9] basically, if applied properly, linkages and leverage can be positive elements in democratic transitions.

Huntington found that there is an effect of “snowballing” in democratic transitions: the idea that there is a domino effect to democratization where some countries, for whatever reason, simply follow others in opening up their political spaces, whatever their readiness.[10] Whitehead calls this “contagion,” according to which clusters of countries choose to transition to democracy, such as what happened in southern Europe, Latin America, the Caribbean, and after 1989 following the collapse of the Soviet Union.[11] Adding an economic perspective, Miller argues that a demonstration effect takes place between prosperous democracies and countries desiring to democratize. He writes that “…countries indeed shift more rapidly toward democratization when it displays a superior economic record on the global stage.” In other words, if democracy succeeds in one country then others want to emulate it.[12]

Another proposition highlights the importance of joining democratic international alliances as an impetus for countries’ democratization. This has been most evident in the experience of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Epstein uses the example of NATO’s two enlargements in 1999 and 2004 as a case in point. She argues that the nations that joined the alliance benefited not only from its security umbrella but also from its institutional reach into their domestic spheres.[13]

Finally, there are democracy enthusiasts who have pushed for so-called “democracy promotion” through military conquest. This school of thought has been at its best in the run-up and follow-up to the invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. In Iraq’s case, after it became clear that the country did not possess weapons of mass destruction, Bush Administration officials began to promote the theory that toppling the Saddam Hussein regime was just as important because it would lead to a democratic Iraqi polity.[14]

While the aforementioned theories regarding international factors influencing democratic change may apply to different countries at various times and to different degrees, only the nexus of snowballing (Huntington), contagion (Whitehead), and the demonstration effect (Miller) apply in Egypt’s case. They indeed are variations on a similar theme that focuses on other states’ influence on an authoritarian polity to democratize. As an important ally of the United States, Egypt has always relied on America’s strategic position and its relations to avoid the pressures associated with political and economic conditionality and the imperatives of linkages and leverage. In addition, Egypt did not belong to an alliance of democratic states like NATO, is not adjacent to a number of democratic entities like those in Europe, and was not subjected to a foreign invasion that forcibly changed its regime.

In essence, the first impetus for Egypt’s transition to democracy as part of the Arab Spring of early 2011 was the demonstration effect from the Tunisian example of transition. As Tunisians stood steadfast in their opposition to Zine El-Abidine ben Ali’s regime, and as the latter fled the country, Egyptians saw their opportunity to go into the streets to demonstrate peacefully for regime change. This was not only an Egyptian conclusion but one that also spread to many countries to different degrees, from Morocco to the Arabian Gulf and the Levant. Indeed, and despite the salience of the domestic factors, the regional aspect of contagion was arguably a decisive one.

Beyond this contagion from other cases of revolution against the old status quo, this paper looks at the importance of the material regional conditions that helped the short transition from Mubarak’s authoritarianism to the Muslim Brotherhood’s ascendancy. Namely, it argues that Qatar, with its financial resources, acknowledged the Egyptian people’s choice to transition from Mubarak’s authoritarianism. Conversely, and as is the case since the coup of 2013, other regional actors, specifically Saudi Arabia and the UAE, were instrumental in aborting the short period of democratization and supporting the reversion to authoritarian rule—with the help of the Egyptian armed forces. The aim is to highlight what each of the countries—Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE—represented to Egypt’s transition to democracy and to its subsequent retreat from it. First, however, the failure of the United States, as the most influential international actor in Egyptian affairs, to assist Egypt’s democratic change will be discussed.

An American Failure in Egypt

It is important to posit that the regional actors that became active on the Egyptian political scene may have found their opportunity after the United States showed clear signs of confusion, hesitation about the wave of protests in the Arab world, and limited influence to determine the outcomes.[15] As a strategic partner and friend of Arab regimes––those who experienced protests and those who remained immune to them––the United States was the most powerful international actor that, if it wished, supported calls for democratic change, withdrew aid from autocratic regimes, and helped democratic consolidation where democracy took root. Arguably, it could also serve a completely opposite role if its interests dictated a different position—a fact borne out in its relations with the successive Egyptian regimes since the 1970s.

In this regard, it is important to look at the following factors:

  1. At least publicly, the United States has always had a love-hate relationship with official Egypt. What was a symbiotic relationship between the two countries was seriously tested by the Egyptian uprising. Indeed, the protests of January-February 2011 highlighted the inconsistencies in the American strategic doctrine that depended on a stable Egypt––usually at the expense of democratic freedoms and human rights––while extolling the virtues of democracy and respect for these rights.[16] As Quandt writes, President Barack Obama found great difficulty with Egypt’s transition because he considered President Mubarak a reliable ally. This is why the American response to the Egyptian protests was simply reactive, “usually lagging behind the rapidly changing reality on the ground.”[17] Later on, the White House remained reluctant even to provide advice because both the SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood would accuse it of interference and meddling.[18]
  2. There may have been, and remains, an incorrect assumption that the United States truly wields power and influence over Egyptian affairs. Faris posits that “the United States cannot force a process of democratization on an Egyptian elite that has no interest in pursuing it.”[19] The Obama Administration could have at least labeled the military putsch a coup, a designation that would have had serious repercussions in the US Congress, automatically constricting American assistance to Egypt. Instead, all the administration did was to suspend some military aid.[20] This indeed looked like a mere gesture and did not affect the military’s capabilities.

  1. After 2011, the United States found that it could not but deal directly with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which suddenly appeared to be the main beneficiary of the Egyptian uprising. Before then Washington had shied away from openly dealing with the organization out of a sense of not upsetting its relationship with the Mubarak regime and to avoid criticism from American interest groups opposed to the Brotherhood. Instead, Washington maintained some limited contacts with low level Brotherhood officials and members of the Egyptian parliament who had won seats as independents.[21] Brownlee et al., wrote that at the time of the Egyptian uprising in 2011 that American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was reluctant to open up to the organization because of uncertainty about its commitment to democracy and to good relations with the United States. After days of hesitation, Clinton finally called for an orderly transition to Vice President Omar Suleiman, whom President Mubarak had appointed on January 28 to satisfy the United States.[22]

In the end, the Obama Administration accepted Mubarak’s abdication on February 11 in favor of SCAF’s takeover of the country and supervision of the political process. But this result was arguably the only possible outcome since the Egyptian SCAF was the only constitutionally powerful organization capable of maintaining an orderly transition.

  1. These three essential dynamics––Egypt as a strategic ally, America’s public agenda of agitating for democracy, and the stance toward the Muslim Brotherhood––all coincided with a chaotic regional environment. Other countries were still either in the throes of calls for change, experiencing regime collapse, or beginning bouts of civil wars, all while the United States was continuing its campaign against extremism and strengthening antiterrorist alliances.[23] An additional and essential factor was President Obama’s plan to work for and achieve a breakthrough with Iran on the latter’s nuclear program instead of dealing with the Islamic Republic as only a pariah state.
  1. Finally, the Obama Administration’s intention to partially pivot away from the Middle East to East Asia to protect against the Chinese challenge to American supremacy there, coupled with the exposure of secret US-Iran talks, heightened many Gulf Arab leaders’ fears of abandonment by the United States.[24] Obama was not necessarily planning to completely pull the United States away from its traditional allies in the Gulf. Still, Gulf leaders, led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, saw any rebalancing to Asia as a threat to their security. By that time, they had begun to be seriously worried about a nuclear Iran[25] and the potential implications of the Arab Spring on their own regimes, especially since Oman and Bahrain experienced disturbing protests and had to be bailed out by the collective effort of the GCC.[26] It thus became essential that GCC countries had to find a friendly regime in Egypt that could be a good insurance policy for the future.

Regional Influences on Egypt’s Democratic Transition

Regional interference in Egyptian affairs after the 2011 revolution also had its own reasons, namely  how the interfering regional actors saw the drive for change not only in Egypt but also in the Arab world at large. Moreover, each of these actors had a specific set of foreign policy preferences and strategic interests regardless of how Egypt’s transition was settled. These preferences and interests rotated around such issues as Egypt’s position in the Arab and Middle Eastern environments, Egypt’s strategic weight in potential disputes involving these actors, the potentials and dangers of the Arab Spring, and the challenges of and fears about the Muslim Brotherhood.

Qatar’s Approach to the Egyptian Spring. As a small state trying to protect itself from undue influence by Saudi Arabia––its bigger sister in the Gulf Cooperation Council—Qatar has always sought to look outside the GCC for prestige, friends, and influence. Like many other states within the GCC, it generally tried to avoid betting on the assistance of a specific regional or international actor, although it continued to treasure its relationship with the United States, which culminated in the US-Qatar strategic dialogue of January 2018.[27] Kamrava argues that, over the years, three specific determinants have defined Qatar’s foreign policy for survival as a small state: geopolitical considerations, domestic stability and state autonomy from social groups, and the need to assure security and protection.[28]

In seeking self-protection, Qatar has gone out of its immediate environment and invited different actors to have a stake in its safety and security. It hosts the American al-Udeid Air Base and the forward headquarters of US Central Command. It struck defense deals with Turkey[29] by which the latter has agreed to station Turkish soldiers on Qatari soil, a development that helped Doha send messages of strength at the outset of the ongoing GCC crisis where Qatar is under siege and boycott by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE, in addition to Egypt. It has used its trade and investment schemes to secure international economic partners, thus assuring continued and commensurate diplomatic relations with a wide variety of states around the world.

Importantly, Qatar has developed its soft power tools and used its offices to mediate in regional crises. In the 2000s, it mediated between fighting groups in Sudan’s Darfur and the country’s central government. Qatar also interceded between the former government of Yemen’s late President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the country’s Houthis before the breakout of full-scale war in 2009. Finally, Qatar was instrumental in arriving at the political deal that ended a serious crisis in Lebanon in 2008, assuring constitutional continuity in that country by arranging for the election of Michel Suleiman as president after a long-lasting presidential vacuum.[30]

However, one important foreign policy orientation has set Qatar apart from some other states in the GCC: its openness to the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). This has caused Doha major difficulties, specifically with Saudi Arabia and the UAE and continues to figure in the current crisis engulfing the alliance. It is strange that the Brotherhood should be a reason for conflict in the Gulf since it has been central to the social development of all Gulf societies as MB members set up these societies’ social and educational systems in the 1950s and 1960s. Today, although Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE designate the MB a terrorist organization,[31] Kuwait and Bahrain allow its affiliates under different monikers to operate in their political systems.[32]

Qatar has found its modern association with the Muslim Brotherhood beneficial from an instrumentalist and pragmatic perspective. As Lina Khatib argues, Qatar saw an opportunity to advance its position during the revolutionary period, although that came at a large cost: its relations with some of its GCC sisters.[33] Kamrava agrees, arguing that Qatar may have hedged its bets to gain friends in the new regimes that were expected to be born after the protests, while currying favor with the United States. He writes: “That this involvement [with the MB] was parallel to the broad strategic objectives of the United States and took place with US support was an added bonus for Qatari policymakers.”[34] In fact, he adds, Qatar and Saudi Arabia had “common cause” at the beginning of the Arab protests but the amity disappeared when they became rivals in courting Egyptian political forces.[35]

It is inarguable that Qatar’s best relations with Egypt came during the period of SCAF-supervised openness when the Muslim Brotherhood won parliamentary and presidential elections and Mohammed Morsi ascended the presidential palace. Not that the SCAF facilitated Doha’s entry into Egyptian politics––for the Egyptian military institution did not want any competitors––but the kind of transition that SCAF led and was advocated by the United States sanctioned openness on the Brotherhood.[36] But in becoming an actor, Qatar quickly realized that Morsi’s success depended on his ability to successfully manage Egypt’s ailing economy.

With foreign exchange reserves dropping precipitously to $13 billion at the start of 2013 (the lowest in 11 years), budget deficits and high inflation and unemployment rates, among other things,[37] quick cash infusions were the only answer since loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) were slow in coming. In April 2013, then-Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassem Al Thani announced in Cairo that Doha was buying $3 billion in Egyptian bonds as Egypt was seeking an IMF loan for $4.8 billion. Previously, in September 2012, Qatar had announced a $5 billion aid package ($1 billion as a grant and $4 billion as bank deposits).[38] After Morsi’s election in June 2012, Qatar had pledged to invest $18 billion over five years in Egypt’s tourism infrastructure ($10 billion) and industrial projects ($8 billion in “gas, power and iron and steel plants”).[39] In all, Qatar provided about $7.5 billion in direct actual assistance to Egypt between the revolution and mid-2013.[40]

After Sisi’s military coup against Morsi in 2013, Qatari-Egyptian economic relations deteriorated. In fact, Egypt returned $2 billion of the last $3 billion tranche of Qatari investment in government bonds.[41] Today, despite Egypt’s boycott and blockade of Qatar, Doha still keeps its old investments in the country, protected by law as Egypt’s Minister of Investment Sahar Nasr declared.[42] But the absence of cooperation between the two countries prevents Qatar from assisting in addressing the many challenges faced by the Egyptian economy. One positive fact is that hundreds of thousands of Egyptians still work in Qatar and remit their earnings to Egypt, amounting to $1.05 billion in 2015.[43]

Saudi and Emirati Approaches to Egypt. To be sure, Saudi and Emirati leaders viewed involvement in Egypt’s post-2011 period as, first, necessary for their strategic posture in a very unstable regional environment and, second, as a response to Qatar’s declared policy of seeking strong allies and of getting involved outside the GCC. Additionally, and importantly, they saw great danger in the calls for change that had engulfed the Arab world, specifically because they feared that the only beneficiary from that change would be the Muslim Brotherhood.

In Saudi Arabia’s case, Saudi leaders have always worried about the dynamics of political leadership that may challenge their domestic legitimacy. They were diligent in managing the apparent contradiction between Islamism and Arab nationalism as transnational ideologies and emphasized their credentials as the true defenders of conservative Sunni Islam.[44] Additionally, they feared the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood inside the kingdom, which could weaken the Wahhabi creed that has governed Saudi politics since the middle of the eighteenth century. In fact, they feared an Islamist democracy that could challenge the entire basis of Saudi rule.[45] Thus, Riyadh saw the ascendance of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt as both a direct challenge to monarchical rule and to its supremacy in the Muslim world.

In the UAE’s case, the Brotherhood did not represent a religious challenge but a political one. Since the 1990s, the UAE government has eliminated whatever support the organization had domestically.[46] Brotherhood affiliates had asked for major steps toward political reform and thus constituted a threat to the regime. They were arrested, imprisoned, or exiled.[47] The UAE has also pursued an aggressive policy toward the different affiliates of the Brotherhood in Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen.[48] Its involvement in Egypt is therefore intimately tied to its original stance toward political Islam.

Saudi Arabia condemned the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions as soon as they erupted. Saudi religious leaders even considered them sedition (fitna).[49] Rashid writes that Saudi Arabia in fact created a Salafi party in Egypt, the Nour Party, to challenge the Brotherhood for Egypt’s Islamism while simultaneously supporting the SCAF to be a strong counterweight to both. She adds that the kingdom actually prefers an economically weak and politically unstable Egypt that, at the same time, could serve as a sort of auxiliary force that could be called upon to assist in cases of emergency.[50]

When the coup took place in Egypt in July 2013, Saudi Arabia and the UAE were the first to congratulate the new leaders. The late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz announced that Egypt had exited the “dark tunnel.” Speaking for his government, UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed supported the coup and praised the Egyptian army as a “strong shield” and “protector” of Egypt.[51] Bin Zayed and the late Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal also intervened with European countries on behalf of the coup leaders to tone down their criticism and give the latter a chance.[52] This instrumentalism in the Saudi and Emirati approaches was a prelude to a counterrevolution that sought to restore the old status quo. Riedel writes that the Saudis were not merely angry at the change in Egypt’s political system but also at the Obama Administration for calling on Mubarak to resign instead of helping him to hang on, thus depriving them of a pivotal regional ally.[53]

Financially, Saudi Arabia and the UAE rushed to assist the new regime so that the Muslim Brotherhood does not benefit from difficult economic times. Thus, Saudi Arabia quickly supported the new interim government with $5 billion as the UAE provided $4.9 billion. Almost a year after the coup, they were preparing to provide a package of $20 billion in assistance.[54] Between 2014 and 2017, Saudi Arabia’s assistance to Egypt amounted to about $25 billion in grants, loans, and investments.[55] In May of 2017, the Saudi-Egyptian Business Council announced that it plans to increase Saudi investments in Egypt to $51 billion for different projects.[56] Furthermore, an estimated 2 million Egyptians live and work in Saudi Arabia and in 2015 they remitted over $7.5 billion to their home country.[57]

The relationship with Saudi Arabia also goes beyond the economic angle to reflect Saudi concerns about Iran during Morsi’s rule. Sons writes that Riyadh was worried about Morsi’s rapprochement, although slow and limited, with the Islamic Republic, Saudi Arabia’s competitor and rival in the Gulf. “This rapprochement was demonstrated by successive high-level meetings between officials of both states…” Together with Qatar’s support for the Morsi regime, this openness on Iran was a warning Saudi Arabia––and of course the UAE––had to deal with.[58]

But the development of a coordinated strategic relationship between Saudi Arabia and Egypt unfortunately puts Cairo’s policies in a subordinate position. One illustrative example came in 2016 when President Sisi declared that he was transferring two strategically located islands at the tip of the Sinai Peninsula––Tiran and Sanafir––to Saudi Arabia during a visit by Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz to Egypt. A public uproar ensued about surrendering sovereignty over national territory to another country. An Egyptian court in January 2017 ordered a delay in the transfer, but an appellate court the following June vacated the lower court’s decision and sent the case to parliament which, pliant to Sisi, legislated for transferring the islands[59] and Sisi signed the legislation.[60]

With Egypt’s heavy dependence on Saudi assistance, it could be argued that Sisi could not have acted any differently; the crux of the matter is that Saudi support may impede the free exercise of Egyptian domestic and foreign policies. For example, while Egypt may have its own reasons for joining Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain in severing relations with Qatar, some may see the coordination as an outcome of Egypt’s economic dependence.

Egypt and Sisi are almost similarly dependent on UAE financial assistance. In addition to the aforementioned aid of $4.9 billion after the 2013 coup, the UAE provided Egypt $4 billion in April 2016, half in investment and half in support for the central bank’s cash reserves.[61] As of May 2017, the UAE was the largest foreign investor in Egypt with a $6.2 billion portfolio, especially in real estate development.[62] The UAE also has ambitious plans to invest in the building of the new Egyptian administrative capital, a new El Alamein city on the Mediterranean coast, and other projects in Cairo and the Sinai Peninsula.[63] Finally, a large Egyptian workforce of over 900,000, the second largest expatriate community in the country, remitted almost $2 billion in 2015 back to Egypt.[64]

Additionally, there is Egyptian-Emirati coordination on other issues around the Arab world, such as assisting Libyan General Khalifa Haftar who commands the so-called Libyan National Army after he directed his attention to fighting Islamists in the country.[65] Nevertheless, the UAE and Egypt are still at odds on the war in Yemen since President Sisi has practically reneged on his promise to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen to send troops to help in the effort to defeat the Houthis.[66]

Lessons Learned from the Triumph of Regionalism

 The brief exposition of the Qatari, Saudi, and Emirati roles after the Egyptian uprising in 2011 allows for important theoretical conclusions regarding regional influences on democratic transitions and/or the reversion to authoritarianism.

  1. In the absence of an active role by an influential international actor, which would be the United States in Egypt’s case, regional states have more freedom to interfere and effect conditions more conducive to their overall strategic posture and interests. Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE both supplanted the United States and helped to implement changes in post-uprising Egypt that serve their own strategic interests. But while doing this, they simultaneously avoided harming the American strategic interest in a strong relationship with Egypt.
  1. Regional states working to influence events and developments in states undergoing political change must have the material resources necessary to play the role of benefactor. This should apply in both cases of transitioning from authoritarian rule or reverting back to it. As transitioning states undergo upheaval, economic assistance from interested and influential regional actors provide necessary resources for state elites to cover needs and temporarily buy off the public until they can impose order and consolidate their rule. In the Egyptian case, Qatar on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the other, used their financial resources to shore up their respective Egyptian actors who desperately needed a respite from the dire economic conditions that Egypt faced in the post-2011 period.
  1. Regional actors need to have domestic supporters in the transitioning countries in order to help implement their agendas. In the case at hand, Qatar’s constituency included the general public that at first demanded change from Mubarak’s authoritarian rule and later supported (in smaller numbers) the government of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi. Saudi Arabia’s and the UAE’s constituency included the Egyptian armed forces and those in the general public who grew disaffected with Morsi’s rule and his government’s mismanagement of the political and economic affairs of the country.

In addition to these theoretical conclusions, two substantive summaries are warranted. First, as a small state, Qatar faced serious obstacles in addition to the structural impediments of the Egyptian polity. These included the dominance of the military institution, which worried that the Brotherhood was going to suppress it,[67] did not want to withdraw from politics or the economy,[68] and feared Qatari investments because these may have used Brotherhood-owned companies.[69] Institutionally, the military also appeared to be the only cohesive actor on the ground which added to its legitimacy among the Egyptian people.[70] By comparison, the Morsi presidency was ineffectual while the Brotherhood remained insular, tight-knit, and reluctant to share power with anyone.[71]

Second, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are likely to remain very important external actors in Egypt’s future, and Egypt’s military institution will continue to be an essential part of a Saudi-Emirati-Egyptian “regional security system.”[72] As such, and absent American pressure on Egypt under the Trump Administration to emphasize democracy and respect for human rights, Saudi Arabia and the UAE can be assured that the Egyptian regime of Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi will continue to suppress the Muslim Brotherhood.

 [1] This paper was presented at a conference on “External Factors and Democratic Transitions: Regional and International Influences on Arab Countries after 2011,” convened by Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, Tunis, Tunisia, on September 20, 2018.

[2] See, inter alia, Amr Hamzawy, “Egypt after the 2013 military coup: Law-making in service of the new authoritarianism,” Philosophy and Social Criticism, Vol. 43, No. 4-5 (2017), pp. 392-405 and Bruce Rutherford, “Egypt’s New Authoritarianism under Sisi,” Middle East Journal, Vol. 72, No. 2 (2018), pp. 185-208.

[3] This type of regime combines aspects of authoritarian politics and democratic practices such as periodic elections. For a full analysis, see Larry Diamond, “Thinking About Hybrid Regimes,” Journal of Democracy, Vol.13, No. 2 (2002), pp. 21-35.

[4] Gerald Segal, “International Relations and Democratic Transitions,” in Geoffrey Pridham, ed., Encouraging Democracy: The International Context of Regime Transition in Southern Europe (Leicester, UK: Leicester University Press, 1991), p. 31.

[5] Laurence Whitehead, “International Aspects of Democratization,” in Guillermo O’Donnell, Philippe Schmitter, and Laurence Whitehead, eds., Transitions from Authoritarian Rule: Comparative Perspectives (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), pp. 10-11.

[6] Stephen Haggard and Robert Kaufman, The Politics of Economic Adjustment (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992), p. 331.

[7] Philippe Schmitter, “The International Context in Contemporary Democratization,” in Geoffrey Pridham, ed., Transitions to Democracy: Comparative Perspectives from Southern Europe, Latin America and Eastern Europe (Brookfield, VT: Dartmouth Publishing Company, 1995), p. 503.

[8] Chelsea Brown, “Democracy’s Friend or Foe? The Effects of Recent IMF Conditional Lending in Latin America,” International Political Science Review, Vol. 30, No. 4 (2009), p. 433.

[9] Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way, “International Linkage and Democratization,” Journal of Democracy, Vol. 16, No. 3 (2005), pp. 21-22.

[10] Samuel Huntington, “Democracy’s Third Wave,” Journal of Democracy, Vol. 2, No. 2 (1991), pp. 16-17.

[11] Laurence Whitehead, “Three International Dimensions of Democratization,” in Laurence Whitehead, Ed., The International Dimensions of Democratization: Europe and the America, Expanded Edition (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 5-8.

[12] Michael Miller, “Democracy by Example? Why Democracy Spreads When the World’s Democracies Prosper,” Comparative Politics, Vol. 49, No. 1 (2016), p. 83. See also Seymour Martin Lipset, “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy,” American Political Science Review, Vol. 53, No. 1 (1959), pp. 69-105.

[13] Rachel Epstein, “NATO Enlargement and the Spread of Democracy: Evidence and Expectations,” Security Studies, Vol. 14, No. 1 (2005), pp. 63-105.

[14] On different aspects of spreading democracy by imposition, see Shibley Telhami, “How to Not Spread Democracy,” Brookings Institution, September 13, 2007, accessed 4/20/2018, at and Eric Hobsbawm, “Special Report: Spreading Democracy,” Foreign Policy, October 23, 2009, accessed 4/20/2018, at, among others.

[15] See a rundown of these conditions of confusion in Rex Brynen, et al., Beyond the Arab Spring: Authoritarianism and Democratization in the Arab World (London and Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2012), Chapter 1.

[16] See, inter alia, Jeremy Pressman, “Same Old Story? Obama and the Arab Spring,” in Mark Haas and David Lesch, eds., The Arab Spring: Change and Resistance in the Middle East (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2013), pp. 219-237.

[17] William Quandt, “U.S. Policy and the Arab Revolutions of 2011,” in Fawaz Gerges, ed., The New Middle East: Protest and Revolution in the Arab World (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp. 420-421.

[18] Ibid., pp. 423-424.

[19] David Faris, “Deep State, Deep Crisis: Egypt and American Policy,” Middle East Policy, Vol. 20, No. 4 (2013), p. 104. Also see Pressman, “Same Old Story?” op. cit., p. 232.

[20] Ibid., pp. 106-107.

[21] Arshad Mohammed, “Exclusive – U.S. to resume formal Muslim Brotherhood contacts,” Reuters, 29/6/2011, accessed 10/7/2018, at

[22] See Jason Brownlee, Tarek Masoud, and Andrew Reynolds, The Arab Spring: Pathways of Repression and Reform (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), pp. 73-74.

[23] Brynen et al., p. 5.

[24] For a comprehensive evaluation of the policy see Michael Green, “The Legacy of Obama’s `Pivot’ to Asia,” Foreign Policy, 9/3/2016, accessed 25/1/2018, at

[25] Regarding the Gulf states’ position on the Iran issue, see Ilan Goldenberg and Melissa Dalton, “Bridging the Gulf: How to Fix U.S. Relations with the GCC,” Foreign Affairs, November/December 2015, accessed 12/2/2018, at

[26] Caryle Murphy, “GCC to set up $20bn bailout fund for Bahrain and Oman,” The National, March 11, 2011, accessed 12/2/2018, at

[27] See Marwan Kabalan, “The US-Qatar Strategic Dialogue: Messages and Implications,” Arab Center Washington DC, February 8, 2018, accessed 3/25/2018, at

[28] Mehran Kamrava, “The Foreign Policy of Qatar,” in Raymond Hinnebusch and Anoushiravan Ihtishami, eds., The Foreign Policies of Middle East States, Second Edition (Boulder, CO and London: Lynne Rienner, 2014), p. 159.

[29] On the strategic relationship with Turkey, see “Turkey and Qatar: Behind the strategic alliance,” Al Jazeera, February 1, 2018, accessed 3/25/2018, at

[30] On Qatar’s role in mediation, see Sultan Barakat, “Qatari Mediation: Between Ambition and Achievement,” Brookings Doha Center Analysis Paper Number 12, November 2014, accessed 25/1/2018, at

[31] “UAE lists Muslim Brotherhood as terrorist group,” Reuters, November 15, 2014, accessed 25/1/2018, at Bahrain made its designation after the start of the 2017 GCC crisis. See “Bahrain FM: Muslim Brotherhood is a terrorist group,” Al Jazeera, 6/7/2017, Accessed 25/1/2018, at

[32] On Islamists in Bahrain and Kuwait, see Courtney Freer, “The Changing Islamist Landscape of the Gulf Arab States,” The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, Issue Paper #9, November 21, 2016, accessed 25/1/2018, at

[33] Lina Khatib, “Qatar and the Recalibration of Power in the Gulf,” Carnegie Middle East Center, September 2014, accessed 3/5/2018, at

[34] Kamrava, “The Foreign Policy of Qatar,” in Hinnebusch and Ihtishami, op. cit., p. 175.

[35] Ibid, pp. 175-176.

[36] On the role of the SCAF, see Hicham Abu Nassif, “Coups and nascent democracies: the military in Egypt’s failed consolidation,” Democratization, Vol. 24, No. 1 (2017), pp. 157-174.

[37] Mohamad Salah, “Election uncertainty to negatively affect Egypt’s economy: Standard Chartered,” Daily News Egypt, March 18, 2013, accessed 12/2/2018, at

[38] “Qatar offers Egypt $3bn in aid,” Al Jazeera, 10/4/2013, accessed 12/2/2018, at

[39] Marwa Awad, “Qatar says to invest $18 billion in Egypt economy,” Reuters, 6/9/2012, accessed 12/2/2018, at

[40] Sara Aggour, “Tracking financial assistance to Egypt,” Daily News Egypt, November 25, 2014, accessed 12/2/2018, at

[41] “Egypt returns $2 billion to Qatar after talks to securitize it fail,” Ahram Online, September 19, 2013, accessed 12/2/2018, at

[42] “Egypt says Qatari investments in Cairo protected by law,” Reuters, 7/6/2017, accessed 12/2/2018, at

[43] “Expat remittances from Qatar surged to $1.04bn in 2015,” Gulf Times, 24/7/2016, accessed 12/2/2018, at

[44] F. Gregory Gause III, “The Foreign Policy of Saudi Arabia,” in Hinnebusch and Ihtishami, op. cit. p. 189. See also David Hearst, “Why Saudi Arabia is taking a risk by backing the Egyptian coup” The Guardian, August 20, 2013, accessed 25/3/2018, at

[45] Sebastian Sons, “Saudi Arabia and Egypt’s Strategic Relationship: Continuities and Transformations after King Abdullah’s Death,” in Robert Mason, ed., Egypt and the Gulf: A Renewed Regional Policy Alliance (Berlin, Germany: Gerlach Press, 2017), p. 90.

[46] “UAE jails Emiratis up to 10 years for Al-Islah links,” Middle East Eye, November 23, 2017, accessed 12/2/2018, at

[47] Maged Butros Salib, “The Muslim Brotherhood and the Gulf States: Implications of their Relationship with Egypt,” in Mason, ed., Egypt and the Gulf, op. cit., pp. 36-37.

[48] Marc Cher-Lepparain, “The UAE has it in for the Muslim Brotherhood,” The New Arab, February 22, 2017, accessed 12/2/2018, at

[49] Madawi Al-Rashid, “Saudi Internal Dilemmas and Regional Responses to the Arab Uprisings,” in Gerges, ed., op. cit., p. 370. Indeed, Saudi Arabia sheltered Tunisia’s deposed President Zine El-Abidine ben Ali as soon as he abdicated his position.

[50] Ibid., p. 373.

[51] Eman Ragab, “Tactical Alliance? The Relationship between Egypt under El-Sisi, Saudi Arabia and the UAE,” in Mason, ed., Egypt and the Gulf, op. cit., p. 109.

[52] Ibid., p. 110.

[53] Bruce Riedel, “Saudi Arabia Cheers the Coup in Egypt,” Brookings Institution, July 7, 2013, accessed 22/3/2018, at

[54] Andrew Critchlow, “Saudi and UAE ready $20bn boost for Egypt’s El-Sisi,” The Telegraph, June 1, 2014, accessed 12/2/2018, at

[55] Declan Walsh, “Despite Public Outcry, Egypt to Transfer Islands to Saudi Arabia,” The New York Times, June 14, 2017, accessed 12/2/2018, at

[56] “Saudi Arabia to increase investment in Egypt up to $51 bn,” Al-Masry Al-Youm, May 17, 2017, accessed 12/2/2018, at

[57] “Kingdom becomes top remittance contributor to Egypt,” Arab News, June 13, 2016, accessed 12/2/2018, at

[58] Sons, op. cit., p. 92.

[59] “Egypt lawmakers approve islands transfer to Saudi Arabia,” Al Jazeera, June 14, 2017, accessed 12/2/2018, at

[60] “Egypt’s Sisi hands control over two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia,” Business Insider, June 24, 2017, accessed 12/2/2018, at

[61] Taimur Khan, “UAE allocates $4bn in assistance to Egypt,” The National, April 23, 2016, accessed 25/3/2018, at

[62] Aya Batrawi, “Egypt’s president visits staunch ally United Arab Emirates,” Associated Press, May 3, 2017, accessed 3/25/2018, at

[63] “Egypt: Sahar Nasr: UAE’s Emaar Plans to Pump New Investments in Egypt,”, August 1, 2017, accessed 12/2/2018, at

[64] “UAE remittances to Egypt hit $1.83 bn in 2015,” The Gulf, May 29, 2017, accessed 12/2/2018, at

[65] For the latest on Egyptian-Emirati coordination in Libya, see Noura Ali, “Egypt and the UAE Will Assist Haftar in His Struggle for Power in Derna?: Reports,” Middle East Observer, February 14, 2018, accessed 25/3/2018, at

[66] David Hearst, “Exclusive: The Emirati plan for ruling Egypt,” Middle East Eye, November 25, 2015, accessed 12/2/2018, at

[67] Bruce Rutherford, “Egypt: The Origins and Consequences of the January 25 Uprising,” in Haas and Lesch, op. cit., p. 55.

[68] Robert Springborg, “The rewards of failure: persisting military rule in Egypt,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 44, No. 4 (2017), p. 479.

[69] Robert Mason, “Egypt’s Future: Status Quo, Incremental Growth or Regional Leadership?” Middle East Policy, Vol. 23, No. 2 (2016), p. 86.

[70] Emad El-Dine Shahin, “Egypt’s Revolution Turned on its Head,” Current History, December 2015, pp. 343-344.

[71] Nathan Brown, “Egypt’s Failed Transition,” Journal of Democracy, Vol. 24, No. 4 (2013), p. 57.

[72] Ashraf Keshk, “The Development of Egypt-GCC State Relations and Its Impact on Gulf and Regional Security,” in Mason, ed., Egypt and the Gulf, op. cit., p. 125.


Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Imad and read his previous publications click here