Nael Shama, Egyptian Foreign Policy from Mubarak to Morsi: Against the National Interest (New York: Routledge, 2013).
In the latest addition to the Routledge Series in Middle Eastern Politics, Nael Shama expands upon his Ph.D. dissertation under the supervision of Raymond Hinnebusch at the University of St. Andrews and examines Egyptian foreign policy by investigating the relationship between regime security (as opposed to national security) and foreign policy decision-making. Shama outlines an extensive theoretical and historical framework, stretching from the 1952 Free Officer’s Coup, through the successive regimes of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. The work culminates by analysing post-Mubarak foreign policies of both the transitional Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) government and deposed president Mohamed Morsi’s year of rule.
For his theoretical framework, Shama employs Realist Stephen Walt’s refinement of “balance of power” into “balance of threat” and expands the theory to the domestic sphere, taking into account internal threats. Shama also includes Steven R. David’s concept of “omnibalancing,” but criticizes the model’s oversimplification of leader behaviour and the assumption “that domestic threats are always more perilous than external threats” (18). Through his theoretical framework, Shama is able to overcome the limitations of both the psychological and bureaucratic-organisational schools of foreign policy analysis, the first of which excludes the operational environment, while the latter ignores societal factors, being confined strictly to the political elite (4-6).
Using this framework, Shama argues that regime security is the key factor in understanding Egyptian foreign policy and that consecutive Egyptian presidents placed the interests of the regime above state interests. It is argued that Egyptian foreign policy most often “omnibalanced” by appeasing external threats while mobilizing against urgent internal threats, with response and policy ultimately being dictated by level of (perceived) threat.
Shama uses two case studies, Egyptian-Iranian and Egyptian-Israeli-American relations, to highlight the primacy of regime survival in Egyptian foreign policy decision-making. In his analysis of Egyptian-Iranian relations, Shama contests traditional scholarship’s explanation of poor relations between the two states (129-38) and concludes that Mubarak’s main concern in ignoring efforts for rapprochement with Iran was regime security against the perceived internal threat of Islamist fundamentalism, supported by Iran (146). The president was convinced of this threat by the only state institution with influence on foreign policy decision-making: the security apparatus (141-2). In this case, Mubarak ignored prospects for strong and fruitful economic relations between the two states between whom trade and tourism could potentially flourish in favour of his own security (125-127).
In the second case study, Shama suggests that Egyptian relations with Israel and American must be viewed as a trilateral, rather than two separate bilateral relations (179). In conducting relations with both Israel and the United States, Shama demonstrates that Mubarak, especially in the last decade of his rule (and in the post-9/11 context), enacted both domestic politics and foreign relations with Israel as a way to satisfy US pressure for democracy, economic liberalisation and improvements of human rights (153). According to Shama, Mubarak’s policies towards Israel (the signing of the Qualified Industrial Zones treaty and an unequal prisoner swap in 2004), as well as cosmetic internal changes, were actually actions taken to improve Cairo’s reputation in Washington and alleviate American pressure on the regime for political reforms which could leave the regime vulnerable to internal threats (197-8). Just as with Mubarak’s rejection of any rapprochement with Iran despite the considerable economic and political benefits, his foreign policy vis-à-vis America and Israel exploited Egypt’s regional importance to peace and stability in order to avoid reform and guarantee regime security.
While providing a strong theoretical framework and meticulously researched empirical evidence to prove his thesis, Shama fails to account for the structural limitations placed upon Egypt, especially during the regimes of Mubarak and Morsi. With the shift in economic policy from Nasser’s state-led socialism to the open door policy (infitah) of Sadat, Mubarak inherited a capital-poor Egypt with a struggling economy, minimal primary resources and increasing dependence on American aid (62). Economic dependence on the US was reinforced with the fall of the Soviet Union and the country’s economic development was contingent to the upholding of peace with Israel. This left Mubarak with limited flexibility in foreign policy decision-making due to a preoccupation with economic concerns. As Shama himself points out, “under Morsi…the Egyptian government was hostage to its urgent economic needs” (230). These economic constrains, however, were also influential under former President Mubarak. Egypt during and after Mubarak’s rule was unable to deviate from the foreign policy path laid out for it by its economic limitations.
Additionally, Shama focuses greatly on the personalities of successive Egyptian presidents. To Shama, the bold personalities of Nasser and Sadat allowed for risk-taking and intrepid foreign policies (59-61). Mubarak, on the other hand, was cautious, pragmatic, obsessed with security, stubborn, and lacked both strategic vision and charisma (63). It is unlikely, however, that Egyptian foreign policy for over half a century was almost solely dependent upon the personality traits of its leaders. Nasser and Sadat both benefited from the political and social contexts in which they governed. Nasser’s risk-taking could not have succeeded without the rise of Arab nationalism and the popularity he gained as its champion, which allowed him to act freely from domestic constraints. Likewise, Sadat could not have engaged in his “electric shock diplomacy” if it weren’t for the regional context and the status of Arab-Israeli relations. Likewise, Mubarak would not have been so cautious and concerned about security from domestic threats were it not for their reality, as evidenced by his predecessor’s assassination at the hand of radical Islamists. It is important not to over-rely on psychological factors when analysing foreign policy, as even the greatest of leaders must act according to their specific circumstances.
In the end, the strong theoretical framework of Egyptian Foreign Policy from Mubarak to Morsi provides students of international relations with a new way to analyse the foreign policies of authoritarian states. Shama successfully provides an extension to Walt’s theory, based on external threats, by shifting toward the internal level and how regime security and domestic authority often override national interest in foreign policy decision-making.
* Review written for PGSP11275: The Middle East in International Relations, taught by Dr. Adham Saouli at the University of Edinburgh. Original date: 17 February 2014.
Kevin Moore holds an MSc in Arab World Studies from the University of Edinburgh.Follow @kevinjm89