Egyptians are known about their hostility towards foreign (mostly US) aid.  Various survey results show that somewhere between 55-85% percent of the Egyptian population is against US aid. Egyptians’ attitudes about U.S. economic aid – channeled in form of budgetary support or direct assistance to NGOs – became increasingly negative, while NGO employees faced charges of illegally accepting foreign funds and stirring unrest (Azeem 2013; Sabry 2014). Other foreign donors (Arab governments, international financial organizations) ‘perform’ better, still sentiments against them similarly increased from the first part of 2011 to the beginning of 2012 (Younis and Younis 2012). Assessing the positive and negative aspects of foreign funding provided (to civil society organizations) in Egypt, Mohammed Elagati collected countless arguments for and against aid mainly from various stakeholders within the Egyptian civil society (Elagati 2013).

As indicated by the Neighbourhood Barometer data (the survey was carried out by REACH Egypt), Egyptians are much less knowledgeable about the details of European involvement and development cooperation than people living in the neighbouring countries. Still, the high rate of ‘do not knows’ vis-à-vis the EU (50-70% depending on the question and date of NB survey) is even more interesting, since Egypt is seen as one of the key partners in the region. Looking at the extent to which Egyptian respondents agreed with various statements formulated on the EU’s involvement in Egypt, the rate of agreement (approval) is very low:

NB, Egypt, qAB8, 2012-2014

The deepest point (‘Spring 2013’ denotes the period between 6 June and 8 July 2013) may well be explained by a specific event, namely the military takeover (3 July 2013) and the preceding mass demonstrations demanding change, which was highly criticized and denounced by the Western powers and public opinion as well. Neither this, nor following steps taken by the EU (the West in general) were welcomed warmly in Egypt. But perhaps the Egyptian results lead to further questions on the reliability of public opinion in non-democratic countries. As long as public opinion is not truly ‘free’ in most countries in the region, one has to interpret ‘local voices’, results of public opinion polls included, cautiously.

Sources: Z. Azeem (2013) ‘NGO Workers Sentenced by Egyptian Court’ Al-Monitor, 10 June, 2013; M. Elagati, M. (2013) Foreign Funding in Egypt After the Revolution. FRIDE, Arab Forum for Alternatives & HIVOS; M. Younis and A. Younis (2012) Egyptian Opposition to US and other foreign aid increases. Gallup, 29 March 2012; M. Sabry (2014) ‘How Egypt’s protest law brought down the revolution’ Al-Monitor, 9 September, 2014; A. Taylor (2013) ‘Millions March in Egyptian Protests’, The Atlantic (In Focus), 1 July 2013; and Neighborhood Barometer analytical reports, wave 1-5 (2012-2014):


People living in the region – except for Egypt and Tunisia – were asked about their ‘demonstrating habits’ by Arab Barometer interviewers at the beginning of Arab Spring (the interviews were conducted at various times, between Autumn 2010 and Summer 2011, in the listed countries). Results show that the most rebellious people live in Sudan and Yemen, followed by Lebanon and Palestine. Yet, even in these countries ca. 75% of the adult population has not participated in any protest (between 2007-2010/2011).
arab barometer wave II, q5022


Mainstream literature dealing with the Arab Spring demonstrators’ motivations and contemporary history of the Arab Spring analyzes the ‘explaining factors’ from various perspectives, putting emphasis on the middle class and structural transformation, the socio-economic hardships such as increasing food prices and high unemployment and the desire for regime strange or the importance of internet-based technological development. Looking at the opinion polls, however, the Arab uprisings have been widely interpreted as uprisings against political tyranny over freedom and public participation as well as against the prevalence of human rights abuses.

Further reading: Brynen Beyond the Arab Spring; Mona Christophersen, ‘Protest and reform in Jordan. Popular demand and government response, 2011 to 2012’ Fafo-report 50 (Oslo: Fafo, 2013); Sobhi Samour, ‘The Promises and Limitations of Economic Protests in the West Bank’ in Kjetil Fossheim (ed), Arab Spring. Uprisings, Powers and Interventions (New York, Berghahn, 2014).

Neither peaceful demonstrations, not violent actions can be explained without keeping in mind that ‘revolutions cannot do without the word “justice” and the sentiment it arouses. (…) People feel that government is just or unjust, legitimate or illegitimate (…) by what it does. If its actions (…) violate their basic values, they may conclude, (…) that “a government without justice is a great robbery”’. [1] People’s views and perceptions are needed to understand both their relation to power (obedience, legitimacy among others) as well as the relations between foreign aid and legitimacy. Negative perceptions on their governments’ performance and their ‘illegitimate’ foreign alliances will lead to decreasing feeling of community between the masses and the elites as well as decreasing legitimacy of the regime. Even if measuring legitimacy is difficult, the Arab Barometer may help us understand how people think about their own obligations to obey. When (in 2010 or 2011, check Arab Barometer codebook) asked about the necessity of support to be provided to their governments (even if they do not agree with it), ca 40-60% of the respondents in most countries were ready to show (belief in the necessity of) obedience:

arab barometer wave II, q216


Michael C. Hudson, investigating the origins of legitimacy in the Arab world, points to the fact that “Islam was a complete social system; membership (…) created a certain brotherhood above the immediate ties of kinship. It also conferred a stability, an equilibrium, on society as a whole, even to the point of supporting the passive acceptance of wrongs committed by the ruler who nonetheless deferred (theoretically) to the sanctity of the Shari’a.” [2]

Sources and further reading: Arab Barometer, wave II (2010-2011, question 216):; other (see biblio data in earlier posts): [1] Citing Eckstein and Gurr (1975) Razi emphasizes that it is people’s “positive or negative judgment of what is perceived” about the behavior of the regime that must be investigated to know the level of legitimacy. If the majority of the population is more or less satisfied with the government’s performance and actions in areas of “identity, participation, distribution, equality and sovereignty according to the norms they believe in, there is no crisis of legitimacy.”  Razi, ‘Legitimacy, religion’, 70.; [2] Michael C. Hudson (1977): Arab Politics. The search for Legitimacy. New Haven: Yale University Press, p50.

Recalling the descriptive – empirically supported – understanding of legitimacy, even authoritarian regimes can enjoy certain level of collective support. It must be kept in mind, however, that neither performance (providing public goods and services, good governance), nor popularity equals to legitimacy.[1] While legitimacy in general is viewed as a source of stability in social systems, political legitimacy is considered a basic condition for governing, without which a government would suffer collapse. In political systems where this is not the case, unpopular regimes survive because they are considered legitimate by a small, influential elite or by external powers. Indeed, regime stability is a ‘function of the ongoing ability of the actors within the system to mobilize resources to perpetuate a legitimate system.’[2] This ‘ability’ has been supported by foreign aid in the Middle East for decades.

Legitimacy in the Middle East cannot be understood without referring to the region’s historical interaction with external powers on one hand and the internal sources of legitimacy on the other one. Colonialism, the mandate period (League of Nations), independence movements and the gradual process of decolonialism added various layers (nationalism, ideology) to the traditional concept of legitimacy being based mainly on religion and tradition. Even if it has been considered surprising that ‘legitimacy in the nondemocratic Arab world has not been studied in any encompassing manner for more than 30 years’ with the exception of Hudson’s Arab Politics: the search for legitimacy,[3] the role of religion and nationalism were proposed to be studied in order to demonstrate the significance of legitimacy for regime maintenance (stability) at the beginning of the 1990s.[4] Not only modern nationalism, but religion also has clearly influence political attitudes on such matters as identity, concept of justice, the nature of a legitimate political system, obedience, obligation and rights, to mention only a few.

According to Schlumberger, there are four components being the main sources of domestic ‘nondemocratic’ legitimacy in the Arab world: religion, tradition, ideology and the provision of welfare benefits to their populations. Welfare benefits – material or economic legitimacy are –seen as a main source of nondemocratic legitimacy. It cannot be understood without the ‘rentier state’ approach that is based on the conviction that ‘even limited resources from abroad can buy an enormous amount of legitimacy’.[5] Regime legitimacy is maintained either by ‘political petrolism’ (using oil income or financial transfers from oil-rich neighbours to buy legitimacy with subsidies and government jobs) or by Western foreign aid, which effectively prevented destabilization by enabling Arab governments to provide welfare benefits to their populations. Schlumberger concludes that religion plays a less important role than either traditional or material legitimacy, whereas ideology (nationalism, Islamism, globalization and neoliberalism, democracy-promotion and their unique combination alike) has become more and more relevant category. By delegitimizing ruling elites emerging societal actors draw attention to the ‘reciprocal nature’ of legitimacy and its procedural, non-static character too.[6]


Sources and further reading: [1] A government can be unpopular, yet, legitimate if the ways of exercising power is considered valid. Wheatheford ,‘Mapping the Ties’, 261.; [2] Blackwell Encyclopedia; [3] Cited by Schlumberger, ‘Opening Old Bottles’, 233.; [4] Religion and nationalism serve as main sources of macroloyalty, whereas the family, clan, various sects, associations, occupations constitute the main sources of microloyalty. These latter, in the absence of strong and shared religious or nationalist values may generate social conflicts. Razi, ‘Legitimacy, religion’. On identity in the Middle East: Bernard Lewis, The Multiple Identities of the Middle East (New York: Schocken, 2001); cited by Schlumberger, ‘Opening Old Bottles,’ 245.; Schlumberger, ‘Opening Old Bottles’.

Why do we obey if the state is far from being democratic or respecting our political, economic, human rights? As noted by Schlumberger (2010) and Sedgwick (2010) people tend to obey, even if the ‘normative’ qualities (listed in the previous post) are completely or partially missing. Indeed, the widely discussed normative approach excludes the non-democratic political systems by assuming that non-democratic regimes are inherently without legitimacy and as such they depend on repression to a large extent. [1] Recalling the descriptive – empirically supported – understanding of legitimacy, even authoritarian regimes can enjoy certain level of collective support. It must be kept in mind, however, that neither performance (providing public goods and services, good governance), nor popularity equals to legitimacy. [2] While legitimacy in general is viewed as a source of stability in social systems, political legitimacy is considered a basic condition for governing, without which a government would suffer collapse. In political systems where this is not the case, unpopular regimes survive because they are considered legitimate by a small, influential elite or by external powers. Indeed, regime stability is a ‘function of the ongoing ability of the actors within the system to mobilize resources to perpetuate a legitimate system.’[3] This ‘ability’ has been supported by foreign – military and development alike – aid in the Middle East for decades.

Sources and further reading: [1] Sedgwick, M. (2010) Measuring Egyptian Regime Legitimacy. Middle East Critique 19 (3): 251-267, p252; Schlumberger, O. (2010) Opening Old Bottles in Search of New Wine: On Nondemocratic Legitimacy in the Middle East, Middle East Critique 19 (3) 233-250; p233; [2] A government can be unpopular, yet, legitimate if the ways of exercising power is considered valid. Wheatheford ,‘Mapping the Ties’, 261.; [3] Blackwell Encyclopedia: Legitimacy.

Legitimacy can be understood as a ‘state of appropriateness’ ascribed to an entity (actor, system, structure, process, action) stemming from its integration with institutionalized norms, values and beliefs. ‘Collective support’ and obedience are considered to be important elements of legitimacy: they refer to people’s beliefs about political authority and their own obligations. This descriptive (empirical) approach reflects Max Weber’s understanding of legitimacy: ‘the basis of every system of authority, and correspondingly of every kind of willingness to obey, is a belief, a belief by virtue of which persons exercising authority are lent prestige’.[1] Legitimacy is widely understood as popular acceptance, obedience and recognition of the authority of a regime, whereby authority has political power through consent and not through overt coercion.[2] Regime authority always depends on the combination of legitimacy and organized coercion. In Weber’s account it is the state which as a community ‘successfully claims authority’on the legitimate use of physical force. The monopoly of violence is ensured via the process of legitimization by means of which the citizens accept that only the state can apply force, which made Rustow define political stability as the function of legitimacy of institutions and personal legitimacy of rulers.[3] When legitimacy vanishes entirely, the regime loses the means of coercion,[4] which leads to destabilization. Social conflicts – uprisings, (attempted) revolutions and civil wars alike – can be explained by weakened legitimacy. A political system will be destabilized, when ‘discontented social groups come to feel that it is acceptable to engage in disobedience and violence’[5] against the regime perceived to be illegitimate. The question is, how various social groups – broadly understood: political parties, military establishment(s), civil society organizations, etc – are influenced (and financed) by foreign powers.

Sources and further reading: [1] Weber, M. (1964) The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. Edited by Talcott Parsons. New York: Free Press, p382; [2] Weber, The Theory of Social, 124. In Weber’s account, the ‘ability’ ensuring legitimacy can be of three types: traditional, charismatic and rational-legal, all of which has distinct sources of authority; [3] Dankwart Rustow, A World of Nations: Problems of Political Modernization. (Washington: Brookings, 1967): 27 and 157; cited by G. Hossein Razi, ‘Legitimacy, Religion and Nationalism in the Middle East’, The American Political Science Review 84, no. 1 (1990): 69-91; [4] Sedgwick, M. (2010) Measuring Egyptian Regime Legitimacy. Middle East Critique 19 (3): 251-267.; [5] Cited by Theda Scocpol, States and Social Revolutions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979): 25.

Interactions between foreign aid flows, sources of legitimacy and components of regime stability are not widely researched, even if there is a thematically related, ongoing research programme (Legitimacy and Efficiency of Political Systems) at GIGA, the German Institute of Global and Area Studies, see:

The listed concepts have been interlocked, especially in the Middle East, by a fourth one, namely, democracy.Global democracy building has become the main focus of foreign aid from OECD countries and international organizations for the past two decades. However, Western donors have also had competing political objectives in the MENA (stability), even if aid could have played a meaningful role in building democracy in this region too. The question why and how these countries have resisted democratic changes, emerged more than twenty years ago, after the ‘end of history’. While there is a tradition that emphasizes the exceptionality of the region not fitting into the framework of any general theory, others doubt any exclusiveness as being a real explanatory variable. Accepting the notion that even MENA can be studied by lenses of social sciences, various factors arise to explain the ‘stability of authoritarianism’ as well as the lack of real liberalization and democratization. Salamey and Pearson suggest that a combination of various factors – international interests in ‘stability’ over democracy coupled with local authoritarian manipulation of colonial legacies, along with ethno-religious interests – played a decisive role. Those referring to cultural reasons focus on traditions and perceived incompatibility of Islam and democracy. Others formulating their views more cautiously emphasize: there is nothing in Islam that would contradict democracy at most its interpretations or applications are contrary to democratic development. Yet others emphasize the lack of modern institutions and strong civil society, point either to the significance of traditional family ties, or to the importance of military establishments as factors being responsible for preventing structural-institutional reforms in the Middle East. Authors concerned with economic structures and political economy are convinced that oil revenues, rents and the lack of domestic taxes explain the inadequate democratization. Even the un(re)solved status of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and to some extent the very being of Israel has been cited as being the main source of oppression in the region and the main barrier of effective democratization.

Sources and recommended reading: Carl Brown, International Politics; Rex Brynen et al, eds Political liberalization and democratization in the Arab world. Vol. I-II. (Boulder, Colo.: L. Rienner, 1998); Halliday, The Middle East; Raymond A. Hinnebusch and Anoushiravan Ehteshami, The Foreign Policies of Middle East States (London: Lynne Rienner, 2002);Larry J. Diamond et al, eds Islam and Democracy in the Middle East. (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins Univ. Press; 2003); Shireen Hunter et al, eds. Modernization, Democracy and Islam (London: Praeger, 2005); J. Lebovic and W. Thomson, ‘An Illusionary or Elusive Relationship? The Arab-Israel Conflict and Repression in the Middle East’ Journal of Politics 68, no. 3 (2006): 502-518; Bernard Lewis, Faith and power: religion and politics in the Middle East. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010); Giacomo Luciani, ‘Oil and Political Economy in the International Relations of the Middle East’ in Louise Fawcett (ed): International Relations of the Middle East (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005/2013); T. Niblock, T and P. Wilson, eds, The Political Economy of the Middle East. Vol 1-6.(Northampton, MA: E. Elgar, 1999); Ghassan Salamé, ed, Democracy without democrats? The renewal of politics in the Muslim world. (London: I. B. Tauris, 1994); Mark Tessler et al, eds, Area studies and social science:strategies for understanding Middle East politics. (Indiana University Press, 1999); Michael C. Hudson, Arab Politics:The Search for Legitimacy(Yale University, 1977); Khalid Abou El-Fadl, ‘Islam and the Challenge of Democratic Commitment’, Fordham International Law Journal 23, no. 1 (2003): 7.; Imam Salamey and F. Pearson F, ‘The collapse of Middle Eastern Authoritarianism: Breaking the Barriers of Fear and Power’ Third World Quarterly 33, no. 5. (2012): 931-948, p. 932.