The Dictator’s Handbook III: The United States, Egypt, and Democracy

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith are professors of politics at New York University. They write about the choices facing leaders in “The Dictator’s Handbook” (Public Affairs Press, 2011). The following is the third in a series of guest posts by Bueno de Mesquita and Smith applying the arguments in The Dictator’s Handbook to provide a different way of thinking about current events:

The Arab Spring has ushered in the possibility of democracy in Egypt. Although the U.S. is quick to endorse the rights of people to determine their own future, in reality it is rarely what We, The People truly want.

The U.S. is a friend of Israel and since the late 1970’s it has bought peace and recognition between Egypt and Israel with massive injections of aid. Although that aid has declined from its Camp David peak of over $6 billion per year in real terms, in recent years the U.S. has continued to give around $2 billion per year. Democracy would make the price much higher.

As the storming of the Israeli embassy in Cairo on September 9th indicates, the Egyptian populous has little love for Israel. Any government that endorses peace with Israel needs to compensate its supporters for putting up with a policy they dislike. An expert survey conducted in 2008 suggests that the former Mubarak regime relied on the support of around 400 key supporters. $2 billion in aid translates into about $5 million per essential supporter. Now of course some of that money was spent on other things than outright bribery, such as investment in military-owned businesses, etc, all of which profited Mubarak’s closest cronies even if it also helped some ordinary Egyptians. Given that Egypt’s adult population is about 50 million, a coalition of half of adult voters means that, at the same foreign aid level, each backer’s benefit is only equivalent to roughly $80. Assuming the $5 million is a ten-fold exaggeration, still a lot of policy compliance can be purchased when the key people get $500,000 each for being cooperative. It is much harder to get people to live with a policy they hate for just $80 a head. So, if Egypt becomes democratic and the U.S. government wants to maintain Egypt’s peace with Israel it is likely that the price tag will shoot way up. Democracy in Egypt comes at a big price for U.S. voters. Good or bad – that is up to the observer. Costly, no doubt!

2 Responses to The Dictator’s Handbook III: The United States, Egypt, and Democracy

  1. Mihai Martoiu Ticu October 4, 2011 at 5:36 am #

    There are some logical fallacies in this piece, such as begging the question. If U.S. wants the Egyptians to be friendly to Israel, why not just bribe the Israeli government to end the occupation, then vote for a Palestinian state in the Security Council?

    • Alastair October 4, 2011 at 5:59 pm #

      This is an excellent question, the answer to which we lay out in the Dictator’s Handbook. The Mubarak regime relied on perhaps a few thousand supporters (we did an expert survey back in 2006). Paying off a few thousand supporters to put up with a policy they dislike is relatively easy.
      Israel is a democracy. Retaining political power requires retaining the support of millions and buying the compliance of so many (especially when they are Likud backers) is much more expensive.
      It begs the question: does the US really like democratization overseas?