Hazem Kandil is reader in political sociology and a fellow at St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge University. He studies power relations in revolution and war, focusing on the Middle East, Western Europe, and North America. He is the author of three books, including, most recently, The Power Triangle: Military, Security, and Politics in Regime Change (Oxford University Press, 2016). Before that, he authored Inside the Brotherhood (Polity, 2014), on Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, and the members’ dealings with each other, as well as a major revisionist work on post-revolution Egypt, Soldiers, Spies, and Statesmen: Egypt’s Road to Revolt, in which he analyzes the 1952–2012 period principally as a struggle for power between Egypt’s political institutions, the army, and the security services—what he would refer to in his most recent book as the “power triangle.” Diwan asked Kandil to discuss his books and explain why, as he has written, “sociologists have a special obligation to debunk existing power arrangements by exposing how historically contingent and volatile they are” and “how despite their apparent rigidity, they remain permanently in flux.”

Michael Young: What pushed you to write about the topics you have covered in your books? Why examine the interplay between the security sector, the military, and politics?

Hazem Kandil: In the epigraph to The Power Triangle, I borrowed from the author Gore Vidal to make the point that “I don’t write about victims so much as I write about the people who have power, who exert the power, and who use the power against other people.” Much of the social research conducted since the late 1960s has been concerned with those on the receiving end of power, or those who are trying to overturn it. Social and ideological movements, trade unions, civil society, youth, feminists, shantytown dwellers, and other salt-of-the-earth groups. Giving a voice to the voiceless is, of course, a worthy deed. In the process, however, studying those in power seems to have dropped off the radar—dismissed as elitist or a bit old fashioned.

Obviously, it was impossible to ignore them in studies of authoritarian regimes, in the Middle East and elsewhere. But even there, the focus was on a ruling elite that monopolized political, economic, and coercive power. And those elites were presented as largely united—squabbles and bureaucratic turf wars aside. The now-fashionable concept of the “deep state” is the latest iteration in this fascination with simplifying regimes. And whenever someone took the trouble to break down regimes analytically, it was always the political rulers on one side, and on the other either the economically dominant class (perceived as the real ruling class), or cultural elites (to highlight the threat of the dreaded “betrayal of the intellectuals”). Rarely did anyone consider tensions among the possessors of political and coercive powers. Rarer still was the effort to delve into rivalries within the coercive sector, between the military and security organs. This despite the fact that administering, defending, and controlling a population lies at the very core of any regime. In contrast, economic and cultural powers, as central as they may be, are simply impossible without a “caged” population.

My hope was to remedy some of these deficiencies. First, I believe that the accumulation of knowledge is best achieved when different research programs coalesce to reveal as much of what remains unknown of the social world as possible. With so much work done on those who are subjects of various regimes, in other words those upon whom regimes act, I thought it might be useful to turn attention to the regimes themselves. Indeed, understanding power relations can never be complete unless one covers both ends of the spectrum.

Second, I could hardly be convinced that those in power are so seamlessly united. Possessing power, in any form, is a dangerous position in which to be. You are constantly anxious about losing it. And the threat does not only come from the powerless, but also from your powerful allies. They might want to add your source of power to theirs. We see those with political power, for instance, where the powerful nationalize economic assets to bring them under their own control. They might want their own source of power to trump all. Coups offer the most obvious example of those with military power trying to dominate other elites. And often some of the powerful can become reckless and spoil it for everyone. Senile dictators find themselves shoved aside by their old partners in power in order to save the regime. This turbulence at the upper echelons of society frequently goes unnoticed because those in power have an interest in projecting an image of unity and settling their differences quietly. My task was to expose the turmoil beneath the seemingly calm surface of stable regimes. Why? Because this is where change usually comes from.

MY: Why are power arrangements so volatile?

HK: Regimes are seldom overpowered from without, by armed insurrections or foreign invasions. The most common cause of change is when longstanding differences within a regime spill outwards, whether or not stimulated by domestic opposition or external pressure. And with each change comes a new power configuration, which gives rise to a new round of conflict and coordination among the powerful. It is endless. That is why regimes constantly change, whether in a rapid and dramatic fashion (what we describe as revolutions), or in a more gradual way (what we register as reform), or in long-drawn-out negotiations of power (which appear to the hasty observer as mind-numbing resilience).

I wanted to explore what an analysis anchored in what I refer to as the “power triangle” would look like—one focused on politics, military, and security, and accounting for social classes, ideological forces, and geopolitics through their influence on power relations between those three institutions. The theoretical foundations of this analytical model are laid out in The Power Triangle, and followed by a multi-decade examination of how regimes were constantly shaped and reshaped in Iran, Turkey, and Egypt.

MY: Your first book, Soldiers, Spies, and Statesmen, was a very original approach to the history of post-revolutionary Egypt. What is your main argument in the book and what pushed you to approach a well-tried topic in such a way?

HK: In answering your first question, I outlined some of my theoretical inclinations. And you might suspect that I simply superimposed them on Egypt. But, as is often the case, much of my theoretical apparatus comes from a certain reading of history. I found it difficult to maintain the myth of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt or Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt when I came across so much tension between the heads of the political, military, and security institutions. There was as much competition as collaboration between these supposedly intimate partners. And regime change during the decades I studied, including the 2011 revolt, cannot be explained without reference to this conflict-ridden relationship.

MY: In the book, indeed Gamal Abdel Nasser appears very different than the figure often depicted in history books, and his vulnerabilities are all too apparent. He is less the Arab nationalist hero than someone caught up in a struggle between broad institutions, in many cases institutions he unleashed. In that sense is your book an effort to undermine the Arab nationalist reading of modern Egyptian history, and how was it received in Egypt?

HK: Nasser comes across less as the all-conquering hero of national lore than as someone striving to maintain his position is a volatile power structure. The reaction of many readers was one of sympathy. Diehard critics of Nasser blamed him less when they realized that he was not as omnipotent as they had thought. And admirers recognized how difficult his job really was.

MY: You have argued that under Anwar al-Sadat and Mubarak we begin to see the rise of the security forces—operated by the Interior Ministry—at the expense of the Egyptian military. What brought this about?

HK: In most coup-installed regimes, the military emerges as the most powerful institution. The example of Egypt in 1952 was typical. It took successive setbacks to bring officers down a notch in the hierarchy of power. The June 1967 defeat in the war against Israel was the most obvious, but so was their poor performance against the tripartite attack in 1956, their role in the fiasco over unity with Syria, and the bloody but inconclusive war in Yemen. It was critical for the political leadership in the period between 1967 and 1973 that a successful military campaign to liberate Sinai not catapult officers back on top. Expanding and empowering the security sector was partly intended to counterbalance the military. Nasser devised this power strategy; Sadat applied it; but under Mubarak it got out of control. An aging presidency and an increasingly divided and underperforming ruling party weakened the political institution, allowing security power to rise unchecked. On the eve of the 2011 revolt, Egypt had metamorphosed into a police state.

MY: Did the uprising in 2011 swing the pendulum the other way, so that now it is the military that dominates in Egypt at the expense of the security forces?

HK: The military has remained a partner in Egypt’s ruling bloc since 1952, but it was gradually sidelined from the 1970s onwards. The high command saw the 2011 revolt as a golden opportunity to outflank its unruly partners and get back on top. The political institution, by which I mean the Mubarak presidency and the former ruling National Democratic Party, was dismantled in short order, but the security apparatus presented a bigger challenge. First, it was the most powerful institution in the land. And second, it was immediately obvious to military officers that an experienced security force was indispensable in time of revolt. Generals did not want to transform the regime, but simply to reconstitute it under their command. Stability required an effective dose of domestic repression. And this had not been their field of expertise for over three decades. Indeed, the last time military force had been employed against a civilian uprising was in January 1977.

Egypt is now back to a situation reminiscent of the late 1950s and early 1960s: a former officer occupying the presidency and ruling through a cabinet of technocrats rather than a ruling party; a duplication within the coercive apparatus, with both civilian and military agencies sharing (and bickering over) the burden of domestic control; a hybrid (or rather confused) economy with the military trying to command and direct economic life toward what it regards as patriotic ends; and an old economic elite—this time monopoly capitalists, not landlords—vacillating between support and obstruction. In contrast to those who insist that an attempted Egyptian revolution was foiled by a counterrevolution organized by the “deep state,” my approach leads me to conclude that the regime is still quite fluid. Politics is in flux and the military and security institutions are maintaining a tricky balance at the apex of power.

MY: In Soldiers, Spies, and Statesmen, you were very critical of the Muslim Brotherhood’s experiment in power in Egypt until 2013. What was their fatal mistake? And might the Brotherhood return as a political force?

HK: Those interested in the Muslim Brotherhood should complement my discussion of their actions in Soldiers, Spies, and Statesmen with my second book, Inside the Brotherhood. The former was only concerned with how the Brotherhood’s actions affected the power balance between the political, military, and security institutions between 1952 and the present. Their role was pretty consistent. They always tried to ally themselves with those they believed to be the most powerful, and ended up spending most of their time as persecuted oppositionists because they were used and then quickly discarded in a series of power plays.

Observers wonder whether they will experience another rebirth. Perhaps. But history shows they have only made it out of the political wilderness when those in power needed them for yet another power play. This dismal fate has something to do with the fact that they never mastered the power game, no matter how cunning and pragmatic they thought they were. However, Inside the Brotherhood explains why they could have only acted this way. It was not inevitable—few things in history are—but the organization was acting in character, considering the peculiar structure and culture I describe in the book.

Past treatments of the Muslim Brotherhood included several organizational histories. Yet every political and sociological study I have encountered was concerned with how the Brotherhood interacted with its environment—with rulers, civil society, gender issues, opposition parties, foreign powers, and so on. Inside the Brotherhood, one the other hand, is an attempt to understand who the Muslim Brothers are as people: how are they recruited, socialized, indoctrinated. What I wanted to look at was how they dealt with each other, and how their ideology was not some free-floating worldview that could be grasped through a history-of-ideas approach, but rather was a set of norms and practices that only came to life through the social subjects and networks it produced.

MY: Your current project is a book on America’s wars—Cuba, Vietnam, Iraq 1991 and 2003, the post-9/11 “war on terror,” and more recently the campaign against the Islamic State. Why did you choose this topic, and aren’t you biting off a fairly big chunk of material to write about?

HK: I wanted to pursue my interest in the conflict between politicians, officers, and spies in an entirely different context. My previous work dealt with how they struggled to remain in power in authoritarian regimes. Now, I am curious about the tensions that arise between them when they try to execute a common project in a democratic setting. The common project is “war,” and the fact that it occurs in a “democracy” means the impact of public opinion is sharp and immediate.

But that is not all. My overriding concern this time is with another trinity—what Carl von Clausewitz described as the complex interaction between political reason, military chance, and public passions in wartime. A quick survey shows that studies of war in democracies are roughly divided along those lines. Many political scientists would describe the political decisionmaking process, with casual jibes at leatherneck generals too dimwitted to raise their gaze above the battlefield. Those same battlefields are usually the chief occupation of military historians, who try to relate how messy things can get down there, inevitably tossing political plans to the wind. Sociologists, in turn, are by and large concerned with the popular will—how it is mobilized (and manipulated) by the military-industrial complex and its political underlings, and how it fights back, usually in the shape of antiwar campaigns.

But what Clausewitz was trying to get at, in my view, is that this “wondrous trinity” is usually in harmony going into war. It is then thrown into disarray by war itself, its fog, friction, and sheer unpredictability. My new research is about the disruption that occurs in the relationship between politicians, the practitioners of violence, and the general public in democracies when war spirals out of control. Postwar America helps me establish this pattern because of the numerous wars and warlike actions in which it has been involved, from Cuba and Vietnam to the Middle East.