What is the Deep State? 4 July 2013

Those following commentary from within the Middle-East on the most recent military coup in Egypt will have perhaps run across the Adly Mansourphrase ‘deep state’, sometimes used in such a way that the reader is presumed to understand what it means and refers to. The Guardian and Financial Times have also used it casually in analysis of Egypt. The term however is largely absent from Western political discourse, and some would place it in the same category as conspiracy theories.

However, within the turbulent twenty first century politics of the Middle East, the deep state has real and important connotations.

In short, the deep state refers to non-democratic leaders within a country – often hidden beneath layers of bureaucracy, but in tangible control of key resources (whether human or financial). They may not be in complete control at all times, but certainly hold sway and are independent of any political changes that take place. History has often used the term ‘state within a state’ to describe similar arrangements (for example, Nazi Germany’s ‘SS’). Egypt’s Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) also fits the bill. Taken from this perspective, the question is not so much whether a ‘deep state’ exists, but whether they have as much control as popular parlance would attribute to them.

The term stems from modern Turkey – where the belief that there is a deep state in operation behind the scenes of democratic elections is almost a staple part of political discussion. Erdogan stated as recently as 2012 the following: –

“Every state has its own deep state; it is like a virus; it reappears when conditions are suitable. We continue fighting these structures. We cannot of course argue that we have completely eliminated and destroyed it because as a politician, I do not believe that any state in the world has been able to do this completely.”

Talk of a deep state is not limited to Middle-Eastern countries however. Speaking about his experiences with the Iraq Inquiry, Carne Ross, a former diplomat who worked at the UN as well the FCO, accused Britain of its own deep state: –

“I testified last week to the Chilcot inquiry. My experience demonstrates an emerging and dangerous problem with the process. This is not so much a problem with Sir John Chilcot and his panel, but rather with the government bureaucracy – Britain’s own “deep state” – that is covering up its mistakes and denying access to critical documents.”

The “deep state” is beginning to become short hand for the embedded anti-democratic power structures within a government, something very few democracies can claim to be free from.

About Abdul-Azim Ahmed

Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed is Editor of On Religion magazine. He holds a doctorate in religious studies and an MA in Islam in Contemporary Britain.

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