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Authoritarian Control and Public Attitudes

Panel VII-10, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, November 4 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
This panel explores the various strategies, institutions, and public attitudes that enable autocratic regimes and populist leaders to retain political control. These tactics include the use of repression, which can influence not only the behavior of those targeted, but also the public's support for the regime or leader. Public attitudes can play a crucial role in stabilizing autocracies and promoting authoritarian governance and populism in developing democracies. Additionally, state institutions and their historical legacies, particularly the coercive apparatuses, significantly impact the ability of authoritarian leaders to attain and maintain power. Although autocrats rely on such institutions, they also use tactics such as ethnic stacking to control and minimize the threat from their coercive institutions. The papers utilize different methodologies to examine how these tactics, institutions, and public attitudes give rise to and/or impact authoritarian governance and stability in the Middle East and North Africa. They draw on novel data on protests and repression in Egypt, survey data on voting and public attitudes in Tunisia, and original interview data from Sudan and Tunisia. All of the papers draw on the authors’ extensive experience conducting primary research on authoritarian governance and political behavior in the MENA region.
Political Science
  • This paper examines the strategies employed by the regime of Omar al-Bashir in Sudan to maintain power through the use of patronage networks and non-material forms of loyalty, namely Islamist ideology, ethnicity, and tribal identity. While identity-based loyalty is often employed effectively by most authoritarian regimes in ethnically divided societies, al-Bashir regime encountered significant difficulties in constructing a unified and clear identity that could serve as a shortcut for loyalty. The paper explores these challenges in relation to factors such as the ethnic composition of the country and the impact of Sufi religious sects that transcend ethnic and tribal boundaries. This paper contributes to existing scholarship on ethnic stacking in authoritarian regimes. It draws on fieldwork observations and interviews with various political actors and civil society activists and organizations in Sudan.
  • It is evident that populism, both on the left and on the right, is affecting more and more countries from Europe and Latin America to Asia. The literature on populism has experienced a surge in the last few decades. Most of these works have focused on defining populism (Mudde, 2004; Mudde & Kaltwasser, 2017), measuring populist attitudes (Akkerman et al., 2014; Castanho Silva et al., 2020; Hawkins et al., 1992), and studying its consequences on people’s political behavior (Hawkins & Littvay, 2019; Van Hauwaert & Van Kessel, 2018; Zaslove et al., 2021). The scope of this fascinating research has been unfortunately unexplored in the Arab world. The present study expands this strand of literature by studying the case of Tunisia. Using the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems (CSES) dataset (wave 5), this paper studies Tunisians’ populist attitudes using a three-dimensional attitudinal model: populism with its diverse components (anti-elitism, people centrism, attitudes towards representative democracy, support for authoritarian leaders), attitudes towards outgroups, and nativism. Specifically, it investigates whether these attitudes are predictive of voting behavior in the 2019 Tunisian elections. Results show that people who endorse these attitudes do not necessarily vote for Kais Saied or other populist parties/leaders. Most importantly, socio-demographic variables such as age and gender are more important predictors of voting for populists in Tunisia than other potential factors such as satisfaction with the government and perception of corruption. These results spur new theoretical and empirical questions about the nature and effect of populism in nascent democracies.
  • Why did the Tunisian military agree to shut down the parliament in 2021, thereby facilitating President Kais Saied’s incumbent takeover? Based on interviews with officers conducted in 2021-22, I argue that the military’s behavior stemmed, paradoxically, from its historic marginalization from politics. First, its neglect under autocracy allowed Saied to win its loyalty by advancing its material and political interests. Second, the apolitical professionalism that the military had developed having been kept far from politics led it to view a refusal of Saied’s orders as too political. Finally, its marginalization under autocracy led it to consist not of the elite but of out-groups who sympathized with Saied’s populist calls for cleaning up a corrupt system. The experience of Tunisia thus illustrates that although the military’s marginalization under autocracy can facilitate democratization, it may also increase the risk of incumbent takeovers.
  • Existing scholarship often states that repression is politically costly. Repression is believed to create strong negative emotions that motivate people to revolt. Yet, some leaders employ widespread repression while maintaining high levels of popular support. How is this possible? I argue that bystanders to repression (not the direct targets thereof) can support its use against perceived threats. Drawing on novel data on protests and repression in Egypt, I investigate how repression of Islamists affected citizen support for the regime of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi after the 2013 coup. This article aims to advance scholarship on repression by centering attention on how everyday citizens perceive state violence, while highlighting several policy implications for human rights.