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New Perspectives on the Political Economy of Authoritarian Persistence

Panel XIII-25, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, November 5 at 1:30 pm

Panel Description
  • International Relations (IR) scholars, including those committed to ‘globalising’ the discipline, have habitually approached the Middle East as a shining example of the salience of identity politics. The supposed centrality of Islam and ethnosectarian identities, has, according to many analyses, distinguished politics in the Middle East from those in other regions. The Arab Uprisings revealed divisions over political values to be at least as important as culture and identity in shaping Middle Eastern history, but the regional counter-revolution saw sectarian discourses return in force. Ten years on, both identity and politics appear to have left the terrain of contestation as regional rivalries increasingly centre on economic issues. The current paper asks why this is the case and explores the significance of these regional discursive shifts for our understanding of international relations in the Middle East and ‘Global IR’ as a whole. In addressing this question, the paper examines a spectrum of Arab political discourse over the decade 2013-2023, an historical conjuncture characterized by counter-revolution, deteriorating socioeconomic conditions and the waning of US hegemony in the region. The paper analyses traditional and new media content dealing with regional politics from the perspectives of two opposing coalitions of state and non-state actors—the self-styled ‘Axes’ of Resistance and Moderation. It finds that discourse on religio-cultural identities and political values has progressively given way to one more focused on economic issues. The paper traces the nature of the discursive shift and argues that it flows from a range of factors related to the global geopolitical and geoeconomic environment; the changing character of the rentier state model and regional inter-state dynamics; deteriorating socioeconomic conditions across the region; and the widespread regional recognition of the Arab Spring’s socioeconomic drivers. The paper elaborates a theoretical framework that combines insights from social psychology and Gramscian political economy to illustrate and explain the ways in which categorisations of ‘self’ and ‘other’ within Middle Eastern hegemonic projects have increasingly come to revolve around actors’ economic visions and capacity. Although political, geopolitical and cultural issues have not disappeared from Arab political discourse, the paper concludes that they are increasingly viewed through the prism of socioeconomic concerns and that in significant aspects, and for historically revealing reasons, the structure of Arab political discourse today resembles that of the 1950s and 1960s more than it does that of the intervening decades.
  • Scholars have long argued that financial liberalization triggers the collapse of autocratic regimes. This is based on the premise that open financial markets make assets more mobile and the cost of democratization lower. However, many financially open autocracies have survived the global push for financial liberalization. How, then, do autocratic regimes survive the pressures of financial openness to liberalize their countries? In this paper, I address this question by focusing on the neglected aspect of financial liberalization: the deregulation of the banking system. I argue that eliminating restrictions on the banking sector leads to the proliferation of commercial banks that allocate credit to economic elites who intend to invest in the real sector. This increased access to capital makes these elites more likely to support the autocratic regime initiating these reforms, prolonging its tenure. Additionally, commercial banks increase the disposable income of lower- and middle-income groups through financial instruments such as consumer credits and mortgage plans, which diminishes their demand for redistribution and democratization. To test these arguments, I use a mixed-method approach, illustrating the mechanisms through a case study on Turkey and testing the implications of the theoretical arguments in a broader sample of autocratic regimes through cross-national statistical analysis.
  • Egypt, by third world standards, traditionally boasted a relatively generous egalitarian insurance- based welfare regime centered on contribution-based pensions and a universal food subsidy system. The onset of neoliberal reforms since 1991 has been associated with hidden retrenchment in the country’s social policies, marked by dilution of universal subsidy benefits and introduction of new layers of targeted welfare on the production and consumption sides, without overhauling the welfare regime or restructuring its main social security program. What are the dynamics shaping targeting of production-oriented social programs and Conditional Cash Transfer Schemes (CCTs) to particular social groups? And what, if any, are the political influences on their spatial distributional patterns? These questions have not been systematically addressed in authoritarian contexts, like Egypt’s, where there is no institutionalized party machinery and local patronage networks compete under loosely organized party structures. Targeting has continued to figure prominently in World Bank sponsored economic reform agendas, despite the UN’s commitment to universal social protection, “leaving no one behind” as part of the 2030 agenda, and the post-COVID focus on alternative “eco-social contracts,” which makes the research questions particularly pertinent to explore. In order to analyze the political economy of targeting in Egypt, I focus on the Social Fund’s record of promoting subsidized micro-small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) among limited income groups during the late Mubarak era, as well as new social assistance schemes Takaful and Karama, which were launched under Sisi. I focus on: policy design of targeting maps and official definitions of eligibility criteria, intra-state struggles that served to establish access rules on the ground, as well as the political economy of spatial allocations. The paper draws on: in-depth interviews with ex-officials in charge of the Social Fund, as well as Takaful and Karama, senior decision-makers at the Ministry of Social Solidarity, and specialized technocrats, who were involved in developing targeting mechanisms. I argue that the dominant coalition maintenance imperatives and cultural norms of citizenship shaped targeted social programs, often at the cost of effective pro-poor targeting.
  • Ever since Ulrich Beck’s (1992) seminal thoughts on “World Risk Society”, social scientists have elaborated on the differences between “risks”, “crises” and “catastrophes”. While often understood as rather theoretical exercise, the recent earthquakes in Syria and Turkey, the war on Ukraine and not least the worsening effects of climate change have shown that indeed everybody’s life is “at risk”, and that it requires concerted efforts from political leaders and societies to prevent them from transmuting into full-fledged crises or even catastrophes. In Beck's classic risk theory, there are three options for decision-makers to respond to risks: denial, apathy and transformation. Governments in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have typically opted for the first or second option: denial (by muzzling warning voices) or apathy (through inaction). The recent COVID-19 pandemic, understood as “turbulent problem” (Ansell et al., 2021), has however shown that traditional bureaucratic procedures are insufficient to ensure neither the safety of the citizens nor the stability of the affected regimes. Thus, taking the governmental and societal responses to COVID-19 in the MENA region as analytical starting point, this paper discusses recent developments in crisis management in selected MENA countries. Following Gaskell and Stoker (2020), its underlying assumption is that core for the successful containment of crises is the combined ability of (a) policymakers and (b) citizens to (re)act flexibly is. This “dual flex-ability” [i.e., functional leadership (= the performance of policymakers) and socioeconomic potency (= the status of a society)], sets the matrix for societal responses to contemporary risks. Between both factors, however, serves the level of trust that a society has in its government structure as important intervening variable. The higher social trust, the higher citizens willingness to endure also unpopular decisions. In authoritarian, lower-middle income countries such as Egypt, Jordan and Morocco, these variables have been rather modest. For this reason, the paper assumes that ability and willingness of decision-makers and citizens to respond jointly to comprehensive risks are limited in these countries – unless the lack of trust has been reduced through better governance not only in crisis times, but especially in “times of normal”.