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Authoritarian Survival Strategies

Panel V-27, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Friday, November 3 at 1:30 pm

Panel Description
  • Corruption, defined as the abuse of public office for private or political gain, is an endemic feature of autocratic political systems in the Arab world. Little transparency and predatory rulers provide the ideal conditions in which graft, bribery, and extortion flourish. Corruption and authoritarianism go hand-in-hand. Yet why do so many Arab states choose to battle corruption? Since the mid-2000s, nearly a dozen Arab states have created anti-corruption agencies (ACAs). ACAs are specialized judicial bodies that investigate and prosecute corrupt deeds, and are more commonly found in democracies. Contrary to popular assumption, Arab ACAs are not paper tigers. They have substantial resources, employ capable staff, and draw international support. They do not prosecute regime heads, such as presidents, kings, and generals, but they often ensnare lesser officials and bureaucrats. That autocratic regimes would create ACAs to limit the very corruption that sustains them constitutes a major puzzle. This paper, the first study of Arab anti-corruption agencies, explains this enigma through systematic analysis of all ten Arab ACAs, which reside in Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and the UAE. Cross-national comparisons using historical and institutional data illuminate the origins, trajectory, and results of ACA operations. Those comparisons suggest three strategic factors account for why Arab autocracies choose to selectively fight corruption. First, ACAs enable authoritarian regimes to appease Western donors and multilateral agencies like the World Bank, who may conditionalize their support upon anti-corruption reform. Second, rulers use ACAs to selectively capture public support. When street protests erupt, as in the Arab Spring, ACAs are useful: they increase their operations to prosecute more politicians, as a tactic to mollify popular frustrations over deeper economic and political problems. Third, ACAs serve as weapons for rulers to eliminate their rivals, such as party officials and business magnates. Leaders use ACAs to pursue charges of corruption, however trumped up, that sully prominent figures whose political ambitions threaten their monopoly over power. These findings leave an unexpected conclusion for future research. While ACAs are a product of strategic calculations, they are not window-dressing. They must send a credible signal for Western donors but also effectively function in order to both meet public expectations and opportunistically weaken political figures. In fulfilling these mandates, ACAs paradoxically become robust, well-run institutions – pockets of unexpected competency within otherwise bloated authoritarian systems.
  • Egypt has been an authoritarian state for most of its modern history. Repression has been a key tool in maintaining and perpetuating that authoritarianism which lasted for decades. However, since the 2013 coup, the country has seen an unprecedented level of repression and violence against political opposition groups, particularly Islamists. This has resulted in numerous human rights violations, including mass arrests, torture, forced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, political executions, death sentences, and mass trials. These actions have been documented and condemned by domestic and international human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. This paper explores the different forms of state violence that have occurred in Egypt since 2013, examining the reasons behind the post-coup regime's tendency to use excessive force against political opposition groups and activists. To do this, it analyzes the various repressive and violent practices employed by security and intelligence agencies over the past decade. The paper argues that state violence in Egypt are not isolated or sporadic occurrences, but rather integral and entrenched aspects of the postcolonial state-building process in the country. The Egyptian state views the use of violence and intimidation as essential components of its power, and employs them to deter perceived threats and enemies, real or imagined, and ensure the compliance of its citizens. Security and intelligence institutions such as the military, security forces, and intelligence agencies do not see themselves as organizations responsible for public security but rather as agents of the state whose primary goal is to protect the regime and ensure its survival. As such, violent practices such as torture, extrajudicial killing, forced disappearance, mass trials, military trials for civilians, and political executions are not viewed as political crimes, but rather as necessary tools for maintaining authoritarian control and national security.
  • Recent studies on repression argue that autocrats utilize targeted repression toward some opposition actors, while reducing violence in the public sphere (Greitens 2016; Nugent 2020; Josua and Edel 2021). Nevertheless, in some authoritarian regimes, violence in the public sphere has actually increased, where diffuse repression is rather the norm than the exception. Why do authoritarian regimes resort to diffuse repression at some times, while they utilize targeted repression at others? How do opposition actors respond to these different repressive strategies, and how does this impact political change within a polity? In this study I argue that authoritarian regime’s repressive strategies toward opposition actors vary depending on the regime’s recent historical experience with breakdown and/or continuity. Authoritarian regimes that go through breakdown and transition from one autocratic rule to another, increase repression against all opposition, in an effort to pre-empt large-scale mobilization. This instills fear in the general public, resulting in political demobilization in the short run. On the other hand, long-standing authoritarian regimes that have not faced breakdown utilize targeted repression, and cooptation strategies while tolerating some forms of contentious activities, civic and political activism. Here, opposition actors are able to grasp political opportunities to mobilize for demonstrations at certain times and in certain spaces, and to develop coalition partnerships to push the regime to advance some reforms and change.
  • Under what conditions do state policies to include or exclude opposition groups lead them to radicalize or to moderate instead? To contextualize contradictory arguments in the literature, I return to the colonial origins of state-opposition antagonisms. I explore how colonial authorities structured nascent state apparatuses to view social movements with suspicion, turning them into "opposition" movements, initiating a long cycle of an exclusive - and initially repressive - relationship. From this starting point, I develop a framework that centers the cross-generational reproduction of factional tensions within opposition groups. Exclusion exacerbates tensions between moderate and radical factions, forcing open debates about opposition strategies. Historically, this favored moderate factions who survived by avoiding confrontation. Yet their prioritization of survival led them to compromise with incumbent regimes who contained their influence and limited reform. The failure of moderate opposition actors to make change has led to the rise of more creation radical forms of resistance among new opposition actors. To highlight this “pendulum” effect, I examine the trajectory of the Egyptian Islamist, Iraqi Communist, and Palestinian Nationalist movements. Drawing on Paul Pierson’s work, I show that scholars in the literature have studied the causes of moderation and radicalization in snapshots rather than in frameworks that account for the long-term, developing relationships between states and opposition actors.
  • The classic problematique of civil-military relations revolves around the delicate balance between nurturing a military that holds enough power to overcome any security threat to the state and, at the same time, submissive enough only to do what civilians authorize it to do. The military, carrying all the force necessary to crush and replace its civilian leadership at will, would not do so unless it feels politically superior to it. In other words, the prevailing arguments in the literature about the causes of coups — named triggers in this study — such as political and economic crises or the threat of a foreign invasion all hang on the presence of the Military Norms of Political Supremacy (MNPS). This study introduces the MNPS, made up of specific and measurable norms, as a necessary cause of coups that work along the triggers present in the literature. In doing so, MNPS can help explain the recurrence of military coups in Sudan since 1958 up until the 2021 coup. Since its independence in 1955, Sudan witnessed a total of 17 coups and coup attempts, six of them were successful coups and 11 failed. Out of the successful coups, one coup leader gave in power to elected civilians willingly within a year of the coup. This instance enrichens the case in terms of testing for the MNPS. The study utilizes textual analysis of primary sources, represented in the coup speeches made by the coup leaders in Sudan since 1958, to test for the existence of the MNPS. In the presence of the MNPS and triggers, the study concludes the possible causal link between the two independent variables and the occurrence of coups. To further establish the causation, another case is tested were in the presence of triggers and the absence of the MNPS coups do not take place. The study carries both theoretical and empirical significance. It helps resolve some of the conflicting opinions in the literature where no one clear cause of military coups prevailed through pointing out a necessary independent variable for other triggers to cause coups. At the same time, it carries significant real-life implications by offering a way to better understand, predict, and potentially curb coups before they take place. The case of Sudan is the first among other cases to be explored in future studies to expand the theory’s explanatory power.