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Authoritarian Survival Strategies

Panel V-27, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Friday, November 3 at 1:30 pm

Panel Description
  • Dr. Sean Yom -- Presenter
  • Dr. Nadine Sika -- Presenter
  • Ms. Danae Panissié -- Chair
  • Ozgur Ozkan -- Presenter
  • Mr. Nasir Almasri -- Presenter
  • 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.
  • Dr. Nadine Sika
    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.
  • Mr. Nasir Almasri
    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.
  • Ozgur Ozkan
    The military lies at the heart of each political system, explicitly or implicitly. It may stimulate, facilitate, or obstruct transitions across regime types. Officers topple dictators and build their own military dictatorships or can open the path for gradual democratic transition. On the contrary, they can cooperate with autocrats and serve as their primary repressive instrument helping them entrench or elongate their rule. How does the military affect regime change and new regime type? Focusing on the Turkish case, this paper theorizes the conditions under which the military helps the emergence and sustainment of hybrid regimes. I preliminarily argue that the military’s prior civil-military relations experience, level of institutionalization, and organizational structure and culture condition its relationship with autocrats and attitude toward autocrats’ repressive policies toward general population, however breakdown of its merit-based recruitment and promotion system appears as a determining factor. Drawing on original military recruitment, promotion, and purge data and interviews with military officers, politicians, and journalists, this article reveals how the military’s forcible and voluntary transformation paved the way for Turkey’s rapid slide into an authoritarian regime. The Turkish officer corps’ politicization, fractured nature, and long-standing estrangement from society have facilitated Erdogan’s efforts to sideline the military in the political stage and transform it into an obedient semi-regime force. Turkey experienced rapid democratic backsliding under civilian leaders in two instances: (1) Under Adnan Menderes between 1956 and 1960 and (2) under Recep T. Erdogan after 2011. Extensive politicization of the officer corps, and aggressive interventions in recruitment and promotion practices mark both periods. Scholars have widely seen the military’s autonomy as harmful to democracy and political stability ignoring the military’s function as a critical safeguard to personalist authoritarian threats and that a military too open to politicians’ influence is more likely to be coopted by an autocrat or less likely to resist its institutional cooptation. Civil-military relations theories offer valuable theoretical frameworks to understand how to establish and maintain civilian control over the armed forces but lacks when and how the military should fend off the attempts to subjugate it into a partisan force or a regime guard. My paper seeks to provide a theory of responsible military autonomy drawing on Turkish experience that proposes civilians to oversee and audit primarily the merit-based, inclusive, and equitable nature of recruitment, selection, and promotion processes instead of involving directly in selection and promotion processes.