Some Thoughts on Authoritarian Durability in the Middle East

It is our pleasure to welcome back frequent Monkey Cage contributor Professor Lucan Way of the University of Toronto with the following very insightful guest post on authoritarian durability in the Middle East.

Graeme Robertson recently wrote a wonderful post explaining that authoritarian regimes are potentially vulnerable to protest due to the coalitional character of most regimes. Almost all authoritarian regimes rely on support from a variety of players (the military, bureaucrats, businessmen) who may decide to take the side of opposition during protest – thereby contributing to regime collapse.

Yet, recognizing the coalitional character of authoritarian regimes only begs the question of why some authoritarian regimes collapse in the face of protest while others do not. After all, regimes differ dramatically in terms of their vulnerability to overthrow. Autocrats in Kyrgyzstan in 2005 and 2010 fell in the face of a few thousand protestors; while autocrats in China in 1989, Armenia in 1996, Zimbabwe in 2002 and 2008; and Iran in 2009 survived hundreds of thousands of protestors and often well-organized opposition threats. Thus, while a great deal of attention has been paid to the sources of protest in the Middle East, we also need to consider why some governments may be more vulnerable to mass mobilization than others.

To understand authoritarian vulnerability, we first need to distinguish between authoritarian longevity and durability. As Anna Grzymala-Busse has noted, regime durability, or the capacity to survive crises, is distinct from duration in power. Even weak authoritarian regimes may survive for extended periods of time if they are not seriously challenged. Thus, the lengthy tenure of many Middle Eastern autocrats tells us little about their capacity to survive the current, unprecedented wave of protest.

In the context of the Middle East, several factors would seem to contribute to relative durability. First, as Steven Levitsky and I argue in our recent book on Competitive Authoritarianism, the most durable regimes are those that were founded in recent revolutionary struggle. Such revolutionary struggle often gives rise to strong partisan ideologues that are a powerful source of elite cohesion. As Stephen Hanson has recently argued, ideology unites activists around a set of shared beliefs and symbols and provides a “higher cause” that legitimates their struggle. Such beliefs allow organizations to call upon activists to sacrifice and remain loyal when the chips are down and in the absence of an imminent material payoff. Origins in violent revolutionary struggle also strengthen ties between ruling elites and the security apparatus. Ties to revolutionary struggle give military and security officials a sense of mission required to engage in risky and violent behaviour necessary to put down large scale protest. In Iran in 2009, the legacy of 1979 ensured the loyalty of a powerful, and ideologically motivated coercive apparatus that was able to put down a serious opposition challenge.

By contrast, regimes rooted mostly in patronage – such as Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia – are much more vulnerable to crisis. When-due to economic downturn, widespread protest, or a strong electoral challenge—the ruling coalition’s hold on power is threatened, regimes that are bound together primarily by patronage often suffer large-scale defection. Indeed, if a crisis convinces ruling elites that continued loyalty threatens their future access to patronage, it may trigger a bandwagoning effect in which politicians defect en masse to the opposition. As one defecting member of the ruling UNIP party in Zambia that collapsed in 1991put it, “only a stupid fly … follows a dead body to the grave.”

Next, Eva Bellin has argued, regimes with professionalized militaries are more vulnerable to overthrow than ones in which coercive agencies are highly politicized and tied to the incumbent autocrats. Where the security elite has a sense of corporate identity separate from the particular autocrat in power, this coercive elite will be less likely to stick its neck out to preserve the regime. Thus, both Tunisia and increasingly Egypt possessed relatively professionalized militaries whose refusal to stand by the incumbent contributed directly to authoritarian collapse.

At the same time, as Levitsky and I have argued, regimes backed by weak and fragmented states will have a harder time suppressing protest and be especially vulnerable to crisis. Such weakness may be behind the crisis in Libya. Thus, according to one expert on Libya, the military is strongly divided along tribal lines – a fact that may have made it harder for the regime to stem recent protests.

Finally, it seems likely that regime ties to the United States hamper authoritarian efforts to crack down on protest and thus undermine authoritarian survival. Thus, Obama actively discouraged autocrats in Egypt and Bahrain from using force to quell protest – a fact that likely contributed to the rather inconsistent and almost schizophrenic use of repression in these countries. Autocrats who rely less on US support would seem to have a freer hand to deal with opposition.

In sum, regimes rooted in revolution should be less vulnerable to crisis than those rooted in pure patronage; and regimes with professionalized militaries, strong ties to the US, or weak states should be especially susceptible to collapse. These are preliminary thoughts that do not, of course, add up to any complete understanding of which Middle Eastern regimes are most vulnerable to collapse in 2011. Just food for thought.

6 Responses to Some Thoughts on Authoritarian Durability in the Middle East

  1. Joshua Tucker February 21, 2011 at 4:40 pm #

    Speaking of collapsing coalitions, NY Times is now reporting that “Libya’s UN delegation has denounced Qaddafi”: .

  2. Doctor Science February 22, 2011 at 10:42 am #

    authoritarian regimes are potentially vulnerable to protest due to the coalitional character of most regimes

    I think it’s important to be clear that coalitions are a universal feature of governments. *Every* government is a coalition — because by definition a government is made up of more than one person, and no two people’s goals are absolutely alike.

    The point that needs to be stressed is that this is just as true for authoritarian regimes as it is for raucous multiparty parliaments. The distinguishing aspect of authoritarian regimes isn’t that they’re coalitions, it’s that they *deny* it. They may claim to be perfect reflections or executions of a single leader’s (or religion’s, party’s, etc.) vision: unified and unitary. But this is always and inevitably a lie.

    My inclination is thus to agree with Graem e Robertson that protests can provide crucial information for a regime’s coalitional supporters. Because authoritarian regimes are based on the lie of agreement, good information is the limiting factor in the political environment. Public protests can quickly and radically up coalition members’ knowledge of each other’s goals and reactions. The result: a phase shift. Revolution.

  3. Vasi February 22, 2011 at 3:53 pm #

    “[R]egime ties to the United States hamper authoritarian efforts to crack down on protest”

    Is that informed conjecture, or backed by research? I’d love to see a link to the data source. Thanks for the great post!

  4. Right Wing-nut February 23, 2011 at 1:36 pm #

    The problem with this analysis is that it is far from clear that Egypt has actually experienced a regime change. The regime is the army, and Mubarak’s attempt to convert the dictatorship into a monarchy threatened the regime.

    The regime targeted Mubarak, not the military. The military refused to fire on the protesters because the military also was opposed.

    As they say, “The Regime Struck Back”.

  5. Lucan Way February 24, 2011 at 9:34 am #

    Who said anything about regime change? As I have argued extensively elsewhere, the ousting of an autocrat is not at all the same thing as democratization. As we document in our book, the downfall of autocrats often leads to new forms of authoritarianism, NOT democracy


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