Killing Contention, Sustaining Authoritarianism
Two new books examine how North African regimes do it.
Sammy Zeyad Badran, Killing Contention: Demobilization in Morocco during the Arab Spring (Syracuse University Press, 2022)
Dalia Ghanem, Understanding the Persistence of Competitive Authoritarianism in Algeria (Palgrave MacMillan, 2022)
Don’t miss my weekly book review essays! Subscribe now.
A decade on from the 2011 Arab uprisings, we’ve learned a lot about the resilience of MENA authoritarian regimes in the face of even sustained and large-scale popular mobilization. Excitement about the remarkable success of protestors in Tunisia and Egypt at forcing the removal of long-ruling Presidents gave way all too soon to the descent of contention into war in Libya and Syria and autocratic restorations in the only two ostensible success stories. Most MENA regimes found ways to survive, whether through political concessions, co-optation, brute repression, or some mixture. But how did they do it? On this week’s episode of the Middle East Political Science podcast, I talked with the authors of two short but rich new books on a pair of North African cases, Algeria and Morocco.
Dalia Ghanem’s Understanding the Persistence of Competitive Authoritarianism in Algeria works from the top down, examining how the core pillars of the regime operate to sustain authoritarian continuity in microscopic detail. She shows how the regime absorbs challengers through a multilayered system of political control and carefully calibrated “change without change.” The argument is framed by the massive 2019 Hirak popular mobilization against the decrepit President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s plan to stand for a fifth election. The military regime’s response to these mass weekly marches and demands for political change exemplify its adaptability and styles of political management: carefully targeting repression and limiting overt violence, unceremoniously removing Bouteflika from office, calling early elections to install its preferred civilian alternative, offering up a number of corrupt elites for prosecution, and then using COVID-19 lockdowns to empty the streets (for a time).
Ghanem starts with a careful look at the evolution of the military, which famously (mostly) rules without governing. The difficulty of gaining access and seriously studying militaries despite their central role in politics is a persistent problem in MENA political science, and Ghanem tackles it head on drawing on a range of available evidence and interviews to try to illuminate the inner workings of the military regime. The 1992 military coup, ending President Chadli Benjedid’s democratic opening which had brough the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) to the brink of power, of course represented a qualitiative shift in the military’s role as it openly took power. The Black Decade of bloody insurgency and counterinsurgency brought the militarization of the state, including the rising influence of the military intelligence services (DRS), and the securitization of politics. It stepped back, though, returning to ruling from behind the scenes until the 2019 Hirak again brought the military command back into the open. One of the intriguing subthemes she surfaces is the recurrent efforts of successive Presidents to assert authority over the military or to wrestly independence by playing the DRS against the army or working the internal factions among the generals. That ambition is illustrated most graphically by her quoting the younger Bouteflika boldly proclaiming upon taking office that “I am the representative of the Algerian people, and no institution of the Republic can take a bite out of me, even if it be the People’s National Army… I am the embodiment of the Algerian people, so tell the generals to eat me if they can.” Twenty years later, the generals ate him.
She doesn’t only look at the military, though. The key to her reading of Algerian politics is that the military relies on a multi-layered system in which political parties, economic clientelism and fragmented civil society each play a role in protecting the core of military rule. One chapter looks at the co-optation and neutering of political parties, in which elections become a tool of political management as the regime allows multiparty elections to reward and punish elites, neutralizing opposition without allowing any meaningful competition. Winning seats in parliamentary elections, she observes, is essentially a symbol of co-optation. The military’s miscalculation in 1991, in which democratic opening allowed the FIS to come within reach of winning actual power through elections, would not be repeated. Another chapter examines Algeria’s atomized and co-opted civil society, in which civil society organizations proliferate (over 90,000 registered as of 2011) but are kept on a tight leash. Economic patronage fueled by oil wealth obviously lies at the heart of all of this, creating political economic networks indelibly tied to state largesse and rampant corruption. And, when needed, the threat of repressive violence always looms.
Where Ghanem examines Algerian politics from the vantage point of the summit of power, Sammy Zeyad Badran’s Killing Contention studies the demobilization of Morocco’s February 20th movement more from the bottom up as they grappled with the monarchy’s political strategy. Through extensive interviews with participants in Morocco’s primary 2011 protest movement, Badran shows how the movement brought together an unusually broad cross-ideological coalition of Islamists, leftists, Amizagh activists and newly mobilized youth inspired by a regionwide protest wave of which they very much felt themselves to be a part. The movement cleverly deployed social media and carefully crafted a reformist message, avoiding calls for revolutionary change while the Islamists of the Justice and Charity Orgnization refrained from deploying Islamist slogans and symbols. The King’s March 9 speech announcing major constitutional changes did not immediately demobilize the movement, despite his reforms carefully targeting almost every one of the movement’s major reformist demands. Indeed, Badran notes, protests accelerated and spiked following the King’s speech. But it couldn’t sustain that momentum.
Badran traces the demobilization which followed the constitutional reform announcements not to the protestors’ demands being met but to the effect on the broader public to which the protestors needed to appeal. While the February 20 Movement activists found the reforms unsatisfying and wanted to sustain popular pressure on the Palace, the broader public largely viewed the King’s reforms as directly responding to the major demands. Each subsequent move - pardoning political prisoners, recognizing Amizagh as an official national language, raising the minimum wage, holding elections - distanced the remaining protestors from the general public by taking away their most popular issues one by one. When the Islamist Party of Justice and Development (PJD) was allowed to win the Parliamentary election and form a government, many of the Islamists within the F20 coalition quietly left the movement. The decentralized nature of the movement worked against its efforts to adapt to the new political environment. Their protest tactics grew stale, Badran argues, while more revolutionary voices pressured the reformists for more provocative slogans and tactics. Regime propaganda selectively targeted movement leaders, circulating incriminating videos and allegations through social media to discredit individual activists and stoke divisions within the movement. Efforts to move protests into the impoverished popular urban neighborhoods crossed a regime red line, triggering more intense repression. Ultimately, he argues, the February 20 Movement demobilized even as the King’s reforms left the core of royal power largely untouched.
I was especially intrigued by Badran’s observations about how the regional environment had a demobilizing impact, as Moroccans watched in horror as Libya’s uprising turned into a civil war which dominated the media, a trajectory soon repeated in Syria, and as secularists (especially women) worried as Islamists dominated Egyptian and Tunisian post-uprising elections. Badran’s interviews track nicely with the arguments I’ve made elsewhere about the interaction effects of the different Arab arenas and the critical importance of viewing the Arab uprisings cases through the lens of the broader regional dynamics. Every case is unique, of course, and outcomes are primarily driven by local conditions. But it’s just impossible to fully analyze the trajectory of any Arab case without taking into account the regional international environment — whether the transnational diffusion of protest hopes and fears or the direct and indirect interventions by regional powers such as Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Reading Ghanem and Badran together offers a useful and intriguing comparative look at how these two quite different North African regimes managed significant popular political challengers. Each presents a finely textured analysis, Ghanem’s more from the top down and Badran’s more from the bottom up, which shows not just that the regimes survived but how they did it. The expert political management, co-optation, and targeted repression which allowed each regime to adapt and survive shouldn’t blind us to the equally significant reality that in both countries protests continue to erupt. Popular grievances with ever worsening economic conditions, ongoing corruption, poor governance, and abusive security forces continue to mount, and waves of popular mobilization will almost certainly continue to erupt in defiance of regime efforts. These careful case studies of how regimes successfully weathered major political challenges show just how high a mountain those popular movements need to climb to bring about meaningful change. They are well worth a read for those interested in how the region got to where it is today and where it might be heading.
Abu Aardvark's MENA Academy is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.