Shouting in a Cage
A new book reimagines the meaning of co-optation in authoritarian regimes
I will be traveling next week for several exciting workshops, so next week’s book review essay will depend on the whims of the internet gods.
Sofia Fenner, Shouting in a Cage: Political Life After Authoritarian Co-optation in North Africa (Columbia University Press, 2023).
Egypt’s Wafd Party and Morocco’s Istiqlal Party started their lives as powerful mass nationalist movements and ended up as tame, largely irrelevant accessories in an authoritarian system. For most observers, that’s pretty much the whole story: such parties don’t really merit much attention anymore. It’s not that they don’t occasionally say or do oppositional things. It’s more that, well, nobody much cares one way or the other what they do or say. It just doesn’t matter very much. But there’s more to the co-optation and neutering of the Wafd and Istiqlal, according to Sofia Fenner’s wonderfully written and deeply researched new book. Understanding how these parties understood their own entry into carefully managed political systems tells us a lot, she argues, about how authoritarian regimes really work and why people choose to engage in politics through such seemingly ineffective party vehicles.
Fenner takes the progression of the two parties’ fortunes as a puzzle rather than a natural fact. Both parties were for decades the central actors in their country’s politics, and plausible inheritors of the mantle of post-colonial nationalism. Each entered a political system dominated by an autocratic ruler under terms which ensured that they could not meaningfully challenge the system. Each had ups and downs electorally, within those bounds. But each, ultimately, found themselves assimilated into the system, neutered of any real oppositional power, and stripped of the ability to effect meaningful change or mobilize significant electoral constituencies. For students of authoritarianism, this may just seem like a classic story which requires little more explanation. But based on hundreds of interviews and close examination of party publications and public discourse, Fenner argues that these parties experienced their marginalization very differently than conventional explanations would expect. What, she wants us to ask, did they think they were doing as they made the choices that brought them down this road to co-optation?
Fenner argues that conventional models of co-optation which focus on the transactional benefits to the party and its members particularly miss the mark. In her countless interviews with Wafd and Istiqlal members, she encountered few references to such patronage, political or clientalistic benefits. Nor does the timing of the parties gaining access to government positions or other regime benefits align with the key decisions leading to co-optation. It’s possible, she acknowledges, that there were payments under the table, secret agreements, and personal corruption. Certainly, rumors of such arrangements circulate freely among the political public. Those rumors themselves serve a particular political function, she points out, serving regime discourses about the hypocrisy and lack of credibility of so-called opposition parties. But it matters, she argues, that these parties understood their own choices not in transactional terms but in terms of what she depicts (drawing on Hayden White’s approach to narrative) as a Romantic narrative of struggle and eventual triumph.
One of the reasons that so many observers, both local and Western, get these parties wrong is that they misidentify them — perhaps as leftist, perhaps as opposition, perhaps as liberal, perhaps as secularist. But those labels don’t fit, she argues: at their core, both the Wafd and the Istiqlal are nationalist parties and their choices reflect their commitment to nationalist goals, identities, and policies. She carefully traces the Wafd’s hostility over decades to both pan-Arabism and Islamism, as supranational identities in conflict with nationalism; its 1984 electoral alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood, the exception to the rule, was hotly contentious inside the party. And she challenges contemporary narratives of the Istiqlal and the 1975 Green March on the (then) Spanish Sahara, which many scholars have seen as the moment when the Istiqlal succumbed to the monarch’s designs. Fenner instead shows how the Istiqlal internally viewed the Green March as their triumph, with the monarch adopting a plan for which they had vocally advocated and thus allowing them to enter politics from a position of strength.
But both parties ultimately declined as they made their compromises with authoritarianism. The Wafd struggled hard through legal channels in the late 1970s to achieve recognition as a political party under Sadat, and did reasonably well in elections in the 1980s. But their choice to boycott the 1990 election, Fenner observers, proved disastrous — and helps to explain their later hesitation to boycott more obviously unfair and unfree elections. Over the following decades, the Wafd continued to exist and sometimes even challenged the ruling NDP, but its perceived hypocrisy and co-optation cost it its political importance. For the Istiqlal, their self-perceived success in the Green March propelled them into the King’s carefully managed elections in the late 1970s, but faded during the 1980s “years of lead” despite suffering relatively less repression than leftist and Islamist counterparts.
Fenner also looks in detail at what she calls “life after co-optation.” She is less interested here in the ability of these parties to win votes than in their ability to attract and retain members. In several fascinating chapters, she examines the family connections and networks that bind party members, and the generational divides which drive the occasional eruptions of internal schisms and factionalism. These offer a fascinating glimpse into what members of these co-opted parties are doing when they do politics, and what it means to them in the broadest sense. Even readers familiar with Egyptian and Moroccan politics will find a lot to like in Shouting in a Cage, and will appreciate the window it opens up into a slice of political life which most people don’t bother with. I first encountered Fenner’s work at a POMEPS junior scholar book workshop I ran a few years aback, and I’m just delighted to see it now published in such fine form.
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