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Contentious Politics in the Middle EastPolitical Opposition under Authoritarianism$

Holger Albrecht

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9780813034744

Published to Florida Scholarship Online: September 2011

DOI: 10.5744/florida/9780813034744.001.0001

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Political Opposition and Arab Authoritarianism

Political Opposition and Arab Authoritarianism

Some Conceptual Remarks

Chapter:
(p.17) 1 Political Opposition and Arab Authoritarianism
Source:
Contentious Politics in the Middle East
Author(s):

Holger Albrecht

Publisher:
University Press of Florida
DOI:10.5744/florida/9780813034744.003.0002

Abstract and Keywords

It may seem a bit precarious to apply terms such as political participation, representation, and political opposition to Middle Eastern politics. There are both phenomenological and conceptual arguments in favor of the traveling and application of concepts to authoritarian settings. This chapter compares the major differences between democracy and authoritarianism with regard to opportunities and limitations of opposition. It then focuses particularly on political opposition in the authoritarian regimes of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Despite substantial restrictions, liberalized authoritarian regimes do grant opposition forces—including regime-loyal, tolerated, and antisystem opposition—some opportunities for political activism. The emergence of these forms of opposition does not necessarily constitute a threat to the incumbents but may rather contribute to the stabilization of a liberalized, inclusivist type of authoritarianism.

Keywords:   political participation, representation, political opposition, Middle Eastern politics, democracy, authoritarianism

Concept traveling is never easy, in particular when concepts closely associated with democracy are applied to authoritarian systems. This holds true for most theories that inquire into state-society relations. Thus, it may seem a bit precarious to apply terms such as political participation, representation, and political opposition to Middle Eastern politics. This adventure is necessary, though, for two reasons. First, a quick look at the empirical reality reveals that such phenomena do exist under authoritarianism. Second, authoritarianism is a regime type that is seriously understudied in conceptual terms. Thus, there are both phenomenological and conceptual arguments in favor of the traveling and application of concepts to authoritarian settings.

In this chapter, I compare the major differences between democracy and authoritarianism with regard to opportunities and limitations of opposition. I then focus particularly on political opposition in the authoritarian regimes of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Despite substantial restrictions, liberalized authoritarian regimes do grant opposition forces—including regime-loyal, tolerated, and antisystem opposition—some opportunities for political activism. The emergence of these forms of opposition does not necessarily constitute a threat to the incumbents but may rather contribute to the stabilization of a liberalized, inclusivist type of authoritarianism.

Opposition under Democracy versus Authoritarianism

What does political opposition do in democracies? In a nutshell, opposition in a polyarchy has three main functions (see Dahl 1971; Sartori 1966): (1) the control of power and its execution by the incumbents, (2) the representation of the interests and preferences of political minorities and social actors not represented in government, and (3) the identification of an institutionalized alternative in a competitive political system. According to a Dahlean, procedural understanding, the existence of political opposition is a necessary precondition (p.18) for democracy. One may thus be tempted to argue that opposition is an inherently democratic institution, or—more forcefully—democracy is the only type of political system in which opposition as a political institution could ever develop.

The functions of opposition in a polyarchy do not fit with the working mechanisms of authoritarianism, where one might be tempted to claim that incumbents do not allow opposition, protest movements, and societal contenders to control their exercise of power and participate in the competition about political office. Democratic alternance, that is, the possible accession to power of a political opposition, is not at stake in the polity. Moreover, regimes restrict the equitable representation of society, often employing high degrees of repression. On the other hand, even a very tentative look at the authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and North Africa reveals that opposition does exist here, not only at certain points in time but as a sustained phenomenon.

Acknowledging that opposition has been analyzed in theory exclusively from a democracy angle, even though opposition does exist in nondemocracies, I agree with Barbara McLennan’s early critical assessment that Robert Dahl—and the associated academic tradition—“has avoided the difficulty of comparing competitive systems to noncompetitive ones, where repression is either very real or threatened” (1973: 383).

In order to understand political opposition irrespective of the political system within which it operates, a procedural minimum definition is required. Political opposition is thus an institution located within a political system but outside of the realm of governance that has decisive organizational capacities and engages in competitive interactions with the incumbents of a political regime based on a minimum degree of mutual acceptance.1

Starting with a comparison between opposition in democracy and opposition in authoritarianism, I highlight some very broad disparities concerning the subjects and codes of contestation, the degree of coercion, and the institutional framework for opposition activism. First and foremost, the subject of contestation is different. In democracies, oppositions compete with incumbents about political power in the meaning of imperium, that is, the power to rule; in autocracies, opposition struggles over potestas, that is, the power to influence. In an authoritarian setting, irrespective of the degree of pluralism granted to society, the contestation of herrschaft is foreclosed, even to political opposition that has secured acceptance from the incumbents. When an authoritarian opposition changes the rules of the game so that it competes with the government over the power to rule, there is a systemic breakdown of authoritarianism, irrespective of whether the opposition succeeds in taking over office or not. A breakdown of democracy occurs when there is no opposition competing about herrschaft.

(p.19) Moreover, the codes of contestation are different. In democracies, political actors differ from one another in historically established ideational and ideological attributes: left versus right, communists versus capitalists, Republicans versus Democrats, environmentalists versus industrialists, and so on. They are firmly associated with parties and movements that cannot easily strip off their leanings without seriously losing credibility in the eyes of the public. Under authoritarianism, incumbents usually do not like to emphasize distinct ideational programs (except under populist experiments). Since they do not exhibit a clear, unmistakable ideological picture, opposition actors develop their own programmatic preferences, not essentially in relation to the political incumbents but in a rather eclectic manner, mainly according to the perceived chances to originate public support. As the latter are subject to frequent changes, oppositions under authoritarianism are more flexible to adapt and even fundamentally change their ideological credentials within relatively short intervals.

A third difference is that, not surprisingly, the degree of coercion toward opposition is substantially higher in autocracies than in democracies. Legal restrictions impair access to the political institutions and procedures in which political oppositions usually operate, most prominently in elections and parliaments. Coercion includes the blunt use of repressive means of containment of an opposition, such as the detention, physical harassment, torture, expatriation, and even the disappearance and liquidation of political activists. There is also an abundant array of means of soft repression, including mechanisms to restrict freedom of speech and assembly, censorship, pressure from police and security apparatuses, and the dismissal from posts in bureaucracies and state enterprises—to name only a few possible nuisances and encroachments—to the detriment of oppositions to authoritarian elites.

While opposition groups in an authoritarian context are accustomed to such a menu of repressive treatment, this does not mean that repression of opposition is absent in democracies. However, coercion in democracies remains limited to those opposition groups perceived as antisystemic.2 Under authoritarianism, antisystem opposition is a more frequent phenomenon; a quick look demonstrates that authoritarian regimes are generally unable to prevent antisystem opposition. Under authoritarianism, the principal opposition groups are democracy promoters, and a democratic opposition is, in authoritarian systems, necessarily antisystemic in nature.

A fourth difference between democratic and authoritarian realms concerns the institutional framework of government-opposition relations. In democracies, institutional frameworks are highly formalized. Concerning actors, political parties are by far the most important agents of political opposition. Competitive interactions occur in the classic political arenas such as elections (p.20) and the halls of parliaments, ministries, and bureaucracies, and in firmly established and legally enforced modes of contestation such as strikes, petitions to ombudsmen, appeals to constitutional courts, and so on. A more nebulous picture is found in authoritarian systems. Here, we also detect these modern, formal institutions, but informality plays a much more prominent role in politics. Thus, oppositional actors may choose to organize in other, more dubious forms than political parties, and elections may not necessarily reflect the struggles and balance of power between authoritarian incumbents and their oppositions.

In this context, the legality of opposition actors becomes a crucial aspect. In democracies, formal legality is a clear signal for general acceptance by the power holders; if an actor is found to be acting illegally, it ceases to participate in politics as an opposition. Under authoritarianism, legality certainly is a meaningful issue, but it will not come as a necessary precondition as in democracies. Rather, opposition movements may well be illegal in that they are not granted formal judicial authorization, but they may be informally tolerated and recognized. Such a status does not necessarily allow us to assume a lack of minimum consent by the authorities, but it is often an indicator that they have chosen one possible strategy of (legal) containment among a variety of others, oscillating in a range between soft repression and heavy coercion. In contrast, we find cases in the Middle East where opposition parties and groups are legally authorized but are subject to other forms of serious containment ranging from coercion to the limited freezing of the activities of the particular group.

Modes of Political Opposition

When inquiring into the modes of opposition under authoritarianism and the relationship between incumbents and oppositions, one necessarily starts with a look at the degree of liberties and opportunities at the disposal of the opposition. Naturally, opposition under authoritarianism flourishes best in relatively inclusive regimes, that is, in those that permit a comparatively high degree of access to political institutions.3 While suppression will always remain the most important tool, and a last resort, for such regimes to contain political contenders and society at large, this does not imply that the degree of inclusiveness—and, in turn, repression and exclusion—will remain stable and unaltered. Rather, alternating phases of political liberalization and deliberalization will determine the degree of inclusiveness at any one time.4

The more inclusive an authoritarian regime, the more sophisticated the modes of political opposition tend to be. While it may be, at times and in the (p.21) empirical reality, difficult to draw adequate boundaries, I distinguish between three main modes of opposition under authoritarianism: (1) regime-loyal opposition that works within the confinements of the authoritarian regime, (2) tolerated opposition, and (3) antisystem opposition. Regime-loyal opposition comprises many legalized political parties, for instance, in Egypt and Morocco, and the political organs of workers' movements that, more often than not, turn to the opposition benches in times of liberal economic reforms. Often, these parties have come into being under the auspices and tight control of the particular authoritarian regime.

Tolerated opposition emerges in society and independently from the state, which, however, keeps the opposition under control by a mix of co-optation and coercion and thus impedes the emergence of an autonomous contender. In many MENA countries, democracy and human rights promoters from politicized civil society organizations fall into this category, as well as some groups from the ambit of moderate Islamism that have become political and have been allowed to form political parties (as in Morocco, Jordan, and Yemen). Antisystem opposition comprises large parts of the Islamist movement in other countries. This holds true not only for radical but also moderate groups, for instance, in Syria, Egypt, and Tunisia, or the Shi‘a movement in Bahrain. Also, groups among civil society that are serious about their political activism and discourse, for example, those groups that are highly politicized in their stance for human rights and democracy and disclaim the discrete forms of co-optation by the regime, belong to this category of antisystem opposition.5

Figure 1 locates modes of opposition in inclusive authoritarian regimes with respect to their relationship to government. Oppositions under authoritarianism oscillate on a range between regime-loyal opposition—a rather narrow distance from incumbents—at one end, and antisystem opposition at the other; but in neither case does opposition reach the realm of governance. If it does in exceptional cases, we witness regime change. The existence of actors that fit into the realm of regime-loyal and tolerated opposition is a necessary precondition for an inclusivist-liberal type of authoritarianism. The forms, scope, and capacities of such oppositions are, at the same time, a useful indicator for the degree of inclusiveness of an authoritarian polity.6 From this perspective, studies of opposition are an integral part of studies on the working mechanisms of authoritarianism. The disappearance of regime-loyal and tolerated opposition indicates a substantial increase in repression and confinement for societal activism, and possibly a subsystemic change within an authoritarian regime.

Opposition parties and movements, which are the carriers of autonomous (p.22)

Political Opposition and Arab AuthoritarianismSome Conceptual Remarks

Figure 1. Modes of opposition in liberalized authoritarian regimes.

political participation, face a dilemma in authoritarian settings because states usually attempt to monopolize all relevant political, financial, and ideational resources that an opposition would need in order to originate popular support. “As a result, challengers to dominant parties must focus heavily on activist recruitment by providing comparatively radical programmatic incentives while remaining mindful of the moderate programs preferred by the median voter” (Greene 2002: 756). I assume that this holds true not only for the recruitment of activists but also for the need to gather popular support. Thus, opposition toward authoritarian incumbents faces one particular problem: the radicalization trap. This is provoked by the fact that, on the one hand, opposition movements are forced to originate mass support, which presupposes the provision of radical programmatic incentives, and, on the other hand, they must not challenge the authoritarian regimes to an extent that they would be perceived as dangerous. If that were to happen, the regimes would then trigger high degrees of statist repression, possibly resulting in the opposition's exclusion from the formal political realm. In turn, people would think twice before associating with political groups that are subject to fierce state repression.

The discourse of Islamists is widely perceived to be antisystemic, not only by the authoritarian regimes in the region but also by outside observers. The promotion of liberal democracy is also an entirely antisystemic enterprise in an authoritarian context. Both Islamists and other opposition forces are often forced to employ radical means to be heard and to be taken seriously. Social outbursts, food riots, and worker protests have shaken various countries in (p.23) the Middle East in times of neoliberal economic reforms, in particular, in Jordan, Egypt, Bahrain, and Tunisia.7 While the containment strategies of Middle Eastern regimes differ tremendously, ranging from brutal repression to hasty concessions and the reversal of the measures that led to the protest activity, the perception—not to speak of the enforcement—of respective societal interests is often dependent on the degree of radicalization of those who claim them.

As the best way to overcome the radicalization trap, opposition can try to float in the gray zone of systemic loyalty, that is, to behave either loyally or antisystemically according to changing circumstances. In so doing, opposition groups can try to benefit from the fact that the gap between loyal and antisystem political behavior is often narrower and harder to depict in authoritarian regimes than in democracies. In the latter, groups that are identified as antisystemic will be barred from the formal political realm and, often, legally prosecuted. Many coercive measures cannot alienate opposition groups in the Middle Eastern political environment because they are part of an everyday authoritarian menu of repression irrespective of whether the group is legalized or not.

While opposition is used to cope with structurally higher degrees of repression than in democracies, authoritarian incumbents are very much accustomed to coping with antisystem political discourses and behavior. Take, again, democratization discourses as an example: It is quite bizarre that authoritarian incumbents themselves sometimes actively participate in such antisystemic discourses. Thus, in short, an antisystemic discourse is an important but not a sufficient explanation for repression. Opposition groups know this and apply their strategies according to these circumstances. A good example is the case of Islamist movement organizations. They tend to stress antisystemic sentiments in covert conversations and in the mosques but maintain a far more moderate stance in a wider public. Islamists, radical or moderate, who are subject to fierce statist coercion often take cover among opposition groups that are tolerated by the regimes, or they hide away in established organizations and institutions whenever granted access. “Unlike included opponents, illegal groups prefer to mobilize in conjunction with legal opposition groups rather than to mobilize independently” (Lust-Okar 2005: 68). Parties and movements often carefully distinguish between members representing official formulas and those speaking or acting as private individuals. Decisions to place statements at various media platforms will always depend on careful timing as well as on the outreach, scope, and target group of the publication. In the end, it is difficult to identify many opposition groups in that gray zone of systemic loyalty and to detect wolves in sheep's clothing—or the reverse. Studies on opposition in an authoritarian context necessarily take into account the fact that there is a dichotomy between façade and reality, discourses (p.24) and behavior, official programs and clandestine programs, and ideology and realpolitik.

Patterns of Opposition under Authoritarianism in the Middle East

Recently, scholars have been looking at political opposition under authoritarian realms overwhelmingly from two different, though somehow interrelated, angles. First, in studies on political transition from authoritarianism to democracy, actor-oriented and Przeworski-type approaches are used to analyze the potential of opposition to become a counterpart in pacted transitions, in which democratic procedures emerge—in times of regime crises—as a consequence of negotiations between reform-oriented parts of elite coalitions and moderate opposition forces (see, among many others, Stepan 1997; Przeworski 1993; Pridham 1995; and Bermeo 1997). It is argued in this body of literature that the emergence of autonomous societal groups and counterparts of authoritarian regimes is of particular importance for democratization processes: “What is threatening to authoritarian regimes is not the breakdown of legitimacy but the organization of counterhegemony…. Only when collective alternatives are available does political choice become available to isolated individuals” (Pridham 1995: 54–55). This perspective is paramount in comparative and single-case studies focusing on those world areas and countries that have indeed experienced democratization processes, particularly in Latin America and Eastern Europe. One problem is that, when the democratizing potential of opposition has seemed low—or when an opposition was under suspicion of not favoring democracy at all (such as Islamists)—scholars of this body of literature quickly lost interest in the issue, ignoring the fact that the opposition was still there.

Early on, Robert Dahl observed that “the two processes—democratization and the development of public opposition—are not…identical” (1971: 1). A slightly different perspective was then put forward by scholars who looked at opposition in regions where democratic transitions remained the exception from the rule of authoritarian resilience, or were missing altogether. Here, studies of opposition have been largely taken as an indicator of the regimes' potential and readiness to control society—both by repressive and co-optative mechanisms—and to keep alive their hold on the power to rule. The question here, whether implicitly assumed or explicitly formulated, is in essence a negation of the inquiry within the pacted-transition paradigm: Why does opposition fail to force authoritarian incumbents to accept democratization?

Only a few scholars have inquired into an authoritarian logic of opposition politics. Some forty years ago, Giovanni Sartori speculated that political opposition (p.25) may fulfill roles and functions other than those usually ascribed to it, that is, representing minorities, balancing power, and controlling the government. According to Sartori, “Opposition may also take part in the political communication function, that is, its primary role may be confined to providing a channel of information…or it may only be a safety valve, a merely verbal outlet, in the sense that opposition is tolerated only to placate opposition.” He then suggests that “these random observations surely show the need of a more analytical classification of the conceivable roles and functions of opposition” (1966: 149). Surprisingly or not, such an endeavor is still missing, as well as a theoretical interpretation of the dimensions of opposition in authoritarian systems.

The Arab Middle East is a particularly intriguing region for a study of opposition under authoritarianism since authoritarianism is the pervasive type of rule. This does not mean that regimes do not change, and it also does not mean that oppositions have not, in certain instances, contributed to fundamental changes. The Iranian revolution and Algeria at the outset of the 1990s are prominent cases where opposition has developed into a revolutionary movement. Also worthy of study, though, is the efficacy of political oppositions in influencing changes within a regime.8 Possible examples abound. Leftist, Marxist, and workers' movements' demands have had an effect on socioeconomic policies in several countries even though governments have largely committed themselves to neoliberal reforms. Moreover, Islamist parties, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco or the Islah Party in Yemen have, without any doubt, influenced the degree to which religion plays a role in their respective societies.

Opposition has emerged and been institutionalized in many countries in the region and, within various organizational settings, has developed ideational frameworks, without contributing to systemic changes, that is, democratization. This holds true for the more liberal, inclusive regimes in the region, such as in Jordan, Morocco, Egypt, Yemen, Kuwait, Oman, Algeria (except during the civil war in the 1990s), and Bahrain, but it is also true for the more repressive regimes of Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, and Sudan.9 Opposition is organized in political parties (Jordan, Yemen, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria) and in would-be parties in countries where political parties are not legally recognized but similar organizations have been informally accepted.10 Other forms of political expression include student and labor unions along with professional associations that have become the target of Islamist penetration. Political opposition has emerged during the 1990s as a politicized element of the civil society realm, with the establishment of human rights organizations, advocacy groups, and democracy promoters. This phenomenon can be observed in all (p.26) countries in the region including the more repressive ones, such as Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Tunisia. Similarly, we can detect in the entire region a powerful Islamist movement. However, one has to be careful to distinguish between organizations that are antisystem opposition and other parts of the Islamist movement that should better be grasped as resistance.11

With respect to the MENA, Ellen Lust-Okar (2005) has spearheaded recent studies on political opposition, putting special emphasis on the politicosystemic context and examining relations between authoritarian incumbents and opposition and among distinct opposition actors. Lust-Okar's work is a valuable contribution to the growing body of literature that takes authoritarianism in the Middle East as is, and not as something that could, or should, be something else.12 Similarly, William Zartman offered, already in 1988, an explanation of the existence of opposition and relations with regimes; unfortunately, that did not trigger a larger debate. Zartman has analyzed political opposition, even under Arab authoritarianism, as “support of the state” (Zartman 1988). In a nutshell, he argues that the interplay of governments and oppositions in Arab authoritarian states contributes as much to the stability of the concerned political system as is the case with democracies; one could add that only the modes of contestations are different. Zartman assumes that “government and oppositions have interests to pursue within the political system, and this complementarity of pursuit reinforces the state. Neither uses the other, but each serves the other's interests in performing its own role. Thus, stability in the contemporary Arab state can be explained not only by the government's handling of opposition but also by the opposition's handling of itself and of government” (1988: 62).13

I take these approaches of Zartman and Lust-Okar as a conceptual point of departure to account for an authoritarian opposition in the Arab world. Hardly any authoritarian regime can, in the long run, avoid the emergence of such oppositions without employing a degree of coercion that may well, in the end, lead to the breakdown of the regime. Iraq under Saddam Husayn may serve as an exemplary case, while Libya may be a noteworthy exception because an institutionalized opposition does not exist even though the degree of repression is high. This account of an authoritarian opposition offers a rather structuralist perspective because it focuses on the roles and functions of the opposition within the politico-systemic setting. The question of where this all may lead is of secondary avail. The possibility of democratization processes can, and should, never be entirely excluded from analysis, but, given the strong empirical evidence of the resilience of both authoritarianism and opposition, such questions are subordinated here in favor of investigating opposition as it exists under authoritarianism.

(p.27) Robert Dahl proposed a simple axiom in order to explain the conditions under which opposition can emerge: “Opposition is likely to be permitted in a political system if (1) the government believes that an attempt to coerce the opposition is likely to fail, or (2) even if the attempt were to succeed, the costs of coercion would exceed the gains” (Dahl 1966: xii).14 In other words, if the opposite became true—that governments found it apt and possible to crush their counterparts by pure coercion—opposition might cease to exist and turn into something else, possibly resistance.

In order to explain the emergence of political opposition under authoritarianism, a core hypothesis is that it challenges incumbents but, at the same time, its existence ultimately contributes to the stability of the political system of the inclusive-authoritarian type; oppositions may challenge incumbents—or, more often, parts and factions of the incumbents—but if the political system under consideration breaks down, the respective political opposition will do so accordingly. As a consequence, one should ask: What does an authoritarian opposition do in these political settings? And, from the perspective of an authoritarian regime: What are the positive incentives to accept the emergence of political opposition? There are four core dimensions: (1) representation, (2) legitimation, (3) channeling, and (4) moderation (see Albrecht 2005: 390–92).

The Representation Dimension

Irrespective of any discussions of systemic change or authoritarian stability in the Middle East, it is clear that one core function of political opposition here is the same as in any other political system: the representation of societal interests that are not represented in government. Simply speaking, there is no government in which all possible interests of the respective society can be represented; thus, if an authoritarian regime allows the framing and articulation of societal interests, to whatever extent, it subsequently allows for the emergence of opposition. Political opposition is thus the institutionalized channel for the formulation of contentious political participation.

The Legitimacy Dimension

A second dimension of political opposition concerns the legitimacy of the polity. The existence of political opposition is, among other potential factors, an important tool to increase the legitimacy of an authoritarian polity. By creating a relatively liberal and inclusive political climate—and by the subsequent toleration of political opposition—the search for legitimacy is directly addressed to the domestic public. Political discourses in the media circulate about political reforms and about the quest for more democracy while the (p.28) materialization of those discourses is not at stake. On the other hand, people in such inclusive, liberalized authoritarian regimes will acknowledge a gradual increase in political freedoms compared to what Robert Dahl (1971) has called “closed hegemonies.” There is a second aspect of political legitimation: By the toleration of opposition and by creating an image of democracy and democratization, inclusive authoritarian regimes respond to respective expectations and demands of Western governments and international organizations. This helps in two ways. First, regimes can feel more secure in the face of the threat of massive, possibly military interventions in attempts to export democracy to the Arab region. This aspect has become particularly eminent following the paradigmatic change of foreign policy rationales in the United States after the suicide attacks on 11 September 2001. Second, a mirage of democracy and democratization helps attract political rents, distributed not only along strategic or military considerations but also along ideational sentiments. According to the latter, opposition parties and especially NGOs fit perfectly into respective Western expectations and have, thus, emerged as important societal rent-seeking institutions (see Carapico 2000).15

The Channeling Dimension

Political opposition organizes contention from society, but it is not capable of directly influencing policymaking without acceptance of the regime. An opposition is, in turn, useful for the regime in that the regime can assess the degree, form, and intensity of societal anger that is organized through the opposition. To become aware of openly formulated dissent is often better for the political regimes than having to cope with subliminal discontent among the populace; undercurrents of discontent can be very difficult to evaluate and may become the basis for social unrest, heavy protests, and even rebellions. Political opposition is then an organized expression of a comparatively liberal political landscape and, in turn, can be used by the regime to feel the people's pulse. Co-optation as a mechanism of societal control can more easily be implemented within a clear, institutionalized target. More often than not, opposition parties and NGOs constitute the main transmission belt for the co-optation of social groups that are not represented in elitist circles. This holds true for many such organizations throughout the region, with the notable exception of Islamist social movement organizations. The personalist, patrimonial organizational structure of such organizations is conducive to this aim. Party leaders are mighty patrons of their organizations, and strongmen are at the helm of a clear hierarchy, meeting in exclusive circles that more often than not include prominent members of the incumbent regime.

(p.29) The Moderation Dimension

Opposition in an authoritarian context has the potential to deradicalize domestic resistance toward incumbents. Mohammed Hafez and Quintan Wiktorowicz have argued that “the more accessible the state, even an authoritarian state, the less likely it is to unify opposition behind a violent strategy” (2004: 66). Turning resistance into controlled and moderate opposition is the name of this game. In many countries throughout the region, Marxist, leftist, and nationalist leanings have become the ideological footing for a great part of the intellectual elite and among the politicized urban middle classes and uppermiddle classes. However, except for the Islamist current, no considerable resistance has ever emerged from this direction. This is an astonishing situation, considering the economic hardship and unjust distribution of capital brought about by projects of neoliberal economic liberalization pursued by many regimes in the last two decades.16

Reflecting on the Logic of Opposition Politics

A last point is the question why political oppositions play by the rules of politics under authoritarianism even when, unlike the opposition in democracies, they do not see any chance of taking over power in the foreseeable future or seeing their political goals and programs become reality. The most convincing explanation is the sitting-at-the-table rationale described by Jennifer Gandhi and Adam Przeworski, who explain the existence of opposition under such settings in this way: “For the opposition, participation in legislatures provides an opportunity to pursue its interests and values within the framework of a dictatorship, to transform the dictatorship from within. When the opposition sees no chance to overthrow a dictator in the foreseeable future, it may prefer limited influence to interminable waiting” (2006: 14).

In short, oppositions do find advantages in their status. Examples in the Middle East abound. Take, for instance, the human rights NGOs in several Middle Eastern countries. While the regimes founded national human rights organizations as a means of co-optative control, many NGOs nevertheless perceive that they have acquired more political space and room for maneuver, as well as a more receptive audience for their demands (see Cardenas and Flibbert 2005). The Islamist-tribalist Islah Party in Yemen is discreetly included by the Saleh regime whenever it finds it necessary to broaden its base of support, for instance during the civil war of 1994 when the political elite of the former North Yemen defeated their contenders from the former South Yemen. Political parties in Morocco are embedded in the highly competitive alternance system (p.30) including regime parties and opposition alike. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt does not seem to be impatient to take over political power; rather, while the movement has undergone a remarkable process of politicization, at the core of its ideas and concepts is still the transformation of society. In Bahrain, the Shi‘a movement, while barred from formal political participation and, at times, subject to severe repression, has largely refrained from engaging in violent resistance and upheaval because the leaders of the movement have obviously perceived that some channels are still open to represent their people.

To summarize the discussion of the dimensions of an authoritarian opposition, there is more to the explanation of the existence of political opposition than a mere reference to Dahl's axiom stating that a government will tolerate opposition if the expected costs of toleration decrease and the costs of suppression increase (1971: 15). Rather, while every authoritarian regime that does not rest exclusively on repression will have to cope with this core mission of opposition, there are a number of functions that yield positive incentives for the regime to tolerate the emergence of opposition. A strong and vivid opposition will—in pursuing its authoritarian dimensions—contribute to authoritarian stability and, at the same time, constitute a Pandora's box in which dissent is enclosed as a potential challenge to the regime. Especially in times of economic or political crisis, opposition groups can hence exploit authoritarian leaders' readiness to concede to societal demands by intensifying their efforts of social mobilization. In the resulting more liberal political climate, the state would then have to carefully reinvent its strategies of containment.

Notes

(1.) For a more substantial explanation of this definition, see the introduction to this volume.

(2.) Even in democracies, though, the existence of antisystem movements and parties cannot be forestalled altogether: “Since democratic systems are based on the institutionalization of political dissent, which is an essential part of the political process…, there can be, in abstract, no a priori limitation on the degree of dissent that an opposition can voice” (Capoccia 2002: 13).

(3.) Daniel Brumberg (2002) coined the term “liberalized autocracy” to account for those regimes that initiate processes of political liberalization from above not as a first phase of democratization but rather as a mere attempt to stabilize their hold on power. Other scholars analyze such liberal or inclusive authoritarian regimes within more conceptual studies on hybrid or defective regimes (see Agnieszka Paczynska's contribution in this volume).

(4.) Political liberalization is an “opening that results in the broadening of the social base of the regime without changing its structure” (Pridham 1995: 66). It is a sort of change in an authoritarian regime but does not necessarily indicate a systemic change of regime, that is, democratization (Albrecht and Schlumberger 2004: 375).

(p.31) (5.) I have referred to such actors as “individual trouble-makers” (Albrecht 2005: 385).

(6.) Egypt is a good case to test how far oppositions of different ideological and organizational sorts can go before triggering coercive responses by the authoritarian regime (see Albrecht 2007).

(7.) Little has been written on protest movements in the Middle East. Asef Bayat has observed six types of activism in the Middle East: “urban mass protest, trade unionism, community activism, social Islamism, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and quiet encroachment” (2002: 3).

(8.) The contributions of Francesco Cavatorta and Ezzam Elananza, Janine Clark, Michael Schmidmayr, and Amin Allal and Florian Kohstall discuss this question in further depth.

(9.) There was no political opposition in the meaning described above in Iraq under Saddam Husayn because the degree of statist repression did not allow for the existence of opposition. In Qadhafi's Libya, political legitimation within the jamahiriyya (people's republic) concept included a successful attempt at depoliticization of the larger public and, thus, the prevention of political opposition. Moreover, the Palestinian Territories do not have an opposition in the strict sense because there is no opposition without a state; while we may grasp the entity as a quasi state or a proto-state—and the Palestinian Authority as a realm of governance—we may take Hamas as a quasi opposition movement. In general, there is no opposition in times of war, civil war, or occupation; in the vast majority of these cases, contentious activism comes about as resistance. Iran has a highly inclusive authoritarian system, meaning that dissent—for instance, toward the theocratic mainstream within the regime—is discretely embedded as factions of the regime that display a comparatively high degree of competition among political elite factions.

(10.) On party opposition, see Hendrik Kraetzschmar's contribution on Egypt in this book. The example of political parties shows that formal legality is often not a sufficient indicator to account for the degree of acceptance by an authoritarian regime. For instance, in Bahrain and Kuwait, the political regimes have established structures of contestation that exclude the establishment of parties in parliament in general, irrespective of moments in time in (de)liberalization processes, and irrespective of the fact that some opposition actors are closer to the concerned regimes than others. Also, comparisons with other inclusive regimes show that illegality of parties is not a sufficient indicator to propose that in Bahrain and Kuwait regimes are necessarily more illiberal or exclusive than, say, in Egypt, Jordan, or Yemen.

(11.) As Fred Lawson shows in his contribution to this volume, the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria has turned from opposition to resistance.

(12.) Other comparative works on opposition in the Middle East include Anderson (1987), Leca (1997), and Gause (2000).

(13.) See also Zartman's review in the conclusion of this volume, written twenty years after his book on opposition in the MENA countries.

(14.) See Shils (1966: 177) for a more elaborate account of the conditions under which dominant regimes tolerate the establishment of political opposition.

(15.) Giacomo Luciani expects that a “state that has access to a rent accruing from the rest of the world…may experience power struggles and factionalism, but is unlikely to experience a popular demand for democracy. While individuals, groups and factions, both within and outside the ruling elite, will constantly fight to enlarge their share of the rent, they will seldom advocate the adoption of democratic norms or an enlargement in political (p.32) participation. In such a state, there is always an opposition, but the opposition will not be any more democratic than the ruler” (1994: 132).

(16.) The Islamist movement in Egypt serves as another good example. Here, former militant groups such as Jama‘a Islamiyya and Jihad have renounced violent means of political action after having triggered a civil war–like scenario in the 1990s. The argument that state repression was entirely sufficient to eliminate this resistance movement is unconvincing when we keep in mind, for instance, the current situation in Iraq, where hundreds of thousands of military troops are unable to put an end to the insurgency. Rather, recent attempts of the Egyptian Islamist militants to found political parties—and thus turn to formal politics and accept the rules of the authoritarian game—allow for a different interpretation. Tacit toleration of this popular—and persistent—moderate movement has served as a major incentive for militant Islamists to rethink and reformulate their own strategy of militant resistance. The Algerian state may well have learned this Egyptian lesson and decided, albeit carefully, to bring the Islamists back into the formal political arena—and thus offer positive incentives for the Islamists to trade in resistance for opposition.

Bibliography

Bibliography references:

Albrecht, Holger. 2005. “How Can Opposition Support Authoritarianism? Lessons from Egypt.” Democratization 12, no. 3: 378–97.

———. 2007. “Authoritarian Opposition and the Politics of Challenge in Egypt.” In Debating Arab Authoritarianism, edited by Oliver Schlumberger, 59–74. Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

———. 2008. “Characterizing Political Participation under Authoritarianism.” In Political Participation in the Middle East, edited by Ellen Lust-Okar and Saloua Zerhouni, 15–32. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner.

Albrecht, Holger, and Oliver Schlumberger. 2004. “‘Waiting for Godot’: Regime Change without Democratization in the Middle East.” International Political Science Review 25, no. 4: 371–92.

Anderson, Lisa. 1987. “Lawless Government and Illegal Opposition: Reflections on the Middle East.” Journal of International Affairs 40, no. 2: 219–32.

Bayat, Asef. 2002. “Activism and Social Development in the Middle East.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 34: 1–28.

Bermeo, Nancy. 1997. “Myths of Moderation: Confrontation and Conflict during Democratic Transition.” Comparative Politics 29, no. 3: 305–22.

Brumberg, Daniel. 2002. “The Trap of Liberalized Autocracy.” Journal of Democracy 13, no. 4: 56–67.

Cappocia, Giovanni. 2002. “Anti-system Parties: A Conceptual Reassessment.” Journal of Theoretical Politics 14, no. 1: 9–35.

Carapico, Sheila. 2000. “NGOs, INGOs, GO-NGOs and DO-NGOs: Making Sense of Non-governmental Organizations.” Middle East Report 30, no. 1: 12–15.

Cardenas, Sonia, and Andrew Flibbert. 2005. “National Human Rights Institutions in the Middle East.” Middle East Journal 59, no. 3: 411–36.

Dahl, Robert A., ed. 1966. Political Oppositions in Western Democracies. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

(p.33) ———. 1971. Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Gandhi, Jennifer, and Adam Przeworski. 2006. “Cooperation, Cooptation, and Rebellion under Dictatorships.” Economics and Politics 18, no. 1: 1–26.

Gause, F. Gregory. 2000. “Political Opposition in the Gulf Monarchies.” EUI Working Paper no. 2000/61. Robert Schuman Center for Advanced Studies, Florence.

Greene, Kenneth F. 2002. “Opposition Party Strategy and Spatial Competition in Dominant Party Regimes: A Theory and the Case of Mexico.” Comparative Political Studies 35, no. 7: 755–83.

Hafez, Muhammad, and Quintan Wiktorowicz. 2004. “Violence as Contention in the Egyptian Islamic Movement.” In Islamic Activism: A Social Movement Theory Approach, edited by Quintan Wiktorowicz, 61–88. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Heydemann, Steven. 2007. “Upgrading Authoritarianism in the Arab World.” Analysis Paper no. 13. Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C.

Leca, Jean. 1997. “Opposition in the Middle East and North Africa.” Government and Opposition 32, no. 4: 557–77.

Linz, Juan. 1973. “Opposition to and under an Authoritarian Regime: The Case of Spain.” In Regimes and Oppositions, edited by Robert A. Dahl, 171–259. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

———. 1975. “Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes.” In Handbook of Political Science. Vol. 3, Macropolitical Theory, edited by Fred Greenstein and Nelson Polsby, 174–411. Reading, Mass.: Addison Wesley.

Luciani, Giacomo. 1994. “The Oil Rent, the Fiscal Crisis of the State and Democratization.” In Democracy without Democrats? The Renewal of Politics in the Muslim World, edited by Ghassan Salamé, 130–52. London: I. B. Tauris.

Lust-Okar, Ellen. 2005. Structuring Conflict in the Arab World: Incumbents, Opponents, and Institutions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McLennan, Barbara. 1973. “Approaches to the Concept of Political Opposition: An Historical Overview.” In Political Opposition and Dissent, edited by Barbara McLennan, 1–50. New York, London: Dunellen.

Pridham, Geoffrey, ed. 1995. Transitions to Democracy: Comparative Perspectives from Southern Europe, Latin America and Eastern Europe. Aldershot: Dartmouth.

Przeworski, Adam. 1993. “Democracy as a Contingent Outcome of Conflicts.” In Constitutionalism and Democracy, edited by Jon Elster and Rune Slagstad, 59–80. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sartori, Giovanni. 1966. “Opposition and Control: Problems and Prospects.” Government and Opposition 1, no. 1: 149–54.

Shils, Edward. 1966. “Opposition in the New States of Asia and Africa.” Government and Opposition 1, no. 1: 175–204.

Stepan, Alfred. 1997. “Democratic Opposition and Democratization Theory.” Government and Opposition 32, no. 4: 657–73.

Zartman, I. William. 1988. “Opposition as Support of the State.” In Beyond Coercion: The Durability of the Arab State, edited by Adeed Dawisha and I. William Zartman, 61–87. London, New York: Croom Helm.

Notes:

(1.) For a more substantial explanation of this definition, see the introduction to this volume.

(2.) Even in democracies, though, the existence of antisystem movements and parties cannot be forestalled altogether: “Since democratic systems are based on the institutionalization of political dissent, which is an essential part of the political process…, there can be, in abstract, no a priori limitation on the degree of dissent that an opposition can voice” (Capoccia 2002: 13).

(3.) Daniel Brumberg (2002) coined the term “liberalized autocracy” to account for those regimes that initiate processes of political liberalization from above not as a first phase of democratization but rather as a mere attempt to stabilize their hold on power. Other scholars analyze such liberal or inclusive authoritarian regimes within more conceptual studies on hybrid or defective regimes (see Agnieszka Paczynska's contribution in this volume).

(4.) Political liberalization is an “opening that results in the broadening of the social base of the regime without changing its structure” (Pridham 1995: 66). It is a sort of change in an authoritarian regime but does not necessarily indicate a systemic change of regime, that is, democratization (Albrecht and Schlumberger 2004: 375).

(p.31) (5.) I have referred to such actors as “individual trouble-makers” (Albrecht 2005: 385).

(6.) Egypt is a good case to test how far oppositions of different ideological and organizational sorts can go before triggering coercive responses by the authoritarian regime (see Albrecht 2007).

(7.) Little has been written on protest movements in the Middle East. Asef Bayat has observed six types of activism in the Middle East: “urban mass protest, trade unionism, community activism, social Islamism, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and quiet encroachment” (2002: 3).

(8.) The contributions of Francesco Cavatorta and Ezzam Elananza, Janine Clark, Michael Schmidmayr, and Amin Allal and Florian Kohstall discuss this question in further depth.

(9.) There was no political opposition in the meaning described above in Iraq under Saddam Husayn because the degree of statist repression did not allow for the existence of opposition. In Qadhafi's Libya, political legitimation within the jamahiriyya (people's republic) concept included a successful attempt at depoliticization of the larger public and, thus, the prevention of political opposition. Moreover, the Palestinian Territories do not have an opposition in the strict sense because there is no opposition without a state; while we may grasp the entity as a quasi state or a proto-state—and the Palestinian Authority as a realm of governance—we may take Hamas as a quasi opposition movement. In general, there is no opposition in times of war, civil war, or occupation; in the vast majority of these cases, contentious activism comes about as resistance. Iran has a highly inclusive authoritarian system, meaning that dissent—for instance, toward the theocratic mainstream within the regime—is discretely embedded as factions of the regime that display a comparatively high degree of competition among political elite factions.

(10.) On party opposition, see Hendrik Kraetzschmar's contribution on Egypt in this book. The example of political parties shows that formal legality is often not a sufficient indicator to account for the degree of acceptance by an authoritarian regime. For instance, in Bahrain and Kuwait, the political regimes have established structures of contestation that exclude the establishment of parties in parliament in general, irrespective of moments in time in (de)liberalization processes, and irrespective of the fact that some opposition actors are closer to the concerned regimes than others. Also, comparisons with other inclusive regimes show that illegality of parties is not a sufficient indicator to propose that in Bahrain and Kuwait regimes are necessarily more illiberal or exclusive than, say, in Egypt, Jordan, or Yemen.

(11.) As Fred Lawson shows in his contribution to this volume, the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria has turned from opposition to resistance.

(12.) Other comparative works on opposition in the Middle East include Anderson (1987), Leca (1997), and Gause (2000).

(13.) See also Zartman's review in the conclusion of this volume, written twenty years after his book on opposition in the MENA countries.

(14.) See Shils (1966: 177) for a more elaborate account of the conditions under which dominant regimes tolerate the establishment of political opposition.

(15.) Giacomo Luciani expects that a “state that has access to a rent accruing from the rest of the world…may experience power struggles and factionalism, but is unlikely to experience a popular demand for democracy. While individuals, groups and factions, both within and outside the ruling elite, will constantly fight to enlarge their share of the rent, they will seldom advocate the adoption of democratic norms or an enlargement in political (p.32) participation. In such a state, there is always an opposition, but the opposition will not be any more democratic than the ruler” (1994: 132).

(16.) The Islamist movement in Egypt serves as another good example. Here, former militant groups such as Jama‘a Islamiyya and Jihad have renounced violent means of political action after having triggered a civil war–like scenario in the 1990s. The argument that state repression was entirely sufficient to eliminate this resistance movement is unconvincing when we keep in mind, for instance, the current situation in Iraq, where hundreds of thousands of military troops are unable to put an end to the insurgency. Rather, recent attempts of the Egyptian Islamist militants to found political parties—and thus turn to formal politics and accept the rules of the authoritarian game—allow for a different interpretation. Tacit toleration of this popular—and persistent—moderate movement has served as a major incentive for militant Islamists to rethink and reformulate their own strategy of militant resistance. The Algerian state may well have learned this Egyptian lesson and decided, albeit carefully, to bring the Islamists back into the formal political arena—and thus offer positive incentives for the Islamists to trade in resistance for opposition.