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The Geopolitics of Authoritarian Survival and Change in the MENA

Democratisation
Elites
Foreign Policy
International Relations
Political Regime
Protests
Loretta Dell'Aguzzo
Dipartimento di Scienze Politiche e Sociali, Università di Firenze
Loretta Dell'Aguzzo
Dipartimento di Scienze Politiche e Sociali, Università di Firenze
Emidio Diodato

Abstract

Existent studies on authoritarian survival maintain that nondemocratic incumbents’ capacity to stay in power mainly rests on the balanced mix of cooptation and repression. Although students of comparative political regimes generally acknowledge that international factors are relevant both for regime change and authoritarian survival, this dimension has often been treated as a residual category. In this paper, we investigate how dictators respond to existential threats and why, when their capacity to coopt the challengers is low, they do not always resort to repression. We depart from the assumption that repression is riskier than cooptation, as it may trigger the use of violent tactics of protest by the opposition (Moore 1998) and it does not guarantee regime survival (Bueno de Mesquita and Smith 2010), but it is preferable to democratization. Our argument is that the decision to use violent repression or to open up the political arena in presence of mass protest is largely influenced by geopolitical competition, that is the degree of great power rivalry over a given state. We expect that if a state is in the western sphere of influence, it will refrain from resorting to violence, as at least a portion of the ruling elite may fear international isolation or to lose privileges provided by western support. On the contrary, during times of higher geopolitical competition, the incumbents will be more likely to use repression, because democratic powers’ leverage over the domestic elite is lower. We test our hypothesis on non-oil rich MENA countries during the Arab Spring and show that the different outcomes of the uprisings were largely influenced by external actors. In this paper, we partially challenge the widespread assumption that western democracy promotion activities in the Middle East have invariably contributed to authoritarian resilience (see Burnell and Schlumberger 2010; Hinnebusch 2015).