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Undemocratic Democrats? Power, Patrimonialism, and Contention in Opposition Parties

Nationalism
Political Parties
Political Sociology
Family
Sofia Fenner
Bryn Mawr College
Sofia Fenner
Bryn Mawr College

Abstract

Opposition parties in authoritarian regimes are often accused of many of the same faults as their undemocratic rulers: nepotism, corruption, dysfunctionality, and hierarchical control (e.g. Fahmy 2002, Lust 2009). In this paper, I use a comparative analysis of two opposition parties in Middle Eastern authoritarian regimes—the Wafd Party in Egypt and the Istiqlal Party in Morocco—to argue that while many of these critiques are accurate, even seemingly undemocratic practices can protect anti-authoritarian opposition and open up space for political contestation. Both the Wafd and the Istiqlal have long been criticized for their failure to model the democracy they call for, but my research reveals that the picture is more complicated than it initially seems. Patrimonial organization, in particular, supports opposition parties by providing literal and figurative space for political organizing, facilitating the recruitment and retention of new members, and providing a vocabulary that normalizes the essential democratic practices of contestation and reconciliation. This research is based on 22 months of fieldwork in Egypt and Morocco, including ethnographic observation, oral history interviews, and Arabic-language archival research. By exploring the ways in which authoritarianism forces opposition parties to adopt undemocratic practices but also the ways in which those practices can be repurposed for democratic ends, I aim to expand our discussions of regime type beyond the state to those who try—however unsuccessfully—to challenge it.