Dr. Matt Buehler                                                   Assistant Professor - Department of Political Science - University of Tennessee

 

 

Why Alliances Fail:

Opposition Coalitions between Islamists and Leftists in North Africa

 

 

 

Since 2011, the Arab world has seen a number of autocrats—the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen—lose power. Yet in the wake of the wave of unrest from the Arab uprisings, only one state, Tunisia, transitioned from authoritarianism to democracy successfully. One crucial factor that made Tunisia different from its Arab neighbors was that its transition was supported by a stable coalition of opposition parties with divergent ideological backgrounds, what scholars have termed a “cross-ideological alliance.” Islamists and leftists built such an alliance well before the revolution in Tunisia, and shepherded its chaotic transition to democracy afterward. In two of Tunisia’s neighbors, Morocco and Mauritania, Islamists and leftists built similar alliances, though they collapsed within a year. Tunisia experienced a stable alliance, whereas Morocco and Mauritania did not. This puzzle motivates the central question of this manuscript: Under what conditions do Islamists and leftists, who diverge on core issues like secularism and women’s rights, build alliances? And, crucially, why do such alliances collapse or endure over time?

 

My book manuscript, Why Alliances Fail: Opposition Coalitions between Islamists and Leftists in North Africa, addresses this question. It elucidates the conditions under which opposition parties succeed or fail to coordinate their contestation of authoritarian regimes in enduring alliances. The manuscript introduces a new theory of alliance durability, tests it with original evidence from coalitions between Islamists and leftists in North Africa, and discusses its implications for other Arab states, notably Egypt, Jordan, and Yemen. According to theory, alliances fail due to ideological conflict or commitment problems between opposition parties, or, alternatively, the authoritarian regime’s manipulation of institutions. My manuscript makes a unique contribution by explaining how the nature of an opposition party’s social base—the grassroots constituencies upon which it depends—shapes the robustness of alliances it builds with other parties. When parties incorporate constituents from rural areas with high illiteracy rates, strongholds of regime support, they become vulnerable to co-optation, which spoils alliances. Understanding why alliances collapse or endure is crucial for democratization: If opposition parties can build a coalition, especially one that endures over time, they can harmonize political demands, pool collective resources, and exert greater pressure. When opposition parties act alone, they are ignored or isolated more easily by authoritarian regimes.

 

Using original qualitative and quantitative evidence collected from nearly two years of fieldwork in North Africa, Why Alliances Fail will appeal to scholars and students interested in Islamist politics, opposition contestation, and Arab democratization. A flurry of recent research has sought to explain change in the authoritarian regimes of the Middle East, emphasizing the importance of military defection and foreign intervention. Fewer studies, however, examine the regimes in which change did not occur and the strategies they employed to fend off pressures for democratization.

 

Why Alliances Fail provides a detailed, unique account of the subtler strategies of control that empowered Arab regimes, like Morocco and Mauritania, to outlast their counterpart, Tunisia. The conclusion of the manuscript is that those regimes that have best harnessed the social forces of rural isolation and economic destitution most effectively weathered popular pressure for democracy during the Arab uprisings.

 

Original Evidence

 

The manuscript relies on original fieldwork, archival research, and statistical data. Between November 2010 and March 2012, and during stints in 2013, 2014, and 2015, I conducted 200 interviews in Arabic with Islamist and leftist oppositionists. Interviewees included the first Islamist Prime Minister in Morocco’s history, Abdelilah Benkirane. They also include 16 other past or current ministers, and scores of parliamentary deputies, party officials, and unionists. The manuscript is also supported by 2 months of research in local archives, including those of Morocco’s Islamist newspaper, Tajdid, and Mauritanian’s main newspaper, La Tribune. Statistical tests show how droves of Moroccan leftist and Mauritanian Islamist politicians representing rural districts succumbed to co-optation, abandoning their opposition parties and defecting to pro-regime parties. Direct interviews with such rural opposition politicians who succumbed to co-optation corroborate this statistical pattern.

 

Contact me at matthew_buehler@hks.harvard.edu

 (503) 341-4871