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The Ironies of Opposition: Why Regimes Tolerate Resistance (Up To a Point)

January 5, 2014

Opposition movements like Kifaya can, paradoxically, work to ensure a regime's stability, according to a new book.Photo Credit: Sarah Carr via Compfight cc

Opposition movements like Kifaya can, paradoxically, work to ensure a regime’s stability, according to a new book.Photo Credit: Sarah Carr via Compfight cc

Could it be that under the right conditions, opposition groups like Kifaya or the Muslim Brotherhood, actually contribute to the stability of the oppressive regimes they seek to challenge overthrow?

In a forthcoming chapter on “New Media and Social Networks in the Middle East” I argue that the use of new media for protest are mostly associated with nonviolent revolutions, and that most successful nonviolent uprisings have taken place in countries where there is an authoritarian ruler who maintains his authority largely by appealing to the democratic values espoused by external patrons (i.e. Mubarak and the U.S.).

I cite Daniel Ritter, who refers to this in his unpublished dissertation as “the iron cage of liberalism” (2010). It applies not only to Mubarak, but to Reza Pahlavi in 1979.   Like Mubarak, the Iran of the Shah was an autocrat whose putative commitment to the democratic principles of its patron, the U.S., were continually contradicted by the actual relations between the state and its citizens. While utilizing brutal repressive mechanisms through secret police, such autocrats nonetheless are performing for multiple audiences including their Western patrons and cannot easily order the kinds of measures employed to put down a media revolution by the Iranian state in 2009, which included simply monitoring the Internet, then arresting and torturing thousands of dissidents it found in its monitoring.

I did not cite Holger Albrecht because I had never heard of him, but I have now. Albrecht is the author of a new book that applies this principle specifically to the history of oppression and resistance in the Mubarak regime. Maybe I can stick him into the chapter when I get the galley proofs.

Anyway, Albrecht rejects any teleological movement from authoritarian to democratic. He sees opposition as being at the very heart of the political process in societies like Mubarak’s Egypt, which he calls “liberalized autocracies.” In such autocracies, he argues, the authoritarian regimes allow the populace a certain amount of civil liberty and societal pluralism. At the heart of “liberalized authoritarian” systems, he argues, there is a paradox: on the one hand, opposition genuinely seeks to expand civil liberties in the state; on the other hand, it is the existence of opposition that serves as a precondition for authoritarianism. This paradox creates a dynamic tension in which the regime’s authoritarianism strengthens the resistance movements, but these movements in turn actually strengthen the regime they seek to overthrow. In Albrecht’s account, both the Muslim Brotherhood and groups like the Kifaya movement were tolerated in part because they performed important functions that helped the regime maintain its power for decades (that’s badly worded–Albrecht does not assume that the regime actually understood fully how it benefited from the opposition movements, but it did understand how giving them a certain amount of license to operate helped legitimize the regime). According to Albrecht, opposition performs four crucial functions to help the authoritarian state stay in power:

  1. it offers representation of the interests and preferences of political minorities and social actors that are not represented in government in an institutionalized alternative to the official political system;
  2. it legitimizes the authoritarian system–how bad can they be if they tolerate an opposition?
  3. It provides protests, demonstrations, web sites and other venues through which opposition gets channeled away from revolutionary activity;
  4. and through all of these activities it moderates revolutionary and oppositional positions.

Albrecht makes a strong case for how political opposition and the Mubarak regime were engaged in a complex dance that benefited the regime and helped it remain in power for decades. He is less clear on exactly what mis-steps occurred to throw the system out of whack so that suddenly, what starts out as a routine protest turns into a full scale uprising. Hopefully, that will be Albrecht’s next book.


Albrecht, Holger. 2011. Raging Against the machine: Political opposition Under Authoritarianism in Egypt. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.


Ritter, Daniel P. 2010. Why the Iranian Revolution was Nonviolent: Internationalized Social Change and the Iron Cage of Liberalism. Dissertation, University of  Texas at Austin.

Ritter, Daniel P. and Alexander H. Trechsel. 2011. Revolutionary cells: On the role of texts, tweets, and status updates in nonviolent revolutions. Paper presented at the ‘Internet, Voting and Democracy’ Conference, Laguna Beach, CA, 14-15 May 2011.

One Comment leave one →
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