By Selin.M. Bölme

Over the last 40 years, many countries in the world have been democratized. Between 1974 and 1990 the number of democratic governments in the world nearly doubled.


What is authoritarianism?

In general terms, nearly all regimes in the modern Middle East have been defined as authoritarian in terms of regime categorization. Most of them, however, have had political parties, regular elections and some form of liberal freedom since the 1980s.

Therefore, despite the firm control on political and economic systems by authoritarian leaders, given the “liberal” features of the regimes, it has become more complicated than defining them as simply authoritarian.

Then what are these regimes? Since the mid-1990s, there has been a growing debate on how to classify authoritarian regimes and how to draw a line for the regimes that are located in the gray zone between democracy and autocracy.

Most of these debates take Juan J. Linz’s definition of authoritarianism as a reference point despite the criticisms of its shortcomings.

In his pivotal article Linz conceptualized the authoritarian regime for the first time as a unique regime typology distinct from both democracy and totalitarianism.

Linz defined political systems as authoritarian if they are political systems with limited, not responsible, political pluralism, without elaborate and guiding ideology, but with distinctive mentalities, without extensive nor intensive political mobilization, except at some points in their development, and in which a leader or occasionally a small group exercises power within formally ill-defined limits but actually quite predictable ones.

Linz has also underlined the distinction between sultanistic and authoritarian regimes, the two of which are easily confused. His article with Stepan offered two examples to clarify the difference.

Sultanism is exemplified by Rafael Trujillo’s Dominican Republic. The dictator, who ruled the country from 1930 to 1961, made his son a brigadier general when the boy was nine.

But this kind of thing never happened in another example of dictatorship, Chile, under General Augusto Pinochet. Pinochet, the military strongman who ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990 under an authoritarian regime, headed the “military as government,” but the “military as institution” had a degree of established organizational autonomy.

Linz and Stepan use the level of institutionalization of military as a key variable to draw a line between authoritarian and sultanistic regimes. However, they admit that it is not easy to strictly separate them.

Regimes can be almost entirely sultanistic in their characteristics or display some of the sultanistic characteristics. Thus, prior to the Arab Spring, Arab regimes such as Libya, Syria, Yemen, Egypt and Tunisia displayed some features of sultanism to varying degrees, yet none of these Middle Eastern regimes can be categorized as sultanic according to this definition.

Linz has proposed to classify autocratic regimes along three dimensions (pluralism, ideology and mobilization) and designed a useful typology for authoritarian regimes: (1) bureaucratic military authoritarian regimes, (2) authoritarian corporatism, (3) mobilizing authoritarian regimes, (4) postcolonial authoritarian regimes, (5) racial and ethnic democracies, (6) incomplete totalitarian and pretotalitarian regimes, and (7) post-totalitarian regimes.

Linz and Stepan added a new type, “authoritarian-democratic hybrid” regimes, to the list of their former categories, including democratic, authoritarian, totalitarian, post-totalitarian and sultanistic regimes.

They used this newest category to define the situation in the Arab world following the Arab Spring.

Linz and Stepan argue that no Arab country has ever had a fully institutionalized totalitarian regime; therefore, the term “post-totalitarian” does not apply to the Arab countries where dictatorships have fallen.

Such countries can no longer be adequately characterized as authoritarian or sultanistic either, and they are not (or not yet) democracies.

So Linz and Stepan developed the term “authoritarian-democratic hybrid” to define a political situation locked in between democracy and autocracy.

The authoritarian-democratic hybrid concept has very similar characteristics to competitive authoritarian or hybrid regimes. Linz and Stepan argue that this authoritarian-democratic hybrid is indeed not a regime type; it is a situation where the ruling authority fails to last or to become institutionalized.

This situation may turn to democracy or full-fledged authoritarianism; this depends mostly on the role and the decision of the coercive apparatus in the country.

O’Donnell, Schmitter and Whitehead also emphasized the variation of results in these kinds of regime transitions.

A transition from authoritarian rule could produce a democracy, or it could terminate in a liberalized authoritarian regime or a restrictive, illiberal democracy.

At the beginning of the 1990s, there was a growing optimistic expectation in literature about the future of democracy in the non-democratic world.

Authoritarianism was seen as merely a transitional phase before democracy.

Lately most scholars have abandoned this view after they witnessed the continuity of the political grayness and prefer to describe it as a regime rather than a situation in transition.

Since the beginning, however, there has not been a consensus in the literature regarding what to call these regimes and how to describe them. Terry Lynn Karl, in his pivotal article titled “The Hybrid Regimes of Central America,” introduced the term “hybrid regime” to define a state that contains both democratic and authoritarian forms of rule.

In the 1990s, democracy served as the basis for the new terms, producing a trend commonly referred to as “democracy with adjectives”.

In this trend, scholars titled these regimes as “authoritarian democracy,” “neo-patrimonial democracy,” “military-dominated democracy,” “proto-democracy,” etc.

Yet the emphasis on democracy was criticized, and this approach was accused of treating mixed regimes as partial or “diminished” forms of democracy.

In reaction, a countervailing trend has emerged in the last decade, replacing the term “democracy” with “authoritarianism”.

As a consequence of this shift from democracy with adjectives to authoritarianism with adjectives, new terms were derived: “electoral authoritarianism,” “competitive authoritarianism,” “semi-authoritarianism,” “soft authoritarianism.”

Not all of the terms mentioned here point to the same regime type. Despite the common tendency to use one for another, there are some differences.

A regime may display a mixture of authoritarian and democratic features in many ways.

According to the tendency of a regime (toward authoritarianism or democracy) or the measures of a researcher, a different term is used. The efforts of conceptualization have created confusion, though the broad literature ensures insight into different types of hybrid regimes.

In order to distinguish hybrid regimes from democratic and full authoritarian regimes, one should draw a conceptual border not only between authoritarianism and hybrids but also between democracy and hybrids.

In most of these studies on hybrid regimes, the definition of democracy is taken from Robert Dahl. Dahl uses these criteria to define democracy: (1) free, fair and competitive elections; (2) full adult suffrage; (3) political rights and civil liberties, including freedom of speech, the press and association; and (4) control over governmental decisions about policy constitutionally vested in elected officials.

When compared to authoritarianism, a hybrid regime meets one or more of these criteria. But it also violates most of them frequently and seriously and does not fulfill the entire set of obligations arising from democracy.

In most efforts to classify authoritarian regimes, researchers mainly used the degree of competitiveness as a measure and considered the presence of institutional opportunities for opposition participation.

Although this method is criticized as reductionist because of its emphasis on only one dimension of democracy, it is a broadly accepted method in the literature on the subject.

According to this classification, authoritarian regimes may be categorized as competitive authoritarian, electoral authoritarian (which is also called “pseudo democracy,” “virtual democracy,” “façade democracy,” etc.) or closed authoritarian (conventionally authoritarian).

Levitsky and Way compare electoral authoritarianism with competitive authoritarianism in four areas of democratic contestation: elections, legislation, judiciary and media.

In electoral authoritarianism, an electoral institution exists but yields no meaningful contestation, legislatures either do not exist or are thoroughly controlled by the ruling party, the judiciary is also dominated by the regime, and the media is entirely state-owned, heavily censored, or systematically repressed.

In this kind of regime, opposition forces may periodically challenge, weaken and occasionally even defeat autocratic incumbents.

In competitive authoritarian regimes, even though the electoral process may be characterized by large-scale abuses of state power, elections are regularly held, generally free and competitive; legislatures tend to be relatively weak.

But they occasionally become focal points of opposition activity; although governments have pressures on formally independent judiciary, they are criticized domestically and internationally due to their interventions; and there is a legal and independent media, though it is frequently threatened and periodically attacked by the government.

It is really complicated to distinguish competitive authoritarian and electoral authoritarian regimes and measure all of these criteria in every country.

Larry Diamond, who also underlined this difficulty, categorized Middle Eastern countries in 2002 in the following way: Iran, Yemen and Lebanon as competitive authoritarian; Kuwait, Jordan, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt as electoral authoritarian; and Bahrain, Oman, UAE, Qatar, Iraq, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Syria as politically closed authoritarian.

Today Tunisia, Iraq and Libya may be categorized as competitive authoritarian. The future of the regime in Egypt is still blurred following the military coup. Elsewhere in the region, countries continue to be authoritarian to some degree.

The only regime rated as democratic in the region is Israel. However, it is a controversial issue considering the political rights of Israel’s Arab citizens, its policy toward Palestinians and its activities in the occupied lands.

Israel is also out of the research focus of this study because of its exceptional features. The other well-known “democracy” of the region is Turkey, which has never been a liberal democracy.

Furthermore, in recent years the ruling Justice and Development Party (the AKP) was widely criticized at both national and international levels for moving toward authoritarian rule.

Turkey is still categorized as partly free by the Freedom House, but its press freedom rate was downgraded from partly free to not free in 2014.

As the strongest democracy in the region, Turkey still suffers from undemocratic policies nearly 70 years after its first multiparty elections. The foundations of democracy remain unsteady or utterly absent in nearly all countries of the Middle East.

This obvious fact leads one to think about the reasons behind the authoritarian tendencies of Middle Eastern countries.

to continue in part 3


Selin Bölme received her B.A. in Public Administration department of Hacettepe University. She graduated with an M.A degree on Israel foreign policy from International Relations department of the same university. She received her PhD from International Relations department of Ankara University upon completion of her doctoral thesis titled, US Military Base Policy and Turkey: A Study on Incirlik Air Base. She has been working as a researcher for SETA Foundation since the establishment of SETA.


(The article is a chapter from: Bakis, J. Karakoç, Karakoç, Jülide, Authoritarianism in the Middle East Before and After the Arab Uprisings. Palgrave Macmillan, UK 2015.)



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