Steven Heydemann is the Janet Wright Ketcham 1953 Chair in Middle East Studies, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government at Smith College. Heydemann is also a nonresident senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy of the Brookings Institution. In addition, Heydemann consults widely with the U.S. government, NGOs and European governments on issues relating to Syria policy and the status of the Syrian conflict. He writes regularly on Syria for major media outlets and has appeared as a Syria expert on leading television networks, including the BBC, al-Arabiyya, al-Jazeera, the New York Times, The Washington Post, Foreign Policy Journal and PBS.

To study the Middle East is to study authoritarianism. Its presence is unavoidable and pervasive. It is evident not only in the organization of political institutions and the formal rules of the game that shape political behavior, but in virtually all aspects of the everyday lives of citizens across the region. Indeed, the extent to which authoritarianism defines and dominates the political, economic, social, and cultural landscapes of the region, and its resilience even in the face of severe challenges such as the mass uprisings of 2011, are widely acknowledged as distinctive features of the Middle East, a form of exceptionalism that is itself a longstanding source of debate and disagreement among scholars.

Appropriately, therefore, the causes, trajectories, forms, practices, and effects of authoritarianism, social responses to authoritarianism, and the modes of resistance it generates, are the focus of significant research programs that vary enormously in their themes, methods, and analytic approaches. If the centrality of authoritarianism in research literatures on the Middle East is most evident in the field of comparative politics, where it constitutes an especially rich source of cross-regional scholarship, it is also a major focus of work in modern history, anthropology, sociology, political economy, international relations, and other fields. Moreover, as contemporary Arabic fiction becomes more widely available in translation, the works of authors such as Basma Abdel Aziz, Sinan Antoon, Hassan Blassim, Khaled Khalifa, Mustafa Khalifa, Mohammad Rabie, Mahmoud Saeed, and Nihad Sirees, bring new depth and dimensionality to non-Arabic speaking readers about the corrosive effects of authoritarianism.

To identify essential readings on the topic of authoritarianism is thus not merely an exercise in selectivity, but—despite the unusual length of this contribution to the Essential Readings series—a necessary act of omission, tinged, in this case, with a dose of bias reflecting my own orientation toward the subject. Even as my recommendations proliferated I was mindful of what I left on the cutting room floor, including work on bureaucratic authoritarianism and key readings in the literature on the breakdown of authoritarian regimes and transitions to democracy. The readings noted below should thus be approached largely but not solely as selective entry points to the study of authoritarianism in the Middle East from the perspective of comparative politics and political economy. I begin by citing texts that offer conceptual and theoretical frames of reference for the study of authoritarianism, and then turn to specific themes that have shaped research programs on this topic among scholars of the Middle East.

Critical questions about authoritarianism in the Middle East can best be approached with a grounding in the comparative study of authoritarianism writ large. What defines a regime as authoritarian? What are some of the principal forms authoritarianism takes? What factors help us make sense of how authoritarian elites govern? How can we situate regimes in the Middle East in relation to general conceptual and theoretical approaches to the study of authoritarianism?


Several volumes stand out as useful in addressing these questions for students of the Middle East. The first is a classic work on the subject, Juan Linz, Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes (Lynn Rienner Publishers, 2000), a detailed taxonomic analysis of key features of authoritarian regimes. A subsequent volume that Linz co-edited together with H. E. Chehabi, Sultanistic Regimes (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), focuses on a form of authoritarianism that is prevalent in the Middle East: regimes exhibiting high levels of patrimonialism, where institutions, in the words of Max Weber, are “instruments of the master,” and the exercise of authority is marked by arbitrariness and discretion. Milan W. Svolik’s, The Politics of Authoritarian Rule (Cambridge University Press, 2012), offers a useful theoretical framework to explain the strategic challenges facing autocrats and the conditions that shape their responses to these challenges. In Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes After the Cold War (Cambridge University Press, 2010), Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way link the resilience of “competitive authoritarian regimes,” those that permit multiparty elections but govern autocratically, to the international contexts in which such regimes are embedded. Andreas Schedler, in his articles and in an edited collection, Electoral Authoritarianism: The Dynamics of Unfree Competition (Lynne Rienner, 2006), showcases comparative scholarship on the role of elections in sustaining authoritarianism. Schedler’s work is complemented by Jennifer Ghandi and Ellen Lust in their article, “Elections Under Authoritarianism,” Annual Review of Political Science Vol. 12 (2015), 403-422. A recent monograph by Michael Albertus, Sofia Fenner, and Dan Slater, Coercive Distribution (Cambridge University Press, 2018), addresses a central question in the political economy of authoritarianism in the Middle East: why do regimes that rest on coercion nonetheless adopt redistributive social policies?

Narrowing our focus to readings on authoritarianism in the Middle East, Nazih Ayubi’s Overstating the Arab State: Politics and Society in the Middle East (I.B. Tauris, 1996), remains a valuable synthetic account of the formation of authoritarian regimes across the region. Theoretically sophisticated, country-specific case studies that are helpful in unpacking a range of authoritarian trajectories include two of John Waterbury’s books, Commander of the Faithful: The Moroccan Political Elite – a Study of Segmented Politics (Columbia University Press, 1970), and The Egypt of Nasser and Sadat: The Political Economy of Two Regimes (Princeton University Press, 1983). Lisa Anderson’s comparative study of state-building in North Africa, The State and Social Transformation in Tunisia and Libya1830-1980 (Princeton University Press, 1987), and Volker Perthes’ The Political Economy of Syria Under Assad (I.B. Tauris, 1997), give depth, detail, and analytic nuance to the emergence and consolidation of very differently configured authoritarian regimes over the course of the htwentieth century. 

Several historical works complement these volumes, extending their coverage to additional cases and offering insight into the internal workings of two of the main authoritarian regime types in the Middle East: republics and monarchies. These include Hanna Batatu’s magisterial study of Iraq, The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq (now available in a paperback edition from Saqi Books, 2004), and Madawi al-Rashid’s A History of Saudi Arabia, 2nd Edition (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

Edited volumes have their limitations, but can be useful for pedagogical purposes due to their breadth of coverage and their value as introductions to ongoing debates about aspects of authoritarianism in the Middle East—including the contentious relationship between oil and authoritarianism, and the equally contentious relationship between Islam and authoritarianism. Four such volumes stand out: Giacomo Luciani, ed., The Arab State (University of California Press, 1990); Suad Joseph, ed., Gender and Citizenship in the Middle East (Syracuse University Press, 2000); Marsha Pripstein Posusney and Michele Penner Angrist, eds., Authoritarianism in The Middle East: Regimes and Resistance (Lynne Rienner, 2005); and Oliver Schlumberger, ed. Debating Arab Authoritarianism (Stanford University Press, 2007). 

Shifting to works that offer exceptional insight into critical questions about authoritarianism in the Middle East, Lisa Wedeen’s Ambiguities of Domination: Politics, Rhetoric, and Symbols in Contemporary Syria (University of Chicago, 2015), explores why people comply with, and even extend the appearance of legitimacy to, a regime that rests on demonstrably false claims. In All in the Family: Absolutism, Revolution, and Democracy in Middle Eastern Monarchies (SUNY University Press, 1999), Michael Herb argues that variation in how Gulf monarchies are constituted helps explain the ability of these regimes to adapt to demands for political reform. Amaney Jamal’s study of civil society in Palestine, Barriers to Democracy: The Other Side of Social Capital in Palestine and the Arab World (Princeton University Press, 2009), is a compelling account of how civic sectors in the Arab world are shaped by the authoritarian environments in which they take root. In Counting Islam: Religion, Class, and Elections in Egypt (Cambridge University Press, 2014), Tarek Masoud helps us understand why Islamist parties take part in elections they know are neither free nor fair. Ellen Lust provides a sharp theoretical argument about the conditions under which regimes open space for political oppositions, and when oppositions will respond, in Structuring Conflict in the Arab World: Incumbents, Opponents, and Institutions (Cambridge University Press, 2007). The core themes of Asef Bayat’s Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East, 2nd Edition (Stanford University Press, 2013) examine how consolidated and encompassing authoritarian systems of rule shape practices and modes of resistance, and generate politically potent forms of alienation among citizens.

While literatures that advance essentialist or culturalist accounts of exceptionalism—locating its sources in the inherently authoritarian political culture of Arabs, or of Islamic norms and practices—have long since been discredited and do not warrant citations here, a good overview of debates about whether the Middle East is exceptional in the resilience of its authoritarian regimes can be found in Ghassan Salame, ed., Democracy Without Democrats?: The Renewal of Politics in the Muslim World (London: I.B. Tauris, 1994), and in an article by Larry Diamond that appeared just prior to the onset of the uprisings: “Why Are There No Arab Democracies?,” Journal of Democracy 21, no. 1 (January 2010), 93-112. Steven M. Fish finds a correlation between authoritarianism and majority Muslim societies in “Islam and Authoritarianism,” World Politics 55 (October 2002), 4-37. He argues, however, that exceptionalism is not a product of Islam per se, but of the status of women in Muslim societies. 

My own work has stressed institutional dimensions of authoritarian state-building and governance in the Arab world, yet personalities also matter. Two volumes are of particular value in assessing the weight of personality in the workings of authoritarian regimes, Roger Owen’s The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life (Harvard University Press, 2014), and Joseph Sassoon’s Anatomy of Authoritarianism in the Arab Republics (Cambridge University Press, 2016). From a markedly different theoretical and empirical perspective, yet nonetheless focusing on the extent to which authoritarianism in Morocco is inscribed through cultural norms and practices enacted in interpersonal relations that reproduce master-disciple relationships within a society, Abdullah Hammoudi’s Master and Disciple: The Cultural Foundations of Moroccan Authoritarianism (University of Chicago Press, 1997), can usefully be added to this list. 

Two distinctive but related research programs of particular interest have developed since the 1990s and taken on new forms since the mass protests of 2011: one focusing on questions of authoritarian resilience and authoritarian modes of political and economic liberalization, another on the strategies that authoritarian regimes have embraced to respond to the changing configurations of challenges they have confronted with the rise of neoliberal globalization, technological change, new communications technologies, and the emergence of a post-democratization international order.

Many of the works previously mentioned can be situated within these two research programs. However, to engage fully with significant strands in debates about authoritarian resilience requires further reading. Two articles by Eva Bellin highlight conditions that contribute to the resilience of authoritarianism at a regional level, “The Robustness of Authoritarianism in the Middle East: Exceptionalism in Comparative Perspective,” Comparative Politics 36, no. 2 (January 2004), 139-157, and a follow-up article Bellin published in the wake of the uprisings of 2011, “Reconsidering the Robustness of Authoritarianism in the Middle East: Lessons from the Arab Spring,” Comparative Politics 44, no. 2 (January 2012), 127-149. Two further articles by Daniel Brumberg unpack the strategic logics that guide authoritarian regimes as they work to contain challenges to their long-term survival: “The Trap of Liberalized Autocracy,” Journal of Democracy 13, no. 4 (October 2002), 56-68, and “Transforming the Arab World’s Protection-Racket Politics,” Journal of Democracy 24, no. 3 (July 2013), 88-103. In addition, readers will benefit from Jason Brownlee’s Authoritarianism in an Age of Democracy (Cambridge University Press, 2007), and Nicola Pratt’s Democracy and Authoritarianism in the Arab World (Lynn Rienner, 2006).

Two of my own publications warrant inclusion on this list. An edited volume, Networks of Privilege in the Middle East: The Politics of Economic Reform Revisited (Praeger 2004), offers a range of perspectives about the strategies authoritarian regimes and their key constituencies have used to manage and control processes of economic liberalization. A paper published with the Brookings Institution, “Upgrading Authoritarianism in the Arab World” (Brookings, 2007), describes the tactics authoritarian regimes across the region adopted to address the specific challenges they confronted in the 1990s and early 2000s; these tactics remain relevant in the post-uprising era.

The uprisings or revolutions of 2011 have become a critical break-point in research literatures on authoritarianism in the Middle East, and have generated an ongoing stream of new publications. With violent conflicts underway in Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Iraq, and the expansion of Iran’s role in the Arab east, there can be little question about the extent to which the uprisings have transformed the political landscape of the region. Their impact on the region’s authoritarian regimes has been similarly transformative, if not in the way that both participants in and observers of the uprisings initially hoped. Instead of political openings leading to the breakdown of authoritarian regimes and the emergence of more pluralistic, accountable, and inclusive forms of rule, the region has experienced the reassertion of authoritarianism and the incremental shift by regimes toward harsher, more repressive and exclusionary modes of authoritarian governance. While governments vary in the scale and pace at which this shift is unfolding, it is a defining trend of post-2011 authoritarianism in the Middle East. Transformations within authoritarianism, as opposed to transitions from authoritarianism to something else, will continue to be relevant across the region, save for the case of Tunisia, the only Arab country thus far to experience a transition from authoritarianism to democracy.

Recent publications are only now beginning to wrestle with the implications of the uprisings for the authoritarian regimes of the region, and findings must, by necessity, remain tentative. However, a number of edited volumes that have appeared since 2011 offer perhaps the most productive ways to engage with the diversity of themes and approaches that scholars have deployed to begin to assess the effects of the uprisings on authoritarian governance. These include Marc Lynch, ed., The Arab Uprisings Explained: New Contentious Politics in the Middle East (Columbia University Press, 2014); Larry Diamond and Marc Plattner, eds., Democratization and Authoritarianism in the Arab World (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014); Project on Middle East Political Science, The Arab Thermidor: The Resurgence of the Security State, POMEPS Special Studies 11 (February 2015); Maha El Said, Lena Meari, and Nicola Pratt, eds., Rethinking Gender in Revolutions and Resistance: Lessons from the Arab World (Zed Books, 2015), and, from a more policy-oriented perspective, Thanassis Cambanis and Michael Wahid Hanna, eds., Arab Politics Beyond the Uprisings: Experiments in an Era of Resurgent Authoritarianism (TCF Press, 2017).  

If there is one overarching sensibility that distinguishes important contributions to research on authoritarianism in the Middle East, it is an appreciation for how fluid, malleable, and adaptive it has been and remains. The appearance of stability, even stagnation, in the decades prior to the 2011 uprisings often obscured an enormously varied and vibrant environment of contestation, resistance, competition and conflict both within and among regimes, and between regimes and the societies over which they govern. As the Middle East moves today through a post-uprising phase in which in which regimes are reconfiguring authoritarian practices in the context of highly mobilized societies, violent conflict that has caused massive levels of human displacement and suffering, climate change, the declining influence of the United States, the rise of Russia and Iran as important actors, and continued demands for neoliberal restructuring of political economies, there can be little question that the study of authoritarianism in the Middle East will continue to occupy the attention of students and scholars of the region.


[The Essential Readings series is curated by the Middle East Studies Pedagogy Initiative (MESPI) team at the Arab Studies Institute. MESPI invites scholars to contribute to our Essential Readings modules by submitting an “Essential Readings” list on a topic/theme pertinent to their research/specialization in Middle East studies. Authors are asked to keep the selection relatively short while providing as much representation/diversity as possible. This difficult task may ultimately leave out numerous works which merit inclusion from different vantage points. Each topic may eventually be addressed by more than one author. Email us at for any inquiries.]