Özgün E. Topak, Merouan Mekouar, and Francesco Cavatorta (eds.), New Authoritarian Practices in the Middle East and North Africa (Edinburgh University Press, 2022). 

Jadaliyya (J): What made you edit this book? 

Özgün E. Topak, Merouan Mekouar, and Francesco Cavatorta (ÖT, MM & FC): Following the gruesome murder of Jamal Khashoggi in 2017, the three of us were shocked by the “medieval nature” of the assassination of the Saudi journalist. Here was a major country of the Middle East, awash with resources, resorting to one of the crudest forms of authoritarian repression. This tragic event made us ask ourselves the following questions: how did the “practice of authoritarianism” in the different countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region evolve with time? What are the specific “established” practices that have survived the digital turn of the twenty-first century? Which new ones have been implemented in the last twenty years, in combination with “established” ones, and especially since the critical juncture of the 2011 uprisings? Do countries of the region learn from each other or from other countries outside the MENA region? Finally, given the diversity of regime types and political trajectories in the region, what are the similarities and differences between these different countries? At the same time, we had noticed that pluralistic regimes and democracies were also implementing new practices of surveillance and even outright repression of political and social dissent, at varying degrees. We therefore wanted also to see to what extent the MENA was an exception in terms of devising and putting into practice new forms of authoritarian control.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

ÖT, MM & FC: Two of us—Merouan and Francesco—come from political science, while one—Özgun—comes from an interdisciplinary social science background (with focus on sociology and criminology). Our diverse backgrounds have allowed us to address authoritarianism and its practices from different angles. The contributors of chapters are similarly from diverse backgrounds, while each having an expertise in their country-context of examination. The book engages with the literature on authoritarianism with a particular focus on “authoritarian practices.” This micro focus on practices balances the more macro-sociological explanations on authoritarian durability in the region. The book, albeit briefly, also engages with authoritarian practices beyond the MENA region, to illustrate that expansion of authoritarian practices is a global reality with serious implications for human rights and global democracy.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

ÖT: My previous work focused on surveillance and violence encountered by migrants/refugees at the borders of the European Union, which can also be defined as “authoritarian practices.” I also have a long-standing interest in authoritarianism and surveillance in Turkey. In many ways, this book builds on my previous works. This project helped me to broaden my focus to the entire MENA region, but also to observe similarities with MENA contexts and other global contexts in the application of authoritarian practices.

MM: My previous work focused on authoritarian collapse and norm diffusion. For this work, I was particularly interested on the transnational nature of authoritarian practices in the MENA region: do MENA countries learn and import authoritarian practices from each other? If so, which authoritarian practices are exported, and which ones remain contained in their country of origin?

FC: I worked for quite some time on authoritarianism in the MENA, attempting to explain how authoritarian constraints impact on the behavior of social and political actors. This project with Merouan and Özgun provided me with the opportunity to go into greater detail in the actual instruments—legal and digital—that are put in place to repress and control dissent in the region.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have? 

ÖT, MM & FC: One major takeaway from our book is the overlap in authoritarian practices, not only within different MENA countries (with different regime types and coercive institutions) but also increasingly between authoritarian countries and more pluralistic and democratic ones. We hope that the book will help dismantle the common trope about the MENA region’s alleged exceptionalism—especially with respect to state violence and surveillance. We hope it will show that once they are created, authoritarian practices—such as digital spying on dissident journalists, or social media intimidation campaigns—can be deployed far from their country of origin and against a new range of targets, both within and outside the MENA region.         

J: What other projects are you working on now? 

ÖT: I plan to broaden and update my research on border surveillance, detention and violence (or “authoritarian practices”) at the Europe/MENA borderlands at the expense of the human rights of refugees and migrants.

MM: I am editing a new book with Kira Jumet (Hamilton College) on the specific risks that native scholars face while conducting research in non-democratic or illiberal countries. While native academics experience many of the challenges that their Western colleagues face while conducting research in these countries—such as surveillance, data security, access to informants, and governmental interference—they also face additional risks and distinct obstacles, ranging from the weight of family, ethnic, and religious identity to legal threats from their country of origin, to exploitation by foreign scholars and intelligence services. The book will have twenty-three contributions from native researchers conducting work in Eastern Europe, Latin America, East Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the MENA region.

FC: I am working on a special issue with Hendrik Kraetzschmar (Leeds University) on cabinet coalitions in the Arab world. Although there have been several coalition cabinets in the region since the early 1990s, we know very little about their formation, durability, and fragmentation. The special issue examines such cabinets systematically and then through several case studies. The connection with this edited volume is quite clear: in many countries the authoritarian nature of the political system places constraints on the way on which cabinets are formed, which parties take part in them, and what they can actually do once sworn in government.

J: One of the main conclusions of the book is that many of the new authoritarian practices that have been deployed in the MENA region are also used by other global authoritarian and even democratic countries outside the region. Can you talk more about this? 

ÖT, MM & FC: Our focus in the book is the MENA region, but we observe that the MENA is only one region among many other contexts in the global drive towards the normalization of authoritarian practices, even though the MENA region might be leading in some senses. For instance, the Pegasus spyware is being used by regimes such as Mexico, Hungary, and India to hack the phones of dissident and oppositional figures while mass/invasive surveillance systems are implemented by liberal-democratic regimes in the name of counter-terrorism or monitoring refugee movements. The normalization of such practices is very problematic because it leads to “whataboutism,” and creates a race to the bottom. We rather need a principled stance towards all forms of authoritarian practices.


Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction)

The brutal murder of the Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 and the events leading up to his death illustrate the combined use of traditional and new authoritarian practices in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). On 2 October 2018 Khashoggi entered the Istanbul Consulate of Saudi Arabia where he was tortured, killed and his body dismembered. Research by the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab (2018, 2019) and statements made by Omar Abdulaziz (Loveday and Zakaria 2018), another Saudi dissident and friend of Kashoggi, showed the key role played by Pegasus, a malicious tracking software developed by the Israelbased NSO Group, in the events leading to the murder of the Saudi journalist. The investigation Citizen Lab conducted showed that Abdulaziz’s phone was infected with the spyware, which would have allowed Saudi officials to access his private conversations with his contacts, including Khashoggi. Abdulaziz revealed that he was in regular phone contact with Khashoggi about organising social media activism to counter the influence of Saudi progovernment trolls on the internet.

Extra-judicial killings of dissidents, alongside surveillance, imprisonment, intimidation, torture and ill-treatment of dissidents, as well as other practices to suppress dissent and control activists, opposition parties, the judiciary and the media, have long existed in the region. The chapters in this book demonstrate that, even if they may not be as spectacularly violent as in the Khashoggi killing, many MENA regimes continue to deploy tried-and-tested authoritarian practices to control society and suppress dissent. However, these historically-established practices have also been refashioned, often in innovative ways, by MENA regimes to respond to growing dissent in their societies. These refashioned authoritarian practices are often enabled by new digital surveillance tools. While the killing of Khashoggi, which combines murder and dismemberment with digital spying, is one of the most shocking examples of the mixed nature of contemporary authoritarian practices, other MENA regimes are also increasingly relying on new digitally-based authoritarian practices such as social media surveillance, the use of malicious software, the mobilisation of troll armies and dissemination of fake news on broadcast and social media. As a result, MENA regimes often use a mix of historically-established practices and new authoritarian ones in conjunction with one another to form what Topak (2019; this book 2022) calls an ‘authoritarian assemblage’. This, for instance, combines police violence against street protesters with surveillance of dissenters on social media. Repressive legislation, some of which has long existed and some of which is newly made, may also be deployed to criminalise offline and online dissent, thus complementing the other elements of the assemblage.

The various contributions of this book show that established authoritarian practices have not disappeared. Rather, they continue haunting their societies and can be redeployed, often in combination with new practices, whenever local regimes need to use them. A case in point is the state of emergency, an age-old instrument employed in Egypt, Sudan, Turkey and Tunisia, which is used again to allow for the deployment of historically established practices (e.g. purges in state bureaucracy and civil society) but also new ones (e.g. repressive internet surveillance). In some extreme cases, emergency rule is embedded in the very fabric of social life and empowered with new digital practices. A key example from the book is Israel’s practices in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). MENA regimes can also articulate various excuses (some long-existing, some new), such as a coup attempt, a security threat or the Covid-19-induced health crisis, to legitimise these practices. Thus ‘old’ authoritarian practices remain part of the authoritarian toolbox of MENA regimes, to be redeployed whenever there is a need to suppress emerging threats of dissent or whenever new technological advances make them more potent. For instance, while Morocco has used sexual blackmailing in the past to intimidate activists or force political concessions from members of the opposition, new digital tools expanded the regime’s ability to access private material and use ‘revenge-porn’ (The Economist 2021) to hurt its opponents (from this book see Maghraoui 2022). Thus, the ‘new’ practices highlighted in this book are not necessarily novel. New forms of dissent (such as social media activism) are met with new practices of repression (such as social media surveillance and troll armies) but also with old-established ones (jailing, torture and murder) as well as with assemblages combining various old and new repressive tools.

These mechanics of repression/dissent and the accompanying deployment of authoritarian assemblages can be observed clearly in the responses MENA regimes provided to the various episodes of social protest that have emerged in the region since the early 2000s. The book chapters demonstrate that MENA regimes have upgraded and intensified their use of authoritarian practices in response to these movements, including the 2009 Green Movement in Iran, the 2011 Arab Uprising and the 2013 Gezi protests in Turkey. In fact, even Tunisia, the birthplace of the 2011 Arab uprisings, has seen its democratic institutions muzzled by the country’s president in July 2021. Other countries in the region either failed to consolidate their tentative democratic steps or became scenes of brutal civil wars such as occurred in Syria, Libya and Yemen. In fact, even during Tunisia’s democratic experiment between 2011 and 2021, the quality and depth of the democratic transformation was tainted by residual authoritarian practices, and persisting ‘authoritarian nostalgia’ for past practices (see Cimini 2022 in this book). The survival of authoritarian practices across the MENA region illustrates how regime type might not necessarily tell us very much about the intensity, variety and depth of the broader apparatus of repression and how social and political dissent is dealt with.

The very term ‘authoritarian practices’ deceptively suggests that the tools and discourses of repression discussed in this book relate only to authoritarian regimes. Although the intensity and depth of such practices might indeed be stronger in authoritarian states, the contributions in this book clearly illustrate that they are present across regimes. In addition to Tunisia, it is apparent that the authoritarian assemblage has survived in Iraq, as Costantini explains in her chapter. While the Iraqi political system is pluralistic and ‘free’, dissent is still largely dealt with through the widespread use of violence usually accompanied by new practices of repression. The same is also true in Turkey, where the nominally pluralistic political system is not immune – far from it – to the use of authoritarian practices to stamp out dissent and prevent challenges against the dominant AKP and its leader. Although Morocco cannot be defined as a democratic country, it still has a pluralistic political system that, since the arrival of Mohammed VI to the throne, has attempted to present an image of progressive liberalisation and democratisation. It is true that the monarch is still the real wielder of power, but it had seemed to many that the style of governance and the use of authoritarian practices that Hassan II had employed were consigned to history. This has only partially been the case. While there have not been episodes of widespread indiscriminate violence, the Moroccan regime has adapted traditional authoritarian practices and added new ones to its survival toolkit. For its part, Israel has been central to both the employment and the export of new tools of authoritarian control. In addition to testing such instruments and practices in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), the Israeli authorities have increasingly used some of them at home against Israeli citizens and, crucially, exported them to a number of countries in the region, suggesting that historical rivalries might not be as important as previously thought. The non-pluralistic regimes of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Iran and Egypt display, of course, more intense authoritarian practices because they do not have to deal with domestic pluralism – not even a façade pluralism – and do not worry much about projecting liberal legitimacy abroad, although, in somewhat different ways ranging from the creation of a loyal civil society in Iran to the extensive use of social media surveillance in Saudi Arabia, these regimes have been able to efficiently marry older practices solidly based on the threat and use of physical force with newer practices of control usually aimed at monitoring and discrediting dissidents. Finally, states in transition or in the throes of civil war – scenarios where one would have expected fissures and flux – have also been at the forefront of both new and old authoritarian practices, even though, as in the case of Yemen and Libya, it might not be a sovereign state, or only a state actor implementing them. In these contexts where national sovereignty no longer exists, authoritarian practices are ‘simply’ put in place in specific enclaves by rival actors who try to dominate and rule the territory they control.

From the analyses that all the contributors have put forward, two points emerge clearly. The first is that, regardless of regime types, authoritarian practices are increasing and being adapted to the necessities of the regimes in place. It follows quite clearly that regime type is not really an indicator of authoritarian practices, although their intensity and depth may indeed vary according to regime type. The second point is that the Israel case indicates that authoritarian practices are not the monopoly of Muslim majority states and are therefore disconnected from the orientalist cultural explanations that see Islam as the root of all that is wrong in the MENA region. Furthermore, it should be emphasised that Western geopolitical interests in the region have fuelled authoritarian practices. These interests have led to imperialist and (neo)colonialist interventions, Western support for MENA authoritarian regimes, and the implementation of increasingly authoritarian border control practices at the Europe/MENA border areas to prevent refugees from reaching Western territories (see e.g. Gregory 2004; Brownlee 2012; Khalili 2012; Topak 2014; Yom 2016; Lemberg-Pedersen 2019).

The focus the book has placed on authoritarian practices in the MENA is warranted insofar as it contributes to the ongoing debate on authoritarian resilience in the region a decade after the uprisings. However, it should be made clear that the MENA is not an isolated case when it comes to a resurgence of authoritarian practices, both established and new. The contributions in this edited collection have demonstrated that such practices have become an increasing asset to different regime types, and it is therefore crucial to underline that this applies well beyond the MENA region and non-Muslim majority states. As a number of scholars have noted, the last years have seen the resurgence of authoritarianism globally, and the MENA is not an outlier when it comes to the use of authoritarian practices (e.g. Khalili 2012; Kumar 2012; Diamond et al. 2016, Murakami Wood 2017; Hintz and Milan 2018). Authoritarian practices, including the use of excessive force against protesters, mass and indiscriminate surveillance of online activities, torture, secret rendition, indefinite detention, extra-judicial killing, undue pressures on media outlets, and violent treatment of racial, ethnic, religious and gender minorities, women, migrants, refugees and terror suspects, are also adopted by many liberal-democratic states of the West as well as elsewhere. Ironically and tragically, Muslims are one of the major groups of sufferers from authoritarian practices both inside MENA and in Western territories.