Irene Weipert-Fenner, The Autocratic Parliament: Power and Legitimacy in Egypt, 1866-2011 (Syracuse University Press, 2020).

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

Irene Weipert-Fenner (IWF): I was living in Egypt in 2005 when the Muslim Brotherhood won twenty percent in the parliamentary elections. Everyone discussed why the Mubarak regime had allowed the Brothers to gain so many seats: was it to show to “the West” what democracy would look like in the MENA and to play the game of “the Islamists or us”—hoping for Europe and the United States to prefer the secular authoritarian option? At the same time, there was so much state violence involved, particularly in the second and third round to keep voters away from the ballots, on the one hand, and new records in electoral campaign spending, on the other. Private businessmen invested a lot to gain a seat in the People’s Assembly. On top of that, media reported about internal conflicts within the ruling party between a new and an old guard.

As I had seen the many facets of parliamentary elections, I was puzzled by a relative simple functionalist perspective I found in the literature on how legislatures in autocracies work once they are elected: a parliament stabilizes an authoritarian regime by imitating democracy and generating legitimacy, as well as coopting relevant elites. Full stop. So, I became curious about what actually happens inside parliament, and I started to follow media reporting on parliamentary activities.

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

IWF: The second and ultimate trigger for my book was my master’s thesis, within which I wanted to write about imperialism and the question as to why an imperial power decides to shift from informal to formal imperialism. I looked at the historic case of the British occupation of Egypt in 1882 in the context of the Urabi revolt. Ahmad Urabi was an army officer and the revolt he led against the monarch (controlled by the British and the French) raised demands for better conditions for soldiers; it also called for a new constitution and the re-institution of parliament.

I became curious about the role of parliamentarians in that revolt and found a highly dynamic development from a relatively toothless institution for rural notables (created in 1866) to an autonomous, powerful, and even contentious body. I developed my findings into my first book (so far only in German: “Strong reformers or weak revolutionaries? Rural notables and the Egyptian parliament in the Urabi revolt, 1866-1882”, Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter, 2011). I decided that if I had found such an unexpectedly fascinating role of parliament in the nineteenth century, there had to be more to a parliament in an autocracy today than the existing literature would tell us.

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

IWF: The Autocratic Parliament deals with institutional development and policy-making in autocracies and offers novel insights into Egypt’s modern history and contemporary politics, particularly in connecting political and socioeconomic developments. Regarding the first aspect, the book engages intensively with the debate about political institutions in authoritarian regimes, a debate that has been mainly informed by rational-choice approaches. I argue in favor of constructivist historical institutionalism, as it helped me to combine a bird’s eye perspective on long-term institutional development (including incremental change and ruptures such as revolutions and military coups) with a micro analysis of parliamentary activities. From this perspective, the autocratic parliament can be seen as an indicator, catalyst, and an agent of change within an autocracy.

One aspect is particularly important to me: parliamentary debates in autocracies are much more than window dressing or a safety valve. Within the red lines, different actor groups, mostly second-tier elites, fight over policies. Although decisions are taken behind the scenes, the debates offer incredible insight—particularly into intra-elite tensions and conflicts. Power relations and asymmetries become visible, but also shown is how a violation of widespread norms in one realm can cause a loss of legitimacy beliefs and even lead to a legitimacy crisis that spills over from policies to political identities and institutions. All of this, however, is only visible through the actors’ perspectives and the norms that guide their actions. The book, therefore, is also a call for more interpretive analyses in comparative authoritarianism, in order to get a better idea of how actors in autocracies make sense of what they do and the tensions that arise between the rules and procedures of a liberal institution, a democratic façade, and authoritarian power asymmetries.

Finally, throughout the centuries I found that socioeconomic topics are particularly important to members of parliament. This has to do with the logics of cooptation: only relevant actors are coopted, and importance to the regime can be based on economic wealth, but also a social status that is tied to channeling resources into their constituencies. “Na’ib al-khidmat” (deputy of services) was a nickname for MPs in Egypt. Socioeconomic crises therefore were reflected in parliament and used to criticize the government. In my close analysis of the last five years under Mubarak, I delved deep into the struggle around social justice and the role of the state in the context of crony capitalism.

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

IWF: My sincere hope is that the book will lead to a wave of new research on parliaments in autocracies, both in the MENA and beyond. Throughout the years, whenever I have presented my thoughts and preliminary results at conferences and workshops, I have always received the feedback that people had made similar observations for other countries: from Morocco to Iran, parliaments are active parts of the regimes, contentious but not rebellious. Focusing on intra-elite dynamics (while factoring in opposition forces) and on policy-making, the identified agency of the autocratic parliaments helps to de-construct the idea of an omnipotent ruler or core elite. It shows the complexities of autocracies that we cannot see when we stick to concepts ex-negativo, as widespread labels like “non-democratic” or “nominally democratic” institutions evoke. I even could find similar “image problems” of parliaments in both democracies and autocracies—of being powerless, or of only representing particular interests and not “the common good”.

I therefore try to establish the term “autocratic parliament” as a starting point for a truly comparative agenda across regime types based on practices and social meanings ascribed to parliament.

Another fascinating point of entry for comparative studies would be the emergence of parliamentarianism. In Egypt in the nineteenth century, this was a result of domestic power struggles, not something “implanted” by the West and also not a sign of democratization. The processes rather resembled feudal assemblies of medieval, pre-democratic Europe: influential individuals representing social classes or local constituencies had the opportunity to bargain with the monarch, who in turn sought to secure access to their money and military conscripts.

I also aim to see this book published in Arabic. Political norms are shaped by previous experiences; the political culture of a country is embedded in them. I therefore find it crucial to understand the political past when trying to build a new future. The greatest success of my book would be to contribute to the Egyptian discourse on political rule and transformation—as much as it is possible now, but also in the future.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

IWF: While I was working on “the Autocratic Parliament”, I was intrigued by the importance of socioeconomic topics for the political development under authoritarian rule including its breakdown. Since 2014, I have been directing an international research group, which has explored how socioeconomic protests developed after the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, and what impact they have had on the political transformation processes (as different as they have turned out). In 2018 we started a second phase with a focus on the socioeconomic (and mostly neoliberal) reforms that governments in democratic Tunisia and autocratic Egypt have started to implement since 2016, and the conflicts (intra-elite, state-society) they have caused. It has brought me back to parliamentary activities and the links to social mobilization and organizations, as well as to external actors (such as the IMF)—but now in comparison between different regime types.

Excerpt from the book (p. 7, pp. 224-226)

Introducing the Autocratic Parliament

This book identifies five characteristics of autocratic parliaments across various authoritarian regime subtypes:

1. Autocratic parliaments work according to the logic of an authoritarian regime (and should therefore not be regarded as a dysfunctional democratic institution).

2. Autocratic parliaments can grow stronger within a given political system (either incrementally, driven by internal processes, or quickly in the case where rights are granted by the executive).

3. Autocratic parliaments can become contentious when norms. regarding policies, political actors, and institutions are violated on a large scale or at a fast pace. These fields of legitimacy beliefs are interconnected, meaning that negative evaluations in one field can spill over to others. (Most important, a parliament can turn against the executive when parliamentary rights are withdrawn or when socioeconomic norms are violated.)

4. Institutional as well as interinstitutional actions are shaped by asymmetric power distribution but never by a power monopoly held by one side. They involve constant bargaining processes based on power assessments of actors and institutions (which can be incorrect or have unintended consequences).

5. Low parliamentary responsiveness to broadly shared norms can contribute to a regime crisis. […]

Building on these five characteristics, the autocratic parliament can be an indicator, catalyst, and an agent of change within an autocracy. As such, it can also provide additional insights into democratization, yet not as a prodemocratic force. As the intermediary between different political groups and the executive, the autocratic parliament can shed light on fault lines within the ruling elite as well as legitimacy crises, hinting at “windows of opportunity” for regime change. At the same time, there is no inherent determinism that leads parliaments to evolve into democracy. Authoritarian regimes are flexible and can deal with crises. Still, it is important to distinguish extraordinary times of conflict and imbalance between different elite groups from a “normal” level of dispute regarding policies, political actors, and institutions. Departures from this “normality” allow us to detect and assess developments that may indicate change within a regime or even the potential for a change of regime. As observed in several cases here, political “business as usual” took place when parliament and the executive respected a certain consensus on major norms with regard to policies and political actors and institutions. This consensus, however, was never static but always developed, usually in a steady and incremental manner. Breaches of such consensus have caused contestation and even led to regime destabilization. Parliament, as an institution, allows us to observe and detect when a new consensus has been found, when a group that has violated norms returns to the old established order, or when the regime has been shaken as a whole, leading to a major political reconfiguration.

Once such a rupture does occur, the autocratic parliament can help us better understand the ensuing political transformation processes. By studying institutional practices before and after major events such as the ouster of an autocratic ruler, we can learn much about the continuity and change of political norms and practices and better explore the gray areas of democratization. Regime change is never a clear-cut shift from one state of equilibrium to the next; how new and old political actors behave is shaped by their prior experiences in the authoritarian regime, as is the new institutional order they create. Bargaining processes and institutional practices learned and developed in the autocratic parliament may also be applied to other political systems and regimes. Oversight rights, committee work, plenary debates, and similar practices within an authoritarian parliament can serve as a toolkit for democratic parliaments; some tools might require democratic readjustment while others might simply continue to work in the new regime. A number of institutional developments under authoritarian rule—such as greater legislative participation or increased oversight rights—might retrospectively be interpreted as the evolution of democracy. While we know that these liberties can be reversed by the authoritarian elite, the rights and the practices that evolve around them may present themselves as a pool of established political procedures for a democratic regime once, and if, transformation takes place.

When comparing the “before and after” of parliamentary practices and trying to judge whether a “real” process of democratization is underway, it is crucial to remember that a number of shortcomings ascribed to autocratic parliaments happen to also be general paradoxes of any parliament. There will always exist a certain degree of tension within the parliamentarians as representatives who serve both their own constituencies and the people’s interest in general. Moreover, informal power hierarchies among the members of parliament, whom we deem to be equal, will always persist. Party politics can heavily influence the behavior of parliamentarians once elected, even if the member of parliament is formally independent. Finally, decision making always proves a messy endeavor: it is a quid pro quo bargaining process that does not accord to the idea of the parliamentarian as a gentleman or lady who only pursues higher aims (Loewenberg 2016). Keeping these inevitable tensions in mind should prevent us from using an idealized version of democratic parliaments as a benchmark for evaluating their counterparts in autocracies or regimes in transformation. Formal rules, both in autocracies and democracies, only grant us limited insights into how parliaments actually function and why they matter. We must always compare them to their institutional practices, which evolve over time and which shape the regimes we seek to better understand. This is the only way that we can engage in a truly comparative study of democratic and autocratic parliaments, and of the gray areas in between.