Matt Buehler, Why Alliances Fail: Islamist and Leftist Coalitions in North Africa (Syracuse University Press, 2018).

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

Matt Buehler (MB): My motivation for writing Why Alliances Fail came from a personal experience, rather than a strictly academic one. Witnessing this experience while working overseas in the Arab world motivated my book’s central puzzle. In 2009, I worked as an English-Arabic translator intern at Morocco’s second widest circulating newspaper, as-Sabah. That was also around the same time that country’s communal (i.e. local) elections took place, which produced several unexpected and perplexing alliances between leftist and Islamist political parties in numerous localities, notably in Agadir, Tétouan, and several other cities. What was especially puzzling was that these local-level alliances between leftists and Islamists became long-term, successful pacts, whereas similar attempts at opposition coordination at the national-level between the same parties failed. Then, over time, I thought to myself: What are the different factors that might be driving variation in the durability of alliances between Morocco’s leftists and Islamists? How, moreover, might this either parallel or contradict the pattern of successful and failed alliances we see between leftists and Islamists in neighboring states in North Africa?

Thereafter, I documented and researched similar alliances that had emerged between leftists and Islamists in other areas of North Africa, specifically in Tunisia and Mauritania, in the 2000s and 2010s. This approach ultimately produced the book’s comparative framework, which relies on comparing nine different cases of alliances in three countries (Tunisia, Morocco, and Mauritania) and in three distinct domains of politics, including national-level, city, and labor politics. This whole process of building and maintaining alliances became much more complex once the Arab uprisings began, which erupted while I was conducting fieldwork in North Africa for my book. So, in sum, Why Alliances Fail emerged from personally observing and trying to explain a specific counter-intuitive historical event, which expanded and complexified over time.

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

MBSince 2011, the Arab world has seen a number of autocrats, including leaders from Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, fall from power. Yet, in the wake of these political upheavals, only one state, Tunisia, transitioned successfully from authoritarianism to democracy. Opposition parties forged a durable and long-term alliance there that supported democratization. Similar pacts failed in Morocco and Mauritania, however. Why Alliances Fail explores the circumstances under which stable, enduring alliances are built to contest regimes, marshaling evidence from coalitions between North Africa’s Islamists and leftists. My book seeks to answer the question: Under what conditions do coalitions between leftists and Islamists succeed or fail?

To address this topic, my book leverages nearly two years of Arabic fieldwork interviews, original statistics, and archival research. Interviewees include numerous high-profile Islamist and leftist politicians, notably the first Islamist prime minister in Moroccan history—Abdelilah Benkirane. Introducing a theory of alliance durability, my book explains how the nature of an opposition party’s social base shapes the robustness of alliances it builds with other parties. It also examines the social origins of authoritarian regimes, concluding that those regimes that successfully harnessed the social forces of rural isolation and clientelism were most effective at resisting the pressure for democracy that opposition parties exerted. The book shows how regimes manipulated rural politics through processes of co-optation to shatter coalitions between two of the fiercest opponents of their rule, Islamists and leftists. When an opposition party with urban origins absorbed new rural constituencies mired in illiteracy and entangled in clientelist hierarchies, it fell vulnerable to co-optation and thus became a weak alliance partner. Why Alliances Fail carries vital implications for understanding the mechanisms driving authoritarian persistence in the Arab world and beyond.

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

MBMuch of my earlier work focused on examining the political participation and formation of both opposition and pro-regime political parties in North Africa. My book advances this research by examining how North African’s opposition parties cooperate with each other by forging alliances.

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

MBWhy Alliances Fail will have impact by drawing the interest of generalist readers—policymakers and students—because of its empirical contributions. From a substantive perspective, the empirical topic itself of alliances between leftists and Islamists is an interesting, counter-intuitive example of opposition coordination. Moreover, the book compares left-Islamist alliances in two specific Arab countries—Morocco and Mauritania—that have been historically under-studied in contemporary political science research on the Middle East. While Tunisia has gotten much scholarly attention recently, Morocco and Mauritania have generally been under-researched. Numerous books emerged on Morocco’s political parties in the 1960s and 1970s. For example, the books of John Waterbury, Clement Henry, and John Entelis come to mind. Then after the success of Morocco’s Islamists in the 2002 and 2007 elections, several books appeared focusing on this opposition party, like Eva Wegner, Malika Zeghal, and Mohamed Daadaoui’s books. Yet, my book will have an impact by bridging these two streams of literature in examining when and why Morocco’s Islamists have or have not successfully coordinated with other opposition parties.

A dearth of political science books exists in English about Mauritania. Yet, Mauritania is a good comparative case: it had a democratization experiment, its ruling parties have dominated politics since decolonization, and its military plays a critical role. In these respects, Mauritania resembles Egypt and Algeria, but it is rarely compared with other Arab states. The reason why—in my opinion—is mostly due to disciplinary sociology. Scholars think: is Mauritania part of West Africa or the Arab world? On one hand, Mauritania was considered part of French West Africa during colonialism but, on the other hand, it is also part of the Arab League; Arabic is the country’s main language, and most Mauritanians follow Arab cultural traditions. Why Alliances Fail, by incorporating evidence from Mauritania, encourages scholars to think about how this can be a useful and underutilized comparative case.

My book will also interest generalist readers because it presents a theoretical argument but embedded within a political historical narrative. At its core, Why Alliances Fail is a book of comparative political history. Increasingly, contemporary political science is becoming more and more technical and quantitative, which in many ways is positive and useful for answering some research questions. However, this change has also produced costs in deteriorating the readability, flow, and empirical richness and originality of many books’ political narratives. In writing Why Alliances Fail, I tried to think of myself not only as a scholar but also as a writer. A book’s discussion of complex theories and methods should not obstruct the fluidity and power of its prose.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

MB: All of my new research projects relate to comparative politics and international relations of North Africa, and include original overseas fieldwork and data collection in North Africa.  Yet some of these projects continue to focus on democratization and political parties, as my book does, but other projects delve into new topics.  For example, I have a co-authored project examining the physical traits of candidates of political parties who successfully obtain leadership positions, building on the work of Lindsay Benstead, Amaney Jamal, and Ellen Lust (which was recently published in Perspectives on Politics).  But I also have some projects that look at totally new topics, like public attitudes toward nuclear energy and migration. I aim to continue to leverage my passion for and expertise in North African politics and society, while also satisfying my intellectual curiosity for new research puzzles and theories.

J: What are your book’s main theoretical contributions?

MBDuring my doctoral training, two important research topics emerged in Middle East comparative politics with which I think my book engages. The first related to opposition coordination. Although numerous scholars have addressed this topic in their books, Ellen Lust’s Structuring Conflict in the Arab World (Cambridge University Press, 2005) really influenced my own research. In her pioneering book, Lust shows how Arab autocrats engineer their regimes’ formal institutions—laws and rules regulating political participation—to break or discourage opposition alliances. It is, primarily, an institutional explanation for why alliances collapse between opposition groups. In reading Lust’s book, I wanted my book to address similar themes and topics but articulate a social structural theory for explaining alliance failure. I aimed to show how regimes—as supported by evidence from Morocco and Mauritania—have leveraged underlying clientelist hierarchies and systems especially prominent in rural areas to practice co-optation, weaken opposition parties, and implement divide-and-rule strategies. In this way, my book posits a society-centered account for explaining why alliances fail, when preexisting work mostly emphasized an institutional approach.  Developing my society-centered theory also helped to unpack and explore the process of co-optation, which is an often used though inchoate concept in the study of authoritarian politics.

The second area of research concerned Islamist moderation, which extends from Jillian Schwedler’s pathbreaking book Faith in ModerationIslamist Parties in Jordan and Yemen (Cambridge University Press, 2006). This book explained the conditions under which Islamist parties might transform from having relatively rigid ideological worldviews to having more open and accepting ones. After Faith in Moderation’s publication, this debate about how and why inclusion in electoral politics encouraged Islamists to become more ideologically moderate became, perhaps, the most common topic of research among scholars of political Islam. Why Alliances Fail does not directly address this moderation debate, but it does, I think, speak indirectly to the topic by exploring how, when, and why Islamists might set aside their ideological conflicts and disagreements to cooperate successfully with leftist parties in order to secure reforms and challenge regimes. According to my book’s political narrative, much of this hinged on whether or not the Islamists and leftists were capable of retaining urban, middle-class social bases of support, which were less vulnerable to regimes’ co-optation strategies.


Excerpt from the Book

(from pages 1-5)

From the Persian Gulf in the East to Morocco’s Atlantic coast in the West, Arab autocrats faced unprecedented popular uprisings against their regimes beginning in late 2010. What resulted was that four dictators—Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh, and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi—fell from power. Optimism soared that these countries might become democracies. Yet by 2014 it was clear that only one state, Tunisia, had transitioned from authoritarianism to democracy successfully. Many of Tunisia’s neighbors either reverted to authoritarianism, Egypt, or descended into chaos, Libya and Yemen. For millions of citizens, the conclusion to the story of the Arab uprisings was not one of democratization.

Although Tunisia’s young democracy still faces challenges, a number of factors—including higher levels of military professionalism and economic development—made its transition far more successful. One crucial, understudied factor that aided Tunisia was that a stable alliance of opposition parties with divergent ideological backgrounds supported the transition. Such a coalition-what scholars have termed a “cross-ideological alliance”—consolidated in 2005 long before Tunisia’s revolution broke out, contributed to its success in 2011, and shepherded the country through its aftermath until 2014. Tunisia’s opposition parties succeeded in maintaining an alliance to contest the authoritarian regime when it was still standing strong and to provide an alternative, once it had collapsed. In cases of democratization, such opposition alliances have often played a pivotal role. When opposition parties can get together to build an alliance, especially one that endures over time, they can harmonize demands, pool resources, and exert collective pressure. Yet when parties act alone, regimes more easily marginalize them. For Tunisia, much like instances of democratization in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Eastern Europe, the fact that opposition parties with divergent ideologies built a durable, long-term alliance aided its successful democratic transition. Across the developing world, an alliance’s success or failure to endure over time often paralleled the success or failure of broader efforts to bring regime change and, ultimately, democratization.

After Ben Ali fled, Tunisia’s opposition coalition appeared on the scene and announced its name, the Troika Alliance. Although Tunisia’s opposition parties had begun cooperating in a coalition in the mid-2000s long before Ben Ali’s downfall, the regime’s collapse attracted attention to their alliance. Whereas some Tunisians criticized the Troika as a three-headed monster of ideological contradictions, others endorsed it as an exemplar of compromise. The Troika was a coalition of strange, unexpected allies: it featured a pact between Tunisia’s leftists and Islamists. The Troika was an alliance between Tunisia’s Islamist Party and two leftist parties.  With Ben Ali’s regime gone, the leftists and Islamists mobilized their alliance based on strategic logic. “On today’s political scene, parties are not divided by ideology,” Tunisian minister of justice Samir Ben Amor, of one of the leftist parties, said. “The real division is between the parties of the revolution and those that opposed it. Between the parties that struggled for the revolution, and those that did not take honorable positions towards it.”

In two of Tunisia’s neighbors, Morocco and Mauritania, a similar story unfolded, albeit with a different result in alliance stability. Modeling Tunisia, citizens in Morocco launched protests on February 20,2011, in more than fifty cities. Casablanca and Rabat experienced the largest demonstrations—sixteen thousand and eight thousand protesters, respectively. Nouakchott, Mauritania’s capital, saw small protests on February 25, but they swelled to more than ninety thousand participants by 2012. In Morocco’s secondary cities, protests were smaller but more violent.  In a mining city, rioters stormed the state phosphate company, took two managers hostage, and left $13 million in damage. Though the unrest of Morocco and Mauritania neither matched that of Tunisia or Egypt nor led to the bloodshed of Bahrain or Syria, it produced exceptional instability unseen in decades. The unrest created a unique situation wherein leftists and Islamists could have coordinated their opposition. It could have been a catalyzing moment for opposition parties to build alliances.

How did Morocco and Mauritania’s leftists and Islamists react to this surging unrest? Like Tunisia’s Troika, did leftists and Islamists unite in stable alliances to push for change? The short answer is no. Although Morocco’s and Mauritania’s leftists and Islamists had experimented with alliances in the late 2000s, which ultimately failed, they were not revitalized in 2011 to mobilize for reform. The long answer is more complicated. It requires us to delve into the political histories of these opposition parties to explain why some have become gradually more vulnerable to regime co-optation. That is the purpose of this book. It aims to explain why Tunisia’s leftists and Islamists united in an enduring alliance to spearhead change in national politics, while Morocco and Mauritania’s did not. In succumbing to the co-optation strategies of Morocco’s and Mauritania’s authoritarian regimes, some parties have become weak opposition organizations and, hence, unreliable allies in coalitions.

Unlike in Tunisia, leftists and Islamists did not unite to back protests in Morocco. Morocco’s Islamist party entered the protests, while its leftist party did not. Fearful that publicly supporting protests could provoke regime repression, the Islamist party’s president, Abdelilah Benkirane, did not endorse the protests officially. Yet unofficially, his party’s supporters flooded the protests. A majority of the Islamist party’s leaders, and even its mild-mannered former president, joined the protests by March 2011. Even Islamist leaders who did not protest expressed support. “Only pressure from the street,” the Islamists’ parliamentary leader asserted, “would force the implementation of true reforms.” While it would be an overstatement to say that Morocco’s Islamist party caused the uprisings, or that its members constituted a majority of protesters, it is clear many of its leaders and especially its youth wing participated in or endorsed the demonstrations.

Morocco’s main leftist party had been the regime’s chief opponent between the 1960s and the 1990s. In 1998 a leftist became prime minister, inaugurating “alternance” (at-tanaawub), which was the first time an oppositionist became the head of government by elections. The leftist party was less assertive by 2011, however. Speaking to the party’s general assembly, its octogenarian president announced that “the objectives of Morocco’s protestors were a copy” of the leftist party’s demands from earlier decades. “For years, our party has been ready to seize this opportunity, and we will benefit from this situation.” But the leftist party declined to take action, and its president announced that it would not support protests. Few leftist leaders demonstrated or endorsed the protests.

A similar dynamic occurred in Mauritania. However, in this Arab country sandwiched between Morocco and Senegal, the Islamists were the unreliable allies, not the leftists. While leftists and Islamists had built alliances in the late 2000s, these had been short, fragile partnerships. The two opposition parties had allied in August 2008 to resist a coup, but the Islamists withdrew from the coalition less than a year later. The Islamists resurrected the alliance in 2012, but they abandoned it, again, within months. Mauritania’s Islamists have had irregular, sporadic commitment to alliances with leftists. Although numerous differences distinguish Tunisia from Morocco and Mauritania, the latter two did not share in the former’s democratization success, in part because of the absence of stable, enduring left-Islamist alliances in national politics. This book traces how regime strategies of co-optation caused alliance collapse in Morocco and Mauritania. It explains why alliances failed.

Surprisingly, however, this trend of alliance failure by regime co-optation did not hold for all domains of politics. In larger cities and labor unions in Morocco and Mauritania, leftists and Islamists succeeded in building stable alliances that predated and endured the 2011 Arab uprisings. In these domains of politics, leftists and Islamists allied to assert common demands and push for reforms. When regimes sought to spoil their alliances through co-optation, they resisted and maintained coalitions. This puzzle motivates this book’s central question: Under what conditions do alliances between leftists and Islamists succeed or fail?

To answer this question, this book uncovers the circumstances under which opposition parties succeed or fail to build durable, long-term alliances. Success is defined as an alliance’s capacity to endure over time, while failure is when it collapses. This book introduces a new theory of alliance durability, tests it with original evidence from left-Islamist coalitions in North Africa, and discusses its applicability to other Arab countries. This book argues that the nature of an opposition party’s social base—the grassroots constituencies upon which it depends—shapes the robustness of its alliances. When an opposition party with urban origins absorbs new rural constituencies mired in illiteracy and entangled in clientelist hierarchies, then it falls vulnerable to co-optation and, thus, becomes a weak alliance partner.