The Colonial Origins of Coercive Institutions in MENA

By Allison Hartnett, Nicholas Lotito,
Submitted to Session P5092 (The Colonial Legacies of Institutions of Control in MENA, 2018 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
All Middle East;
Colonialism; Comparative;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Robust coercive apparatuses are often blamed for the Middle East’s uniquely persistent authoritarianism (Bellin 2004, 2012). Recent history – both before and after the 2011 ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings – confirm the importance of these institutions in maintaining the region’s authoritarian governments. However, existing research does not explain how or why these institutions came to be. Political science theories suggest that coercive institutions are established when an authoritarian leader comes to power. He assesses potential domestic threats, which are either mass-based or elite-based (Wintrobe 1998, Brownlee 2007, Svolik 2012, Greitens 2016), and creates a corresponding coercive institution. Leaders face organizational trade-offs, and cannot simultaneously stave off a popular threat and protect themselves against rival elites. Institutional stickiness (Mahoney and Thelen 2010) constrains regimes’ adaptability as new threats arise, resulting in predictable patterns of state coercive organization. While the path dependence of existing arguments holds up to empirical scrutiny, the idea that authoritarian leaders have full autonomy in constructing coercive institutions does not reflect the reality that no leader inherits a state tabula rasa. In contemporary authoritarian regimes, leaders govern states with certain pre-determined resources and capabilities. The starting point for path-dependent coercive institutions must be moved back further in time. In this paper, we argue that authoritarian coercive capabilities are shaped by pre-independence spending and institution-building by colonial powers. The European colonial period coincided with a consequential period of modern state-building in the Middle East. Colonial projects varied across colonial regime type (i.e., British and French and related strategic interests) and time period (i.e., whether the colonial power was spending heavily elsewhere), with implications for state capacity and the functioning of institutions central to governance at independence. We focus our analysis here on understanding the range of repressive tools at the autocrat’s disposal as inherited from the colonial period. Authoritarian regimes use domestic police forces (regular, secret, and plainclothes), national security institutions (namely, the military), and a host of intelligence institutions to repress formally elite and mass opposition during regular periods of governance. We compare the balance of these institutions cross-nationally through a new dataset on colonial budgetary allocations for repressive institution-building. We disaggregate spending on the coercive apparatus by examining investments in police forces, the military, and intelligence agencies, and show that colonial efforts in building and funding such institutions is carried over by post-colonial regimes.