State and regime capacity in authoritarian elections: Egypt before the Arab spring

Publication Date01 January 2018
Date01 January 2018
AuthorKevin Koehler
DOI10.1177/0192512117695980
https://doi.org/10.1177/0192512117695980
International Political Science Review
2018, Vol. 39(1) 97 –113
© The Author(s) 2017
Reprints and permissions:
sagepub.co.uk/journalsPermissions.nav
DOI: 10.1177/0192512117695980
journals.sagepub.com/home/ips
State and regime capacity in
authoritarian elections: Egypt
before the Arab spring
Kevin Koehler
American University in Cairo, Egypt
Abstract
Scholarship on electoral authoritarianism has increasingly recognized state capacity as an element enhancing
electoral control. Building on such arguments, I examine the interaction between state capacity and regime
strength in authoritarian elections. Drawing on empirical evidence from Egyptian elections under Mubarak,
I show that the degree to which official regime candidates were able to profit from state penetration
depended on the strength of the ruling party. In urban settings where party structures were stronger,
service provision by the state helped secure the dominance of the hegemonic National Democratic Party;
in rural constituencies where the party was weak, by contrast, service provision strengthened local elites
who often ran and won against the party’s official candidates. This suggests that variation in regime capacity
to channel political support needs to be taken into account when examining the relationship between state
capacity and electoral control under authoritarianism.
Keywords
State capacity, party strength, authoritarian elections, clientelism, Egypt
Introduction
What is the relation between state and regime capacity in autocracies? Are autocratic regimes in
stronger states more likely to endure? Does state capacity invariably enhance regime control over
elections in electoral authoritarian regimes? Conceptually, state capacity can be defined as the
‘ability of state institutions to effectively implement official goals’ (Hanson, 2017), while regime
capacity denotes the extent to which regime institutions shape and contain political processes.
Recent scholarship has argued that, on the whole, political regimes in more capable states are likely
to be more durable (Andersen et al., 2014). This contribution turns the relationship between state
capacity and regime strength into a question by focusing on electoral politics in Egypt before the
Arab Spring. In particular, I analyze the extent to which the Egyptian regime was able to translate
Corresponding author:
Kevin Koehler, Department of Political Science, American University in Cairo, PO Box 74, New Cairo, 11835, Egypt.
Email: kevin.koehler@aucegypt.edu
695980IPS0010.1177/0192512117695980International Political Science ReviewKoehler
research-article2017
Article
98 International Political Science Review 39(1)
state service provision into electoral control through its hegemonic party. I find that this translation
was unequal. In urban settings where party structures were stronger, service provision by the state
helped secure the dominance of the hegemonic National Democratic Party (NDP); in rural con-
stituencies where the party was weak, by contrast, service provision strengthened local elites who
often ran and won against the party’s official candidates.
On the theoretical level, scholarship on electoral authoritarianism has increasingly recognized
state capacity as an important determinant of authoritarian resilience. In a nutshell, it has been sug-
gested that authoritarian elections will stabilize non-democratic regimes if state capacity is suffi-
ciently high, while such contests are more likely to get out of hand and destabilize regimes in the
absence of sufficient state capacity (Levitsky and Way, 2010; Seeberg, 2014). More concretely,
state capacity has been shown to matter for electoral control (Seeberg, 2014) and to play a role in
determining types of electoral fraud (Fortin-Rittberger, 2014), for example. Moreover, a range of
scholars have argued that state capacity matters for regime stability more generally (Andersen
et al., 2014; Slater, 2010; Way, 2005).
In contrast, a different strand of literature has sought the sources of regime stability in the insti-
tutional features of the regime, rather than the state. Barbara Geddes has famously suggested that
incentives for cooperation within authoritarian ruling coalitions go a long way towards explaining
regime durability (Geddes, 1999), and Milan Svolik has examined the effects of different institu-
tional configurations on the problems of authoritarian power sharing and control (Svolik, 2012).
With respect to the stability of electoral authoritarian regimes, arguments have focused in particu-
lar on the role of ruling parties in discouraging opposition and supporting elite cohesion (Brownlee,
2007; Smith, 2005).
These different perspectives are not as irreconcilable as it might seem at first sight. As scholars
such as Jason Brownlee (2007), Dan Slater (2010), Benjamin Smith (2005), and Lucan Way (2005)
have pointed out, empirical processes of state and regime-building are often tightly intertwined.
Historically, regime institutions – notably ruling parties – have been important aspects of state
attempts to administratively penetrate societies and to channel political activity into centrally con-
trolled venues (Huntington and Moore, 1970). On a conceptual level, scholars have therefore
called for analyzing the interaction between state and regime capacity: ‘When considering the role
of state capacity in facilitating authoritarian regime stability’ writes Jonathan Hanson (in this spe-
cial issue), ‘it is important to also consider the regime’s organizational and institutional capacities
and how they interact with those of the state.’
This contribution takes an empirical look at the interaction between state and regime capacity
by drawing on the case of electoral politics in Egypt before the Arab Spring. Historically, the
capacity of state and regime institutions to penetrate Egyptian society have evolved in tandem. To
use the words of Nazih Ayubi (1995), the Egyptian state has been fierce, rather than strong, pos-
sessing large amounts of despotic power, but lacking infrastructural capacity (Mann, 1986). The
institutional capacity of the regime has been equally limited. Even though Egypt can look back on
a comparatively long history of the development of political institutions, informal, personalist or
neo-patrimonial processes have limited the extent to which such institutions have structured politi-
cal dynamics (Kassem, 1999; Koehler, 2008).
In the Egyptian case, state capacity did not automatically translate into regime control of elec-
toral politics. Indeed, rather than profiting from state capacity, the regime institutions meant to
control the electoral arena in Egypt were actually weakened by state service provision. In particu-
lar, the specific strategy of electoral control employed by the Egyptian regime throughout the
2000s has had paradoxical effects. By employing the allocative capacities of the state to ensure
legislative super-majorities, the regime has inadvertently empowered local elites and weakened the
institutional capacities of the regime party. When push came to shove in the regime crisis of early

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT