The politics of democratic backsliding and autocracy

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Optional for the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th year students of the PhD Programme in "Political Science and Sociology"

Optional for the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th year students of the PhD Programme in "Transnational Governance"

Optional for the 4th and 5th year students of the MA Programme in "Political and Social Sciences"


In 2022, half of all countries around the globe and 72% of the global population were governed by autocratic regimes. Given ongoing trends of democratic backsliding and autocratization, moreover, the share of global GDP generated by autocracies has increased to 46% when measured in purchasing power parity, and 42 further countries were continuing to experience autocratization (Wiebrecht et al. 2023). These figures and trends notwithstanding, political science research tends to overwhelmingly focus on the politics of democracies—and therefore on the politics of developed countries in the Global North. This course takes a different approach. It focuses on democratic backsliding and autocracy from a conceptual and empirical perspective drawing on evidence from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The course is divided into two parts. We begin with exploring conceptual issues in the study of autocracy and of political regimes more generally, including arguments about structural drivers of autocracy, debates on varieties of non-democratic regimes, and current research on democratic backsliding and autocratization. This first part sets the stage for an empirical exploration focused on the MENA region from the end of European colonialism to the 2010/11 Arab Spring and beyond. In this part we will focus on the emergence, adaptation, and change of political regimes in the region from the interwar period until today, examining the impact of domestic as well as international factors

1. Introduction: Structure of the course (Friday, 3 November 2023, 14-16h)


Part 1: Conceptual issues in the comparative study of autocracies


2. Why autocracy? Macro perspectives on structure, culture, and institutions (Friday, 10 November 2023, 14-17h)

 Aim: This session reviews the three main categories of arguments on regime diversity, namely structural, cultural, and institutionalist interpretations.



Mahoney, James. 2003. “Knowldedge Accumulation in Comparative Historical Research: The Case of Democracy and Authoritarianism.” In Comparative Historical Analysis in the Social Sciences, edited by James Mahoney and Dietrich Rueschemeyer, 131–74. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Gandhi, Jennifer, and Adam Przeworski. 2007. “Authoritarian Institutions and the Survival of Autocrats.” Comparative Political Studies 40 (11): 1279–1301.

Wedeen, Lisa. 1998. “Acting ‘As If’: Symbolic Politics and Social Control in Syria.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 40 (03).


 3. Autocratic regimes (Friday, 17 November 2023, 10-13h)

 Aim: How do autocratic regimes work? What different types of autocracies are there?



Geddes, Barbara. 1999. “What Do We Know About Democratization After Twenty Years?” Annual Review of Political Science 2 (1): 115–44.

Svolik, Milan W. 2012. The Politics of Authoritarian Rule. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Chapters 1 and 2.


 4. Democratic backsliding and autocratization (Friday, 17 November 2023, 14-17h)

 Aim: What do we know about democratic backsliding and autocratization?



 Lührmann, Anna, and Staffan I. Lindberg. 2019. “A Third Wave of Autocratization Is Here: What Is New about It?” Democratization 26 (7): 1095–1113.

Waldner, David, and Ellen Lust. 2018. “Unwelcome Change: Coming to Terms with Democratic Backsliding.” Annual Review of Political Science 21 (1): 93–113.


 Part 2: Autocracy and autocratization in the MENA

 5. Regime formation and adaptation (Friday, 24 November 2023, 14-17h)

 Aim: Where does autocracy come from? What is the role of colonialism in the emergence of autocratic regimes? How do autocratic regimes adapt? What are the drivers of regime adaptation?



 Angrist, Michele P. 2004. “Party Systems and Regime Formation in the Modern Middle East: Explaining Turkish Exceptionalism.” Comparative Politics 36 (2): 229.

Hinnebusch, Raymond. 2010. “Toward a Historical Sociology of State Formation in the Middle East.” Middle East Critique 19 (3): 201–16.

King, Stephen J. 2007. “Sustaining Authoritarianism in the Middle East and North Africa.” Political Science Quarterly 122 (3): 433–59.


 6. Regime change (Friday, 1 December 2023, 14-17h)

 Aim: What are the dynamics of democratization, autocratization, and democratic breakdown in the MENA?



Brownlee, Jason, Tarek Masoud, and Andrew Reynolds. 2013. “Tracking the `Arab Spring’: Why the Modest Harvest?” Journal of Democracy 24 (4): 29–44.

Esen, Berk, and Sebnem Gumuscu. 2016. “Rising Competitive Authoritarianism in Turkey.” Third World Quarterly 37 (9): 1581–1606.

Koehler, Kevin. 2023. “Breakdown by Disengagement: Tunisia’s Transition from Representative Democracy” Political Research Exchange, forthcoming.


 7. The international dimension (Friday, 15 December 2023, 14-17h)

 Aim: What is the role of international actors in stabilizing or subverting autocracy in the region?



Brownlee, Jason. 2012. Democracy Prevention: The Politics of the U.S.-Egyptian Alliance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Introduction and conclusion.

Moulay Hicham and Robert Springborg, eds. 2023. Security Assistance in the Middle East: Challenges ... and the Need for Change. Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Introduction.

Tansey, Oisín, Kevin Koehler, and Alexander Schmotz. 2017. “Ties to the Rest: Autocratic Linkages and Regime Survival.” Comparative Political Studies 50 (9): 1221–54.