The social base of divide-and-rule : left-Islamist opposition alliances in North Africa’s Arab Spring




Buehler, Matthew J.

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Under what conditions do opposition political parties cooperate across ideological cleavages? Why do such opposition alliances collapse or endure over time? I address these questions by comparing alliances between leftist and Islamist opposition parties in Tunisia, Morocco, and Mauritania. In Tunisia, leftists have joined forces with Islamists on the national-level. In Morocco and Mauritania, such alliances have formed and endured in municipalities and labor unions but they have collapsed on the national-level. Why do these Arab states, despite their similar culture, demography, and French colonial heritage, have such different histories of left-Islamist alliances? Using a multi-method approach, including over 100 Arabic field interviews and an original dataset, this paper argues that left-Islamist alliances form as a mutual-defense strategy against a threat and endure when both parties have a similar social base – urban, educated social classes. If one of the two parties draws on a rural and illiterate social base, however, it becomes vulnerable to co-optation that causes alliance collapse. When leftists and Islamists had similar social origins and class interests in urban areas, they were more likely to build enduring opposition alliances during the 2011 Arab Spring. This finding leads to one overarching point: authoritarian regimes that monopolized rural politics and employed co-optation to fend-off opposition alliances proved more resilient during the Arab Spring



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