The Autocrat’s Advisors: Opening the Black Box of Ruling Coalitions in Tunisia’s Authoritarian Regime

Date01 June 2018
AuthorMatt Buehler,Mehdi Ayari
Published date01 June 2018
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2018, Vol. 71(2) 330 –346
© 2017 University of Utah
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912917735400
Understanding the relationship between autocrats and the
elites that constitute their ruling coalitions has crucial con-
sequences for research on authoritarian regimes. Because
autocrats cannot rule by force alone, they build a coalition
of elites who support their regimes voluntarily (Brownlee
2007; Moore 1966; Riker 1962; Yom 2011, 2016).
Autocrats’ ruling coalitions have been analyzed in former
authoritarian regimes that have democratized, like those
of Latin America and Eastern Europe, and also in standing
autocracies, like those of Sub-Saharan Africa and the
Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Such coalitions,
as Sean Yom’s pioneering study explains, fortify regimes
because they “not only reduce the audience for potential
resistance but also moderate emergent opposition.” Elites
retained in coalitions, he continues, “complain not if but
how” autocrats should reign (Yom, 2016, 5). Others con-
cur that coalitions of elites stabilize regimes and help to
“upgrade” authoritarian rule (Albrecht 2013, 19–21;
Brownlee 2007, 8–11; Camau and Massardier 2009, 25–
28; Cavatorta 2010, 219; Gandhi 2008, 34; Heydemann
2007a, 21–26; Stacher 2012, 18–27, 25–28).1
While the actors2 that constitute an autocrat’s ruling
coalition vary by country, and often include generals of
the military, captains of industry, and bosses of dominant
parties, this article examines one core component of such
coalitions—an autocrat’s cabinet and his closest elite
advisors within it, his ministers. Puzzling variation exists
in how long autocrats retain such elites within their ruling
coalitions. Of all the elites who served as ministers in
Tunisia’s authoritarian regime, 14 percent were retained
for over a decade, 41 percent for over five years, and 19
percent for less than one year. Some elites (like minister
Lassaad Ben Osman) were retained for over 20 years as
core coalition members, whereas others (like Mohamed
Snoussi and Noureddine Hached) were dismissed in less
than one year as tertiary coalition members. Further
examining the data reveals significant variation between
the duration of elites retained during the reigns of
Tunisia’s two different autocrats, Habib Bourguiba (r.
1956–1987) and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali (r. 1987–2011).
Hence, this article inquires: Why do autocrats retain some
elites as core, long-term members of their ruling
735400PRQXXX10.1177/1065912917735400Political Research QuarterlyBuehler and Ayari
1The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, USA
Corresponding Author:
Matt Buehler, The University of Tennessee, 1001 McClung Tower,
Knoxville, TN 37996-0410, USA.
The Autocrat’s Advisors: Opening
the Black Box of Ruling Coalitions in
Tunisia’s Authoritarian Regime
Matt Buehler1 and Mehdi Ayari1
Why do autocrats retain some elites as core, long-term members of their ruling coalitions for years, while others are
dismissed in months? How and why might the type of elites retained within coalitions vary across time and different
autocrats? Although what constitutes an authoritarian regime’s ruling coalition varies across countries, often including
the military and dominant parties, this article focuses on one critical subcomponent of it—an autocrat’s cabinet and
his elite advisors within it, his ministers. Because coalitions function opaquely to prevent coups, scholars consider
their inner-workings a black box. We shed light through an original, exhaustive dataset from the Middle East of all 212
ministers who advised Tunisian autocrats from independence until regime collapse (1956–2011). Extracting data from
Arabic sources in Tunisian national archives, we track variation in minister retention to identify which elites autocrats
made core, long-term advisors within ruling coalitions. Whereas Tunisia’s first autocrat retained elites as ministers due
to biographical similarities, capacity to represent influential social groups, and competence, its second autocrat did not.
He became more likely to dismiss types of elites retained under the first autocrat, purging his coalition of ministers
perceived to be potential insider-threats due to their favored status under his predecessor.
authoritarianism, dictators, autocratic coalitions, Middle East Politics, Tunisia
Buehler and Ayari 331
coalitions for years, while dismiss others as tertiary,
short-term members in months? How and why do the
types of elites retained vary across time and different
Addressing these questions, this article leverages an
original quantitative dataset from Tunisia, one of the
MENA’s most firmly entrenched autocracies before its
2011 collapse.3 This article’s exhaustive dataset examines
the duration of ministerial careers of all 212 elites who
served as ministers under Tunisian autocrats from decolo-
nization to authoritarianism’s end (1956-2011). Modeling
the novel approach of Poczter and Pepinsky (2016), we
built statistics from biographical data of elites extracted
from each minister’s curriculum vita and other primary
sources from original, Arabic-based research conducted
in Tunisia’s national archives.4 We show variation over
time in the backgrounds of elites autocrats retained as
core, long-term ministers within their cabinets. This arti-
cle examines autocrats’ retention of ministers because
these were powerful elites, not simple sycophants.5 Since
ministers held real power, it mattered which ones auto-
crats decided to retain as core, long-term coalition mem-
bers. Tunisia’s regime’s 2011 collapse has also increased
access to minister-level personnel files in national
archives, furnishing a discrete, exhaustive sample that
could be realistically obtained and analyzed. While it is
likely that examining autocrats’ retention decisions
related to non-minister elites could usefully address our
research questions, challenges emerge related to data
inaccessibility and coding subjectivity when tracking
non-minister elites.
Because autocrats fear for their political and personal
survival given the threat of coups, assassinations, and
revolts, maintaining power lies at the heart of their deci-
sions whether or not to retain elites as core, long-term
ministers. Autocrats retain elites as key advisors when
they become valued assets to helping them maintain
power. Three traditional theories postulate how an elite as
minister becomes a valued asset, thereby motivating
autocrats’ retention decision-making. Theory 1 centers on
personal loyalty to the autocrat, and on an elite’s bio-
graphical traits that enhance expectations thereof. Theory
2 emphasizes authoritarian institutional design, specifi-
cally autocrats’ need to retain elites from influential social
groups. Theory 3 stresses an elite’s functional compe-
tency. Each theory posits reasons why retaining an elite
as minister reinforces the autocrat’s rule. To control for
external crises, which also shape autocrats’ decisions
whether or not to retain elites, “critical events” in foreign
policy and the economy are also tested (Camerlo and
Pérez-Liñán 2015, 608–10).
In testing these traditional theories, we show that they
do not fully explain variation in trends in minister reten-
tion in Tunisia. Thus, we conclude by contributing a new
theory hypothesizing that autocrats’ retention and dis-
missal decisions from ruling coalitions often hinge on
desires to purge potential insider-threats. Because this
theory emerges inductively from evidence collected in
Tunisia, it is preliminary and needs broader testing. Yet it
indicates that Tunisia provides a useful starting-point, as a
theory-generating case. This theory posits that where
more than one autocrat has ruled the same regime (as in
Tunisia), the successor autocrat may become more likely
to dismiss elites as ministers from his ruling coalition who
had the characteristics, attributes, and affiliations that
would have made them core, long-term ministers under
the former autocrat’s reign. Given that the predecessor
autocrat had retained these types of elites, the new, succes-
sor autocrat likely judges them to be potential insider-
threats. The autocrat’s perceptions of an elite’s posing an
insider-threat—given his favored status under the ousted
autocrat—motivated a higher likelihood of dismissal.
Such trends in Tunisia’s ruling coalition can be
observed. Data over the lifespan of Tunisia’s regime
(1956–2011) indicate that elites with biographical simi-
larities with the autocrats and with portfolio responsibili-
ties in security and economics were more likely to be
retained. They were the ruling coalition’s core, long-term
members. However in breaking down these data sepa-
rately for each autocrat’s reign, clear variation is identi-
fied between the rulers. Whereas Tunisia’s first autocrat
relied on a broad, diverse cadre of core, long-term minis-
ters, its second autocrat relied on a much narrower and
personalist ruling coalition. The trends demonstrate that
Tunisia’s first autocrat built a coalition based on retaining
elites who had similar biographical traits as his own,
intermediated for influential social groups, and held eco-
nomic portfolio responsibilities. By contrast, Tunisia’s
second autocrat became more likely to dismiss elites with
attributes and affiliations indicating that they would have
been retained as core, long-term ministers during the first
autocrat’s reign. After his 1987 bloodless coup against
Tunisia’s first autocrat, its second autocrat moved to reor-
der the regime’s intra-coalitional politics to purge likely
sympathizers of his predecessor from his pool of advi-
sors. These varying patterns in minister retention and dis-
missal found between Tunisia’s two autocrats underline
the need for a new theory, which could be subsequently
refined and tested in other autocracies.
This article carries important implications for political
science research on authoritarian regimes for three reasons.
First, while numerous scholars of authoritarian politics
stress the import of ruling coalitions to how autocracies
function, they often encounter obstacles observing their
inner-workings. The reason why is that autocrats shroud
intra-coalitional politics in secrecy. They have good rea-
son. Autocrats keep their coalitions’ inner-workings
opaque to “coup-proof” their regimes from plots exploiting

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