Mai Hassan

Mobilsation and repression

Mai Hassan 16 9Mai Hassan is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Faculty Director of MIT-Africa. Her first book Regime Threats and State Solutions: Bureaucratic Loyalty and Embeddedness in Kenya was selected as a Best Book of 2020 by Foreign Affairs, won the American Political Science Association’s 2021 Robert A Dahl Award, and was the recipient of the African Studies Association 2021 Bethwell A. Ogot Award.

Her ongoing research focuses on popular mobilisation under autocratic repression with a focus on Sudan’s 2018-19 popular uprising. Professor Hassan has given dozens of talks about her research, including at Harvard, Oxford, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale. Her research has been published in numerous outlets, including the American Political Science Review, the American Journal of Political Science, and the Journal of Politics. She earned her PhD in Government from Harvard University.

Can you please give us an introduction to your work and tell us about your contribution to knowledge over the course of your career?

My work spans different strands of political science and different countries. My first book was on the politicisation of the public sector during Kenya’s first five decades after independence. I examined how subsequent presidents manipulated the incentives and abilities of bureaucrats by varying officers’ management and the ramifications of this politicised management on governance.

My current book project is on opposition mobilisation under Sudan’s former Islamist regime. I trace how civil society innovated against the regime’s tactics of repression and infiltration, and how in turn, the regime adapted new strategies of control. I have also written journal articles that explore extensions of the focus of each book, including decentralisation, state violence, and civil service reform.

While these topics might seem very unrelated, in taking a step back, I see coherent themes within this work, and how those themes are directly connected to my identity and past experiences.

I am drawn to research in non-democratic contexts. My current research is on Sudan under the former Islamist dictatorship and much of my first book focused on politics during Kenya’s one-party authoritarian regime. The second theme that I am interested in is what “the state” is capable of, and more specifically, how different non-democratic regimes have been able to weaponise the state for their policy and political goals. 

These core themes have been shaped by my upbringing and identity, and how my experiences living under an autocratic regime in Africa made me realise the faulty assumptions within existing political science research.

Those of us studying African politics are continuously told that the state is weak. And indeed, in many ways it is. Many governments on the continent cannot provide sufficient goods and services for their populations, cannot administer their territories, and do not maintain the monopoly of violence over their country’s borders. And yet, visiting Sudan throughout my childhood, I saw how this “weak” state was the foundation of a brutal authoritarian regime’s ability to put down mobilised opposition and stay in power for nearly 30 years. Sudan is not unique in this regard. Many of the world’s longest-serving dictators who ruled over African countries — Denis Sassou-Nguesso of the Republic of Congo, and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe — presided over “weak” states. 

One of the conclusions that I come to in my work is that, even if the state is weak, its limited capacity can be directed at the specific policy and political goals that its leaders steer it to. A state might not provide the goods and services that its people demand, and indeed, leaders might provide less of these public goods and instead divert those resources to staying in power.  But weak states are still a powerful tool for authoritarian durability.

How has your background and ethnicity influenced your work?

My identity has also affected my research by shaping the type of access that I have been granted.

I am very visibly East African. I am constantly mistaken for Ethiopian, Eritrean, or Somali. In Kenya, this both made me an insider and an outsider. To begin with, despite my pathetic Swahili, many government officials thought I was Kenyan. The traditional Somali homeland extends into Kenya, and the country is home to a substantial Somali population. Many officials began conversations with me in Swahili, joked with me about Kenyan history, and overall, treated me like a local. This familiarity ended up mattering as the archives I asked to visit were pretty political and access to them was dependent on bureaucratic discretion. But at the same time, as someone who is not Kenyan, I was able to conduct a more impartial analysis of some of Kenya’s most politically contentious issues, including governance, identity and belonging, land, and ethnic violence.

My identity has also affected my ability to research my native Sudan. I began field research for my second book while the former regime was in power. For months, I tried to schedule interviews with state and regime officials, but I kept getting stonewalled. Of course, part of this is to be expected, many authoritarian regimes are not open to academics. 

But I sensed that my lack of access was due to something else. I was complaining about this to another researcher who suggested that perhaps my requests were especially off-putting to the regime. I was a woman asking for, essentially, private meetings with male officials, which is a big no-no in Sudanese society and among conservative Muslims. In addition, my appearance made it clear that I do not have Islamist sympathies. I have shorn hair, and I wore my headscarf loosely (head coverings were mandatory for women in Sudan at the time, but more liberal women would test the law by donning a scarf over their shoulders as opposed to tightly wrapping the scarf around their hair).

This colleague suggested that I start, at least, following the hair covering law. There were many reasons why someone might follow the law and cover their hair, but women who did not do so were purposefully challenging the regime, and state officials might feel uncomfortable meeting someone who visibly rejected core elements of the Islamists’ rule. This would not solve the nature of private meetings, but by following more strict Islamic dress codes, it might appease them that I at least have decent morals. The few high-level interviews I conducted all occurred after I made this slight wardrobe change. Of course, time in the country and my growing network is a confounding factor, but I sense that the change in my appearance was a large contributing factor to this increased access.

On the flip side, my appearance and my past bouts of diaspora activism proved a boon for gaining access among opposition groups. I had participated in several workshops that brought together anti-regime activists before the uprising throughout the 2010s, and this credibility helped open doors both during the uprising as well as in its aftermath. Many opposition elites recalled the lectures I had given to them and were more willing to share their time, experiences, and contacts as I was conducting my research.

If you had infinite time and resources what understudied area would you want to research and why?

There are so many questions I would love to tackle if I had infinite time and resources, and if the data existed. One broad topic that I am interested in and hope to devote study to in the future is Nile politics. I mean both domestic politics of Nile countries such as how Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt are each adapting to a new environment where the river’s levels are more in flux as well as the expected receding of this river in the long run due to climate change. This is an especially important topic as these countries are growing massively, both demographically and economically.

I’m also interested in international relations vis-a-vis the River Nile. How are these countries’ relations towards each other shifting as each tries to internally secure its claim to a more variable and shrinking river?

Which African Thinkers and/or books by African authors would you recommend people read?

I would also recommend that students read African fiction. The continent has produced some of the world’s best writers — Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Naguib Mahfouz, and Nadine Gordimer. Their books are evocative in capturing what life on the continent is actually like.