précis Interview: Mai Hassan

  • Spring ∕  Summer 2023
précis Interview: Mai Hassan

Mai Hassan is an associate professor of political science at MIT and the faculty director of the MIT-Africa Program. Her research interests include authoritarian regimes, bureaucracy and public administration, and contentious politics. 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. Born in Sudan, Hassan sat down with précis to discuss that nation’s current crisis, her work on authoritarian regimes in Africa, and the importance of international education at MIT.

SPRING/SUMMER 23 :: précis Interview :: Mai Hassan
Mai Hassan
Mai Hassan and MIT president Sally Kornbluth

Professor Hassan provides analysis on the crisis in Sudan in Foreign Affairs and The New Yorker. You can learn more about her work here in the spring issue of Spectrum, in an MIT news articleand in a recent podcast interview with MIT president Sally Kornbluth (pictured above with Hassan).

June 7, 2023

précis: On April 15, 2023, an attempted coup sparked a civil war in Sudan. What can you tell our readers about these events and the background to these events? 

MH: Today’s crisis has roots that go back to April 2019 when mass civilian protests led to a coup against the Sudanese leader Omer al-Bashir. The coup was jointly carried out by leaders of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as Hemedti, of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). 

Soon after, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan of SAF was instilled as the country’s temporary leader to oversee a transition to democratic rule. But while Burhan was supposed to give up power to civilian forces in October 2021 so that they could lead the rest of the country’s democratic transition period, that didn’t happen. Burhan, with Hemedti behind him, maneuvered to stay at the top of the transition.  

To be sure, it’s hard to make military leaders give up power. International powers weren’t too helpful either. They negotiated with these leaders in good faith even though their actions made it clear that they were not genuinely committed to democracy. At the same time, civilian forces were not blameless. They were not unified enough to make these generals hand over power. 

Instead, the opposition fractured when it came time to negotiate and hammer out specifics of the transition. On one side, you had formal civil society groups—such as labor unions and opposition political parties—that were pragmatic and willing to negotiate with Burhan and Hemedti. These were the men with guns after all, and the international community wasn’t making them return to the barracks. But the informal groups that had done much of the actual day-to-day organizing during the uprising were much more idealistic and didn’t want to make any concessions to the security sector. They recognized that if the armed forces were able to retain power through the transition and beyond, then creating a democracy in which the men with guns were accountable to elected leaders would be unlikely. This discrepancy between the civilian forces continued to grow, and eventually Burhan and Hemedti were able to get away with excluding civilians in a meaningful way from the transition process.

Without an effective civilian counterweight, Burhan and Hemedti squared off against each other. After they sidelined civilians, both men used their time in power to amass resources and to cultivate domestic and international support. And seeing the other grow more powerful only compelled each to amass even more resources. A conflict was pretty much inevitable as neither wanted to cede power to the other, let alone to a civilian government.

précis: What experiences inspired you to study authoritarianism in Africa?

MH: A lot of my research has been informed by time in the field. That includes personal experiences. My parents and I emigrated from Sudan to the United States when I was young and we returned to visit extended family there frequently. A lot of my insights and the questions I wanted to answer came from those experiences. There were political phenomena that I did not understand well at the time and experiences that I found puzzling. Other experiences I had in Kenya and in the Middle East conducting field research during my academic career have also informed my research agenda. A lot of people come to research topics by reading the literature, finding a puzzle, and using a dissertation or manuscript to investigate that puzzle. But I feel like my work has been sparked by things that I observed in the real world. After that spark I turn to the literature to refine my hypotheses, and then go and collect more data. 

précis: Your award-winning 2020 book Regime Threats and State Solutions: Bureaucratic Loyalty and Embeddedness in Kenya shed light on the logic of governance in authoritarian regimes. How did the way you think about authoritarian governance and management of bureaucracy change over the course of the project?

MH: The way that Kenyans—whether politicians, citizens, academics—talked about the officers in the security agency, I was expecting these men and women to be committed to autocracy, to have authoritarian personalities, or to have other nefarious motivations. But after conducting more and more interviews with officers in this agency, including many who served during the country’s autocratic era, I came to understand that these officers love Kenya and deeply believe in the scripted mission of their agency. It’s not as though these officers went into the agency because they wanted to uphold autocracy. Instead, the way in which they were managed created perverse incentives.

So for instance, one part of the book was trying to understand what would get people to take actions that are clearly not in the best interest of Kenyans. By getting into the minds of these bureaucrats, I found that the reason for their perverse behavior originated in the agency’s culture.

Now when I see security agencies or bureaucracies that do not serve the public, I look to the agency’s culture and its institutional design as a cause of perverse behavior by public servants. 

A lot of people come to research topics by reading the literature, finding a puzzle, and using a dissertation or manuscript to investigate that puzzle. But I feel like my work has been sparked by things that I observed in the real world. After that spark I turn to the literature to refine my hypotheses, and then go and collect more data.

précis: What challenges do you face studying governments with limited transparency and how have you overcome those challenges?

MH: I did the bulk of my field research for my book on Kenya between 2010 and 2012 when that nation was in a more open period. In 2010, Kenya passed a new constitution that seemed to usher in democracy and provide a clean break with the authoritarian era. At that time, everybody was willing to talk about the era of autocratic rule because they thought they had definitively left it. However, from 2013 onwards there were disquieting echoes of the past where the president seemed poised to take more control of the government, in part by relying on the security agency I was studying, and it was harder to get people to talk.

Since transitioning to Sudan, I’ve been thinking about this question a lot more as it  is really difficult to conduct field research in non-democratic countries. I did four months of research before the 2018-19 uprising began. I struggled to get access to government data and interview government officials. I was suspicious to them: my accented Arabic, my dress, my short hair. I was foreign even though I am Sudanese. There was a lot of suspicion about who I was and my motives. 

I eventually got through to some regime officials, but it took time. I had to get these political elites to see me as a person. That meant building a relationship before I began to ask them my research questions. I would get coffee and tea with them several times to get them to understand me as a person and my research interests.

précis: What were some of the other things you do to build trust?

MH: First, people were more willing to speak outside of government offices, so I started inviting them to tea or coffee at local cafes. This also plays into the hospitality of Sudanese culture. Leaning into the cultural norms is important to building that trust. And as a woman, I also typically found women more comfortable talking to me than men.

As a more general practice, something that I found in doing semi-structured interviews, especially in the exploratory phase of research, is that it’s critical to just let people talk. I went to Sudan with a coauthor and his interviews turned out to be infinitely more useful because he just let the interviewees just talk. For semi-structured interviews, it’s sometimes beneficial to go in without assumptions and to be willing to stray from prepared questions.

précis: What are some of the exciting findings from your time in Sudan?

MH: One of the papers from the project is forthcoming at the American Political Science Review. That paper looks at tactical coordination in resistance movements, the question of how people coordinate to contest an oppressive regime. Scholars look to social movement organizations like unions or political parties or the internet to efficiently coordinate protest logistics. However, coordinating in public can backfire under repressive authoritarian regimes since governments can take countermeasures. 

So, how did activists in Sudan organize protests given these challenges in tactical coordination? Dissidents there capitalized on the expectation or existence of one protest in one location to reduce pressure on other protests. Protestors capitalized on the weakness of the state and use public information to stretch state resources. I argue that these specific tactics—that of simultaneous protests—might not occur during all protest movements under autocracy. Instead, the broader point is that dissidents facing a repressive regime are liable to develop new mobilization tactics that may seem inefficient but are relatively more inefficient for the regime to respond to than the protest movement.

précis: Changing directions, the MIT-Africa Program offers opportunities for students to gain experience with research institutions and businesses across eight countries on the African continent. As the faculty director, what are your goals? Do you see opportunities to expand the program?

MH: MIT-Africa is a great opportunity for MIT students to apply their learning and training in a context that is very different from the one that they know. This is incredibly valuable for expanding one’s worldview and to learn to think more creatively. MIT students—whether from the engineering school, SHASS, Sloan—are trained to apply science to solve problems. But if you are only exposed to the problems that we face here in Cambridge, the US, or the developed world more broadly, then you’re not going to develop solutions to the problems facing those in developing countries. 

The team at MIT-Africa is comprised of managing director Ari Jacobovits and myself (my co-faculty director Evan Lieberman just stepped down to lead CIS). One of the items that we are currently debating is breadth versus depth. We’d like to offer more programs in more countries, so as to give students more exposure to a wider set of challenges and experiences in Africa. However, one of the normative goals we have is to increase capacity on the continent, so it may be better to invest heavily in a few countries or a few partner organizations. In addition, we want to tailor MIT-Africa’s send-off training to be most relevant. But logistically that becomes a challenge as we add more countries and programs. 

Ari and I are also talking about how to create an endowment model for MIT-Africa. Most of the other MISTI programs are funded by the companies where the MIT students do their internships. MIT-Africa, on the other hand, relies on donations or internal MIT funds since we generally do not ask African host organizations to contribute the full cost of sending a student. Moving towards a steady funding stream would help support MIT-Africa well into the future.