Religious Cycles of Policy Responsiveness: How Religious Seasons Shape Public Opinion and Government Responsiveness in the Muslim World

Where formal political institutions might fail to hold political elites accountable and generate responsive policies, when do incumbents respond to citizens’ policy demands? This dissertation presents informal institutions (e.g. religious and cultural norms) and non-institutional threats (e.g. protests) as alternative mechanisms that align policy-making with citizens’ demands in less democratic contexts. It investigates the role of the religious norms of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, in shaping service delivery and the distributive politics of the Muslim World with a special focus on the case of Egypt. It is motivated by an empirical puzzle: incumbents in Muslim majority (predominantly authoritarian) countries demonstrate high responsiveness to citizens’ economic concerns and expand social protection for lower-income groups during the Islamic season of Ramadan. What propels some of the most repressive autocrats to improve their service-provision and distribute outside electoral seasons as in Ramadan? And, who benefits from these services?

My argument is composed of three main propositions. The first is that Ramadan introduces structural changes into the religious environment that heightens the salience of the religious norms of empathy and charity by increasing the supply of information about economic disparities and tying distributive acts to religious/moral qualities. Secondly, these religious changes impose three types of political costs on incumbents in Ramadan proportional to their performance on distributive policy areas: (1) reputational: exacerbating Muslims’ perceptions of incumbents who fail to tackle economic inequalities, (2) collective action threats: justifying and facilitating religious mobilization and strengthening the Islamist political advantage, and (3) electoral: disadvantaging incumbents in post-Ramadan elections. Building on that, I claim that government distribution in Ramadan aims at building political support and insuring against short-term political threats to the incumbent by co-opting more threatening constituencies. By timing distributive policies in Ramadan, the incumbent capitalizes on these religious changes to demonstrate its competency and religiosity to its critics and contain short-term political threats during the season. Since the political returns of these distributive interventions would be higher where political threats are more credible, distribution in Ramadan would favor constituencies posing the highest threat to buy their acquiescence.

The analysis integrates multiple methodological approaches to test this argument cross-nationally and subnationally. Applying statistical tools of text analysis to an original cross-national dataset of 32,000 religious sermons, I document the rising religious salience of distributive issues in Ramadan. Using causal inference tools and machine learning techniques, I demonstrate that Ramadan worsens the reputation of under-performing incumbents, facilitates religious mobilization, and reduces the incumbent’s electoral advantage. A qualitative analysis of five case studies reveals that incumbents respond to these threats by distributing in Ramadan to legitimize their rule on religious grounds, particularly at times of political and economic crises.

To test this argument subnationally, I focus on the case of Egypt (2014-2020) and employ web-scraping to construct an original dataset of the government’s daily distributive efforts at the municipality level. The findings show that the government reports more distributive efforts in Ramadan, particularly in places where threats to the regime are higher: more socioeconomically developed, politically contentious, and affected by destabilizing economic austerity measures. Survey evidence demonstrates that this translates into reputational gains for the regime, particularly among its critics. As a follow-up, I analyze Egypt’s monthly budgetary data and show that government expenditure on welfare items increases in Ramadan particularly after periods of political contention, suggesting that Ramadan’s political pressures introduce fiscal policy cycles similar to electorally-driven ones. This evidence supports my claim that distribution in Ramadan tries to reward more threatening groups to buy their acquiescence.

This study makes three key contributions. First, it specifies conditions under which religion becomes a driver of public pressures for government distribution rather than a cause for complacency with the status quo. Second, it demonstrates the multiplicity of distributive strategies in less democratic contexts whereby incumbents might target different groups at different times (and possibly reward non-core constituents) and generate multiple policy cycles, highlighting the role of timing (including religious timings) in the political function of distributive policies even outside electoral seasons. Third, speaking to the literature on Muslim/Middle Eastern politics, the study outlines how the religious environment provides a political advantage for Islamists in Muslim societies, while also creating incentives for anti-Islamist governments to mimic the strategies of their Islamist challengers.