Theses Doctoral

Religious cycles of policy responsiveness: How religious seasons regulate public opinion and government responsiveness in the Muslim world

Mohamed, Ahmed Ezzeldin Abdalla

This dissertation documents a pattern of policy-making in Muslim majority (predominantly authoritarian) countries, whereby incumbents demonstrate higher responsiveness to citizens' economic concerns and expand their distributive policies during the Islamic season of Ramadan. Why do autocratic governments (weakly constrained by formal political institutions) address economic inequalities and expand their distributive policies in religious seasons? I argue that the religious environment imposes normative constraints on governments in Muslim societies, acting as an additional accountability mechanism to formal political institutions. The case of Ramadan exemplifies this claim. Ramadan's religious norms increase the salience of distributive issues and raise the political costs of governments' non-responsiveness to their constituents' economic insecurities. Specifically, governments underperforming on distributive issues could suffer reputational costs and face mobilization threats in Ramadan. Hence, incumbents expand their distributive policies in Ramadan to contain these short-term political threats (i.e., reputational and mobilization threats) arising during the season by delivering to threatening constituencies to co-opt them and buy their political acquiescence.

The project integrates multiple methodological approaches to test this argument both cross-nationally and sub-nationally. I first document a systematic increase in the religious salience of distributive matters in Ramadan, by applying text analysis tools to an original cross-national dataset of 32,000 Islamic sermons. I then show that Ramadan imposes two main costs on incumbents that underperform on economic and distributive issues in Muslim societies. First, leveraging quasi-random variation in the timing of existing cross-national surveys using a difference-in-differences design, I find that Ramadan exacerbates Muslims' evaluations of the incumbent's economic performance and their perceived morality/religiosity, proportionally to the incumbent’s performance on distributive policy areas. Second, using machine learning to classify the types of protest activities reported in the ACLED dataset, I report that Ramadan facilitates economic and religious mobilization in economically insecure Muslim societies. A qualitative analysis of five cases reveals that incumbents respond to these pressures by distributing in Ramadan, particularly when facing rising political threats.

I then complement these results with a sub-national analysis of Ramadan's distributive policies. Focusing on Egypt (2014-2020), I employ web-scraping to construct a municipality-level dataset of daily reports of the regime's distributive efforts. I find that the regime reports more distributive interventions in Ramadan, particularly in places where political threats to its rule are higher. As a follow-up, I also show that government expenditure on welfare increases in Ramadan after periods of political contention, creating fiscal policy cycles similar to electoral budgetary cycles.

This dissertation underlines the role of informal institutions in explaining regularities in policy-making in more traditional and less democratic societies, hence approaching the question of how political accountability and government responsiveness can be attained without democracy. It also specifies conditions under which religion becomes a source of public pressure for government distribution, challenging the Marxist notion of religion as opium.

Geographic Areas


This item is currently under embargo. It will be available starting 2027-05-30.

More About This Work

Academic Units
Political Science
Thesis Advisors
Huber, John D.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 1, 2022