The extraordinary events that have been gripping the Arab world since December 2010 have demonstrated the steadfastness of Arab citizens across the region in the face of despotic regimes. But they have also demonstrated that Arab despots indeed engage in authoritarian learning. From Tunisia to Egypt to Bahrain to Libya to Morocco to Yemen to Syria (and the list goes on), Arab rulers have followed a peculiarly familiar pattern in the way they have—and are—responding to the protests calling for regime change.
1. Ignore the protests
One of the first reactions to budding protests is simply to ignore them and their potential. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia completely dismissed the protests when they first started in December 2010, and so did King Mohammed VI of Morocco. Muammar Qaddafi of Libya went even further in the early days by actually joining the protests himself.
2. Offer cosmetic concessions
As the pace of protests picks up, we have seen Arab rulers offer their people a range of largely cosmetic concessions. The rulers of Bahrain, Oman, and Saudi Arabia have responded by throwing money at their people, while those of Jordan and Yemen have dissolved their governments, and the latter ruler, like Ben Ali and Mubarak before him, promised not to run for reelection.
3. Engage in denial
“Egypt is not Tunisia”. “Syria is not Egypt”. “Yemen is not Tunisia or Egypt”. And the statements by Arab rulers go on in trying to convince themselves and their people that the regime change that happened “over there” will not happen “over here”. The denial continues even after the leaders start losing those they had thought were on their side, from ambassadors to ministers to army generals, and that’s not to mention those international “friends” who call upon them to step down.
4. Quell the protests by force
All Arab rulers who have witnessed protests calling for democracy have responded to those protests through violence. Some, like in Egypt, Yemen, and Jordan, pretended that the violence was “spontaneous” and not orchestrated by the government as they relied on plain-clothed thugs to do the dirty work. While others, like in Libya and Bahrain, sent their (mercenary) armies to quell the protests by force.
5. Warn of civil war
Both Qaddafi and Ali Abdallah Saleh of Yemen have warned that civil war may break out if their regimes crumble. The tragedy is that their warnings have an element of truth, but that’s mainly because the civil wars they have warned of are largely to do with that fact that the wars would be catalyzed by them and their (private) armies and allies as they strive to regain power or as a consequence of their “divide and rule” strategies.
6. Blame the media
It would have been amusing had it not been so tragic that so many Arab rulers have blamed the protests on the media, from the social media to satellite television. Qaddafi called the foreign media “dogs”, while the Emir of Bahrain put the blame on television—the Iranian Arabic-language channel Al-Alam and Hizbullah’s channel Al-Manar—and in Egypt the blame was directed at Al-Jazeera. Egypt, Syria, and Libya have also engaged in various degrees of internet shut down. It is as if the social, economic, and political problems the people are protesting against would disappear if only the media would stop talking about them.
7. Speak about foreign plots
The Emir of Bahrain proudly spoke of successfully foiling a “foreign plot” in an attempt at justifying the violent suppression of protests. So did Mubarak back in February and Qaddafi has also blamed “outsiders” for the unrest. That’s because, of course, no indigenous problems ever existed in those countries. Ever.
8. Or al-Qaeda
Ali Abdallah Saleh and Qaddafi have both invoked al-Qaeda to instill fear in the protesters and the international community. Saleh presented himself as the only alternative to an al-Qaeda takeover of Yemen while Qaddafi went even further by warning that he would collaborate with al-Qaeda if all else fails.
What the above demonstrates vividly is two things:
1. Arab rulers seem to belong to the same authoritarian club.
Similar actions, reactions, and strategies can be seen across the board. The stunning irony is that the Arab leaders engaging in this authoritarian learning seem to be doing this blindly, without seeing that those strategies, after having been repeated time and time again elsewhere, are no longer fooling anybody, and while completely ignoring the fate of Ben Ali and Mubarak and the possibility of it happening to them. That’s the power of denial (and ego). Arab rulers are showing that they are, par excellence, detached not only from the societies they rule but also from realities on the ground altogether as they refuse to acknowledge that the rules of the game have changed.
This is to do with a number of factors: First, those leaders have, for the most part, ruled over several decades without seeing their authority challenged. So they are likely to underestimate the degree of dissent against them, and overestimate the likelihood of their survival in power. Second, non-democratic leaders normally rely on two ruling mechanisms, “the sword and the gold” (in the words of Yemeni scholar Abdul Nasser Al Muwaddah in a recent paper). They either try to co-opt dissidents by offering them monetary gains (and that is why having complete authority over public funds is so important), or quell them by brute force.
Third, neoclassical realism says that state policy is often affected by the success or failure of outcomes of decisions made earlier by leaders. When a regime like Syria’s succeeds in quelling dissidents by wiping more than 20,000 citizens off the map in a past decade, its decisions in the present tense are likely to be influenced by this perceived success. Fourth, the same school of international relations says that leader decisions tend to become more and more ambitious in scope when there are no internal or external checks on their authority. As most Arab despots have had no viable internal opposition movements and have been directly or indirectly supported by the West, they have largely been able to do what they want.
Fifth, leaders are able to invoke scare factors (like al-Qaeda) when they see themselves as being immune to those factors. Invoking al-Qaeda suggests back dealing done by Saleh and Qaddafi with the group, which is not surprising considering both leaders’ legacies in ruling their countries. Sixth, the easiest way to absolve oneself from responsibility is to put the blame on “others”. The Lebanese did that for years when they called their civil war “the war of others on our land”. This kind of conspiracy theory can work because sometimes, when a named foreign “other” is persistently pointed at, they may well become interested in being involved after all, which ends up giving the theory credibility. Think of Iran’s current stance towards what is going on in Bahrain, as demonstrated in the recent attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran.
Finally, authoritarian learning is nothing new. Arab leaders have been engaging in similar behavior and tactics for a very long time as a mechanism of self preservation (from silencing oppositions to imposing emergency laws to controlling the media). So it would actually be unusual for them to suddenly break with tradition.
2. Arab citizens have by now become so familiar with the above pattern that they have come to expect it and even embrace it.
Here is the good news: This embrace is because the above pattern has become a proof of failure on the part of the rulers. First, Arab despots have become very predictable, which will make it easier for protesters to anticipate their actions and strategize accordingly. This is especially that Arab reformists do not operate in a vacuum. Just like the rulers learn from each other, so do the reformers, only that they are firmly tuned in to the changing realities around them. It is not just that they are communicating on Facebook, they are also learning from one another’s experiences on the ground.
Second, there has been a role reversal when it comes to the fear factor. Protesters are viewing the cheap concessions offered to them by despots as proof that the despots themselves are scared, and thus are not settling for compromises and escalating their demands. They also see the despots’ use of brutal force as proof of how little their own lives as citizens are valued, and consequently are no longer fearful. The more suppression the rulers apply, the more resilient the protesters become. After all, they have already gone so far, and have already sacrificed so much, and look at what happened in Tunisia and Egypt. The rules of the game have changed, and a new Arab reality is in the making.