Put away the metaphors. Forget the Arab Spring, the wave of protests, the snowballing of dissent.
Dictators watch Al Jazeera too and they have drawn the necessary lessons from recent events, a Washington meeting heard today. Ruling elites are recalculating and adapting to enhance their survival prospects, but external factors are marginal as there are no instruments in the democracy promotion toolkit likely to influence autocrats’ strategic decisions to resign, reform or repress.
The region’s rulers have gone through an accelerated process of authoritarian learning, said Steven Heydemann, an analyst with the United States Institute of Peace, reassessing and reinforcing their capacity to survive. Regimes have adapted tactics, framing unrest in sectarian terms to deter citizens from joining protests, and identified the degree of “acceptable violence” that entails minimal costs in terms of international or domestic reaction.
They recognize that the U.S. and other international actors – already overstretched in Libya – have adjusted their positions accordingly, he told the George Washington University event, and leaders have reassessed their exit options after considering the fate of formerly impregnable autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen.
The Obama administration has understandably adopted a “boutique strategy” or case-by-case approach that is necessarily driven by differing assessments of U.S. strategic interests. In any case, external actors’ options are relatively limited as there are no tools or instruments in the repertoire of democracy promoters that can influence leaders’ “strategic calculus.”
The military and security forces’ predisposition to violently suppress protesters is the critical factor distinguishing Tunisia and Egypt from other Arab states, said Brandeis University political scientist Eva Bellin.
The military’s decision as to whether to open fire or not depends in part on the size and conduct (whether peaceful of violent) of protesters, and on whether the unrest threatens the nation’s integrity. But it hinges primarily on calculations of the armed forces’ institutional interests which are largely determined by the military’s level of professionalism and political neutrality (high in Tunisia and Egypt) or, alternatively, its patrimonial links – by blood or marriage – to the ruling elite (extensive and intimate in Syria).
These factors explain why Mubarak and Ben Ali (below) got the “velvet glove” from the military, why al-Assad’s Ba’athist regime appears relatively secure and why the armed forces in Libya and Yemeni have fractured.
While common structural factors have shaped the unrest, contingent events are also significant. The security forces’ violent overreaction to children scrawling irreverent graffiti sparked the Syrian unrest, while the Night of the Camels assault on the Tahrir Square protesters fatally damaged Mubarak’s legitimacy.
External actors have no legitimate role in forcing autocrats from office, said Bellin, but can play a constructive role after regime’s collapse, advising on institution building, party development and related aspects of democracy assistance.
She appears to neglect or underplay the significance and value of democracy assistance prior to regime collapse, including training, capacity-building and other forms of support that sustains or empowers civil society, labor and other democratic forces operating in authoritarian states, ensuring that local actors are well-placed to organize and shape events as openings emerge.
“There was something admirable about pro-democracy organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy and the National Democratic Institute working under difficult constraints, trying to push Arab regimes to open up, even if slightly,” writes Shadi Hamid, research director at the Brookings Doha Center.
While successive U.S. administrations called for political reform in the region, promoting democracy was invariably subordinated to economic, security and other strategic interests.
“Supporting civil society and offering training and technical assistance to secular political parties seemed like a workable compromise,” he argues.