Inside Story

Different leaders, different regimes

As much as anything, it’s the complexity of the Middle East that’s become more obvious over the past few weeks, writes Matthew Gray

Matthew Gray 25 February 2011 2339 words

Above: A Bahraini man passes images of Abdel Redha Buhameed in the western village of Malkiya this week. The words read: “The martyr, the hero, the revolutionary: Abdel Redha,” beneath pictures of Buhameed, who died of injuries sustained last week when the army opened fire on protesters.
AP Photo/ Hasan Jamali

IF Niccolò Machiavelli were alive today, not only would he be in demand among the princes – and kings, presidents, and dictators – of the Middle East, but he would observe great differences in how they conduct politics, why so many of them are resented, and the ways in which they have handled popular protests or the threat of them.

The past weeks have seen some leaders depart, often more easily than anyone assumed possible. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak was removed by the army after only eighteen days of crisis; by then it was clear that he had no real ability to defy his top brass. Somewhat similarly in Tunisia, Zine ben Ali was ultimately powerless in the face of protesters and little support from the security apparatus. To those who despised him – a good mass of his compatriots, it turned out – his police and army were not as fearsome as they had for so long assumed.

The Bahraini royal family may yet prove that brains trump brawn when it comes to political survival. After flirting briefly with repression of protesters, the ruling al-Khalifa family is now trying negotiation: coupled with Bahrain’s complex social dynamics, it seems likely that they will survive.

In contrast, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi has proven himself politically deranged. After ordering that his people be bombed from the air, he appeared on television to patronise and deride them for not appreciating all that he and his rule have given them. He has deep problems whether or not he stays in power: if he somehow clings to office, his people will detest him (even more), he will fear them (even more), and he will almost certainly face isolation and sanctions (again) for his conduct in authorising brute force against the population.

Almost every leader in the Middle East has broken one of Machiavelli’s golden rules: “Government consists mainly in so keeping your subjects that they shall be neither able nor disposed to injure you.” What he meant here was that in an autocratic or similar system, an equilibrium is needed between coopting and repressing a population. A little of each, in balance, is an ideal method for ensuring the survival of a political order. If the balance is disturbed, however – if a regime is too brutal, or lets itself appear weak, or is not generous enough with welfare or oil money – then a leader’s days, and even those of the regime or system more widely, are probably numbered.

It had long been assumed that Middle Eastern leaders had this balance about right. For the past thirty or forty years they had been durable, though not very popular or legitimate in more recent times. The vast sums of oil wealth and aid that have flowed into and around the region meant that many of these regimes had enough money to buy off the people, either en masse or through key institutions such as the army, the bureaucracy and representatives of social groups such as tribes and powerful families. Most were also able to be brutal when the need arose, and intrusive intelligence services and the fear created by those agencies and by the police were assumed to keep most people in line.

These assumptions seem to have been misplaced. Several lessons have come out of the protests in the Middle East over the past weeks: lessons about the political systems of the Middle East, the leaders, their people, and the extent to which a leader facing popular anger and revolt can still survive.

THE first lesson – an old one, but easily forgotten – is that leaders and regimes are not the same thing. In Tunisia and Egypt, the leaders were replaced, but the system – while likely to change a little – has not been overthrown or changed wholesale. Alternative leaders and new identities are emerging in Tunisia, but while they are likely to negotiate some real political changes, these will modify and remodel the system rather than repace one system with another.

In Egypt the situation is similar – if not more so. Mubarak was removed by senior figures in the military, not by popular protests. The protesters might have been important in creating the momentum for the president’s removal, but he only departed when the military conducted what was, in effect, a coup. The top brass acted not out of opportunism, nor to seize power permanently, and nor, for that matter, out of solidarity with the protesters. They acted to protect the system, a system that gives the army special privileges and prestige and guarantees its budget and financial autonomy. The army will want to placate the protesters and address the deep grievances that run across society, so some political reform is almost certain to come – but the army will not undermine the system or its prominence in it.

Leaders are not regimes, nor even necessarily of them. In fact, a “regime” – a political system and its sets of elites – can easily become opposed to a leader and remove him. Perhaps terms like “the Mubarak regime” will, in hindsight, be seen as a contradiction in terms.

The second lesson is that there are many types of regimes. Most Middle Eastern regimes are authoritarian to some extent or another, but the degree of repression varies greatly. In some countries, a misspoken word about a leader can mean arrest and torture; in most, however, one has to be a political activist to gain any attention, and even then would be marginalised or threatened rather than physically tortured. There is, therefore, “hard” authoritarianism and a milder or “soft” authoritarianism among Middle Eastern regimes. Libya’s is “hard,” Tunisia’s and Egypt’s are “soft” – or “softer,” to be more accurate, since Ben Ali and Mubarak did not have human rights records to be proud of. The ultimate point, though, is that where the style of authoritarianism is inappropriate to political conditions, the regime is harming its legitimacy or even endangering itself.

The complexity of regimes is also important. While protests have arisen across the region, they have succeeded only after elites have begun disagreeing with each other and when the military and/or security services have backed the protesters, or at least undertaken not to attack the people. The more complex the elite structure, or where a leader is from a minority while most of the elite are not, the more likely it is that members of the elite and the military will decide to break with the existing order.

Finally, regimes based on oil are different from those that must raise taxes. Oil regimes receive energy royalties and allocate some of that money to ordinary people (by not having taxation, through free services and government employment, and so on) and to elites such as tribal leaders, clerics and top bureaucrats. (A government that needs to tax people, in contrast, must offer something in return – think of the American cry of “No taxation without representation!”) But once it has bought off its population, an oil state – what political scientists call a “rentier” state – tends to become autonomous, unaccountable and undemocratic. If the state is adequately generous and benevolent, it will be tolerated by most people. Gaddafi’s failing was in not living up to this rentier bargain: he wasted much of the oil money on white elephants, tomfoolery and a large, inefficient bureaucracy, and sent too little of it the people’s way.

The third lesson is that leaders are often very different too. Above all, numbers are important. There is no greater risk than to be a one-man band – the Shah of Iran was, and fell in the 1978–79 revolution, and although leaders like Ben Ali and Mubarak were not literally one-man shows they only had very small inner circles. Few members of their elites were close enough and loyal enough to their leader to die for him.

This is why the Saudi monarchy, despite being very unpopular, is not going to fall to protesters. Both reformists and conservatives resent the royals, but for opposite reasons (seeing it as too conservative and too liberal, respectively). Then there is a Shi’ite minority in the northeast, disenfranchised because of their religious beliefs and because the regime suspects their loyalty. They make up about 15 per cent of the population and, not coincidentally, are mostly located where the bulk of the oil is found.

The Saudi regime is durable. It is a classic rentier system, but – just as crucially – the royal family consists of some 7000 princes who are spread throughout the system. They are the senior bureaucrats, the flag officers, many of the business elite, the civil society figures and others. They permeate most of the political institutions and key social groups, with a stake in the system and as part of the royal bloodline.

Few other leaders can match that, although the smart ones try to copy it. One reason why Saddam Hussein lasted so long as president of Iraq – from 1979 to 2003 – was because he filled his cabinet and many top jobs with people he could trust: extended family, people from his home town or district, and those he’d known before taking power. He’d watched Iran’s Shah fall, and learned his lesson.

Other leaders are the opposite – out of touch and reliant on a handful of people for advice. One of the jokes about Mubarak in his final days went like this: A minister approaches Mubarak in his palace and says, “I’m sorry, sir, but I think you need to consider drafting a farewell letter to the Egyptian people.” Mubarak looks at him, confused, and asks, “Why? Where are they going?”

This might look like a cutting joke about a leader many saw as a fool, but it captures exactly how out of touch he was. As details start to emerge of his final days in power, it is becoming clear that he relied only on his son Gamal and a couple of others for advice. This seems to be why he didn’t resign on the Thursday night, as originally planned, but tried to cling on, only to be forced out the next day.

Likewise, Gaddafi’s televised rant last Tuesday night showed how removed he has become. Promising to execute the protesters, incredulous and furious that an ungrateful public wasn’t stepping up to defend a regime that supposedly had done so much for them, he might have defeated himself. Mubarak at least started a rift among the protesters by promising to resign in September; Gaddafi idiotically cornered the protesters and rallied them against him with that speech.

The point is that the talents, astuteness and brutality of leaders vary, and so too does their ability to predict, pre-empt and handle popular unrest. Beyond mere talent, though, leaders also need to know whether they can, or should, stay in power, and when to leave. Alas, ambition is common, but political self-cognisance rare.

The Bahraini king and royal family may come to be numbered among the clever ones if they survive the unrest, because they have moved more carefully and tactfully. They briefly flirted with the use of force on 17–18 February – the royals are a minority Sunni dynasty in a country that is over 60 per cent Shi’ite, and so are fearful of that majority – but then they changed tack. Starting last Saturday, the military and police were pulled back on government orders, food was provided to the protesters, prisoners released, and the king reiterated an offer of dialogue. In effect, he had shown a certain toughness at first, but ultimately let brutality cede to compromise. In the long run, of course, it may not work; talks could collapse or new grievances emerge among the protesters. Yet so far it is looking like a smart strategy. Above all, the royals have taken away the protesters’ momentum, agreeing to talk – seemingly genuinely – but without making any concessions or promises up front.

WHAT does all this ultimately mean for Middle Eastern politics? Can leaders – and regimes, even – survive a large concerted effort by the population to remove them?

Perhaps not, once the numbers of protesters and the momentum behind them reach a critical mass. Until that point, however, a leader’s loss of power is by no means certain. A savvy leader will genuinely try to address the protesters’ grievances without looking desperate or fearful, and without undermining the support of the most crucial elites. In Jordan, Kuwait and Bahrain, leaders have done this: in Jordan the cabinet was replaced, in Kuwait concerns about the cost of living were bought off, and in Bahrain talks could bring (albeit modest) reforms. Such moves seem to pre-empt or avoid protester numbers reaching a critical mass.

Or the protests may begin to atrophy anyway. The grievances that drive them are deep and widespread, certainly, but the successful protests will probably be limited to only one or two more countries. Beyond Libya and perhaps Yemen, and at a stretch Algeria, political systems become very different from Tunisia’s and Egypt’s: elites are too cohesive, or the military too loyal, or the leadership too popular or too tolerated.

If the leaders currently facing down protests can survive for a time, perhaps by eschewing violence and communicating genuinely with people about their grievances, this may lead to some real reform – anti-corruption moves, new educational or social opportunities, more efficient welfare and greater political openness, among others. A leader who followed this path might not just survive, but could even bring the region some of the true change it has been longing for. •