By many accounts, the Arab Spring all started with a fruit vendor in Tunisia (December 17, 2010). Mohamed Bouazizi, an unemployed youth who had taken to selling fruits to make ends meet, set himself on fire in public when he was harassed by state officials for conducting commerce without a license.
Within a month of the daring protest, Tunisian leader Zine el Abidine Ben Ali was ousted, ending his 23-year rule. To the chagrin of dictators all over the Middle East, the revolt – or rather, the idea of it – spread like wildfire, first to Egypt (January 1, 2011), then to Algeria (January 7), Libya (January 14), Yemen (January 23), Lebanon (January 25), Palestine (January 28), Jordan (January 28), Iran (February 14), Bahrain (February 14), Morocco (February 21), Iraq (February 25), Saudi Arabia (March 6), and Kuwait (November 17). Relatively minor protests were seen in Mauritania, Oman, Sudan, and the Western Sahara as well. Within a year, four of these leaders (Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Qaddafi, Ali Abdullah Saleh) were replaced while those that managed to stay in power were forced to make serious concessions in the face of public pressure.
The astute Middle East observer may notice that while the West (some permutation of the United States, the European Union, and NATO) strongly supported the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Iran, intervened militarily in Libya, and are contemplating doing so in Syria, other countries have managed to stay below their radar. This may have had partly to do with the size and length of protests as well as casualties. Or not. Bahrain, for example, despite conceding to reforms, suppressed the revolt with Saudi and Pakistani troops. Protests lasted for approximately five months until late June/early July and 72 people were killed although the situation is still far from resolved (The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry also found that almost 2,000 people had been tortured, 3,000 wounded, and another 3,000 arrested). Similarly, in Saudi Arabia, the situation remains tense although most of the violence has stopped. Official figures put the casualties at 10 dead with 200 arrests, but news reports have risen that Saudi security agencies have removed bodies to ‘hide evidence of the crime.’
Despite revolutions in over 20 countries in the Greater Middle East and Africa, so far, only five leaders (Ivory Coast’s Laurent Gbagbo) have been deposed. If you are in the dictatorship business, it should relieve you that the rebels so far enjoy merely a less than 25% success rate. Nonetheless, here are a few things that one can do to bolster the prospect of maintaining one’s grip on one’s state:
1. The Resource Card: Ideally, your state should have some precious or critical resource that everyone wants. However, this is not enough on its own – ask Saddam Hussein. It is vital to maintain close relations with at least one of the UNSC Five – historically, the US has been uncomfortably fickle and should not be the only option. Similarly, the UK and France may succumb to US pressure. Although Russia and China are far more reliable UNSC-wise, they may exact a heavier price than you are willing to pay. Role model – Saudi Arabia
2. The Geography Card: It may be too much to hope that Americans ever learn geography, but do not underestimate their military – whether a senator can find Bushehr or not, a Tomahawk cruise missile certainly could! These men in uniform are perfectly capable of reporting to their leaders the implications of geography on policy. For example, if you were a tiny island nation close to a state the US has designated as one of the “axis of evil,” and your state has a large minority of people with a similar demographic category as the neighbouring AoE state, let’s say Shi’a, the political consequences of their rise in power and your demise would be too high to bear. Bonus points if you can also buy American (F-16s, oil machinery, etc.), and lots of it. Role model – Bahrain
3. The Opportunities Card: This card is in some ways a combination of the first two cards. Sometimes, your state may not possess any resources of its own in abundance, nor will it have the fortune of being placed right next to an AoE state (a list which, after all, is constantly changing). However, you may be blessed with being in a strategic location that makes your state the easiest conduit to such fields of wealth. Pipelines for oil and gas, water, etc. must all cross your land before they can be shipped to their far off destinations. Entering into multi-billion dollar contracts will force states (of the UNSC Five) to put their commitment to you in writing. After all, it would take a very brave politician to abandon a billion-dollar pipeline, causing job loss in his country and a loss of resource…especially after he’s paid for it. Such opportunity can also come through influence – some non-state entities might agree to talks with state actors only if you are at the table. As a facilitator, your role could be indispensable. Role model – Syria
4. The Discrimination Card: Don’t play this card – it only makes you look stupid. Although there is ample ground to accuse other state leaders of xenophobia, racism, and now Islamophobia, most of them are smart enough not to allow it to get in the way of common sense politics. The US certainly didn’t hesitate to withdraw support from Ian Smith (white dude) or Manuel Noriega (Christian brother). Chances are, people just don’t like you. Besides, if your own people are against you, it would be difficult to convince the world press that the infidel is out to get you. Role model – Iran…seriously Tehran, WTF?
5. The Timeliness Card: If it comes down to the use of force, it is best to act quickly and quietly. The Venetian Republic, for example, would visit opposition leaders quietly and late at night lest their busy day schedule be disturbed. If that is not possible (social media and the internet have made censorship and surveillance so much harder), it is best to act when everyone is distracted by something else – turmoil in the Middle East, nuclear proliferation, sectarian violence, missile defence, the Superbowl, Lindsay Lohan…there are many options. Act quickly and brutally but leave as little mark as possible. Once they get a whiff, human rights groups can be quite persistent and annoying. It is best to portray your actions as defending law and order – that gives you much room to squeeze through all kinds of repression under the guise of cultural norms. Role model – Saudi Arabia
6. The Nuclear Card: This is the most difficult card to play in the Successful Dictator’s set. For one, acquiring nuclear capability has become much harder unless you get China to give you blueprints under the table. Secondly, even if you acquired such weaponry, it cannot be used indiscriminately – the first time you use it will most definitely be your last, so bluff very cautiously. There is a reason Stalin and Mao stopped spouting drivel after their nuclear tests. Role model – North Korea
7. If-you-shoot-us-we-will-die Card: This is an exceptionally potent card that works best with the US (Russia and China seem too bloody-minded). Always project yourself as the only sane and stable ally in the region, particularly in your own country. Quietly dispose of the opposition to make sure that is at least partly true. Portray a scenario of doom and gloom if you were replaced. Bonus points if you have weapons of mass destruction. Role model – Pakistan…wow, pure genius!
8. The Where-the-hell-are-you Card: If your country is poor and does not have enough resources of any kind to make it worthwhile to learn your name and location, rest assured, you will not be deposed. But then, why would you yourself want to stay in such a place? Role model – a lot of inner African states
Hopefully, this brief guide will keep you and yours in power for years to come. Don’t worry, international affairs has never been about morality, human rights, or, in the updated 21st century jargon, R2P. For those of you trying to figure out why the world wanted to sanction Syria and not Bahrain, why they invaded Libya but not Saudi Arabia, or why the Arab Spring turned into the Islamic Winter, I hope you learned something too…arrivederci.