The Penny Drops.

No matter how much electoral trapping and facade “democratic” niceties it may want to put on it, authoritarian rule is ultimately based on force. It is a limited or non-competitive form of political domination that uses the threat or deployment of organized violence in order to maintain its status quo. In times of peace the threat of force recedes into the background and is only used discretely and sporadically against those who persist in challenging the regime’s legitimacy and authority. In times of challenge and duress, it comes to the fore and is used en masse.

Amid all the optimism about what the wave of protests mean for the Middle East, this fact seems to have been lost. Even the US government initially seemed to think that by it demanding that ME regimes show “restraint” and move to democratise, they inevitably would. This type of neo-imperial hubris demonstrates a lack of understanding of authoritarian dynamics as well as of its own limited influence in fostering foreign regime change short of war. The bottom line is that so long as an authoritarian regime can retain the loyalty of the repressive apparatuses and these are united and determined in quelling protest, then it will prevail against its opposition even if it engages in cosmetic reforms.

That has now become evident in the latest evolution of the ME protests. In Bahrain and Libya the autocrats have decided to take a hard-line on protests, resulting in deaths and injuries to dozens. Jordan has followed suit, albeit with less deadly force. Weaker than the other three, the Yemeni regime has had a more difficult time marshaling its forces against demonstrators, but is now doing so.  In Egypt and Tunisia after the deposal of the executive despots, the military has adopted a more inflexible position regarding protests. In Algeria, rival power factions use armed demonstrations as inter-elite negotiating tools even as they agree to jointly repress anything that appears to be an independent vehicle for expression of dissent. The authoritarian penny has dropped.

The tipping point has come in Baihran. Situated on a island off of Saudi Arabia but with close sea proximity to Iran, a former Iranian possession with a 70 percent lower class Shiia population now ruled by a Sunni Arab absolute monarchy, home port to the US 5th fleet that maintains a carrier task force in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea at all times (in no small part because these contain the sea lanes through which most ME oil passes through, to say nothing of the geo-strategic logics at play), an unchecked Shiia uprising there is seen as a grave threat to the entire Sunni world (Saudi Arabia itself has a 20 percent Shiia population). Fears of Iranian influence in resident Shiia protests have focused the attention of the Gulf states as well as their Arab neighbours, and the larger geopolitical consequences of internal protests coupled with a more assertive Iranian presence in the region (exemplified by the sending of a small Iranian naval task force through the Suez Canal on its way to a port visit in Syria, the symbolism of which is not lost on anyone), have convinced Arab leaders that they must first revert to the authoritarian bottom line before any serious discussion of reform can begin.

As for the Iranians, they have demonstrated quite clearly that they have no qualms about violently putting down protests that they consider to be seditious and orchestrated from abroad. The regime attitude was captured this week by Iranian Majlis (parliament) speaker Ali Larijani, who to a cheering gallery of pro-regime legislators called for the execution of opposition leaders linked to the latest protests. Methinks reform is a ways off in Iran.

No wonder then, that the US and other Western powers have modified their rhetoric in recent days and called for “restraint” without coupling that with calls for “democracy” in the Gulf. As I have attempted to explain in the series of previous posts, when the choice becomes one of “turbulence” versus stability, and turbulence is caused by internal protest overlapped on regional geopolitical maneuvering, then interest in democratic reform takes a back seat to reassertion of national authoritarian control that upholds the regional balance of power.

All of which means we can expect more blood to flow in the streets until the protests are suppressed, and that the Western response will be much public hand-wringing and lamentation coupled with a private sigh of relief.

9 thoughts on “The Penny Drops.

  1. No problem Hamish, it reads well. I deleted the second comment/link because this link works fine. You must know me fairly well to include the Argentine reference. And yes, my interest in authoritarianism started there, at an early age.

  2. The USA has exercised its veto in the UNSC on a resolution co-sponsored by 130 UN members. All other 14 nations on the UNSC supported the resolution to condemn Israel for its illegal settlements on the West Bank. This US veto was made despite the condemnation of the settlement building as an impediment to peace being based on public criticism of Israel made by the USA earlier.

    This is an obvious case of the USA failing to back up its rhetoric and this is relevant to how the ME people will see the US position – lip service to democratic values and no effective pressure on authoritarian regimes. And then after the people initiate public campaigns that gain momentum – half hearted support as a follower of events and even then this is inter-spiced with concerns about security.

    If the Obama administration was at all serious about establishing any credibility for itself as a champion of democracy, in mitigation against the unjust exercise of power over subject peoples, it had to abstain.

    This was extraordinary failure of vision and judgement for which history will rightly condemn the White Hosue of this time. It’s the Dean Acheson moment (failing to identify Korea as a vital security interest) of this era. And it will not add to Clinton’s credibility as a future candidate for the Oval office.

  3. SPC:

    I agree with you completely. I am at total loss to understand the rationale behind the veto–Obama’s first at the UN.

    Because it is so patently counter-productive on so many levels, all I can think is that it is due to domestic political considerations (as in Israel lobby, which has concerns about Tea Party Christian fundamentalists) in the run-up to 2012 elections. It is now very clear that the US has president who is just as much out of his depth when it comes to foreign affairs and international relations as was his predecessor. And Biden is no Cheney when it comes to being a foreign policy puppet master.

    As for Clinton–easy one for her to play. She is absolved of responsibility if the repercussions go South in the build-up to the 2012 primaries, and she gets to take some of the credit if they go North. But this also shows her obsession with domestic politics above and beyond a real interest in promoting peace or fostering the image of the US as a champion of democracy abroad.

  4. Pablo, I was listening to that brave Libyan man in Benghazi interviewed on Morning Report and was quite moved by his obvious willingness to take a tremendous personal risk to his life and get out and confront the security forces. It is hard not be swept up by strongly romantic feelings when a man says he is willing to die for democracy, especially when one contrasts that with the complacent and compliant smugness endemic in this country.

    But my question is this – do you think they really know what “democracy” is? Or is it a romantic ideal, a political other from the repression they suffer under now? And if they do overthrow Gadaffi and his security apparatus, who exists in Libya to guide them to any sort of democratic state?

  5. Sanctuary:

    That is indeed the big question. Even if Ghadaffi loses the loyalty of his repressive apparatus, and even if there is no coherent succession strategy or protocol in place within his regime, there is no core focal point or policy agenda amongst the opposition other than loathing of Ghaddafi. Plus, as you note, there is no comprehension of what democracy means in practice as a mix of concession and compromise, rights and responsibilities. All of which means that an authoritarian restoration, reconfiguration or replacement is more likely an outcome than a transition to democracy–assuming that Ghaddafo does, indeed fall. That depends on the cape he is wearing.

  6. Pablo, notwithstanding your urging to look under the surface of authoritarian regime maneuvering, and resilience, the phenomenon of rapidly spreading public actions in the mid east and North Africa should be of some interest in itself.

    Sure this time the ultimate aggregate result may be a shuffling of the deck with the same international clients and exploitation continuing for a further period. But certain symbolic gains have been made in some quarters which may encourage further action. I won’t push that one too far given my attitude to a certain contributor here at KP who made similar claims re the Maori party in NZ.

    Don’t forget too that a number of the affected countries have fledgling and or long restricted labour unions and suppressed communist parties. There are obviously significant vacuums of democratic tradition and practice but we may be surprised yet by who “comes out of the woodwork” when the state forces are diverted for however a brief time.

    Each situation will necessarily be different, and while your scenario of business as usual is most likely, inclusive of anarchy and islamist power grabs and retributions there may be other angles too.

  7. TM:

    Ghaddafi looks to be going. Ordering his air force to bomb opposition held ground is a Somoza strategy and you know how that ended. The fractures in his military, to include two senior pilots who flew to Malta and defected, as well as the defections of a bunch of diplomats who until last week were his representatives but who have now suddenly decided to side with “the people” indicates inter-elite cleaveages have reached the tipping point.

    That weird speach by his son confirms that his clan are isolated and, as it turns out, the tribal patronage system Ghaddafi ran is now turned against him–once one tribal leader declares opposition the whole kinship crowd follows. Medieval, yes, but effective as a resistance.

    If the diplomatic/bureacratic/officer corps elite defect and regroup around a reformist project that secures tribal leader support, it is possible that a regime liberalisation leading to a “democratic” opening might occur. But the armed crowds in the streets show no comprehension of what democracy means and are hell-bent on revenge, so the chances of that happening even if Ghaddafi goes is by no means certain. Then there is the issue of tribal power brokers versus the modern/secular bureaucracy, which is bound to involve less than diplomatic behaviour as a means of leveraging position. I see no angels anywhere.

    But I do see Ghaddafi as the best opportunity for the West to forcefully push for regime change. After all, once you start bombing and otherwise using military weapons (including firing anti-aircraft guns at demonstrating crowds at close range), you have clearly abdicated your responsibilities as a sovereign. This is one case where foreign pressure can decisively influence the outcome.

    The question is: where is Ghaddafi to go? Saudi Arabia is already full of exiled despots, and even Hugo Chavez, for all his bluster, seems to have second thoughts about accepting the erswhile “lion of the desert” (Halle Salaise must be rolling in his grave).

  8. Pablo your Western arrogance surfaces again.
    Don’t you think that the actions of the brave youth who have sacrificed their lives to defeat the reaction in the East of Libya, to build their own popular committees and militias, forcing the generals to concede, and who will defeat Gaddafi without the intervention of the oil barons, are taking a similar course to the colonialists who threw the British out of America, but this time without the trappings of the landowners, slaveowners and capitalist class in tow?
    Who is teaching whom about democracy now?

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