1. If dictators want to remain in power and relatively hassle-free, then they shouldn't give political opponents and their supporters a window in which they begin to think the government is weak and unwilling to retaliate against them. This window allows the opposition to overcome its fears of the regime, publicly voice its grievances, and eventually take to the streets. In essence, it removes some of the major collective action barriers in authoritarian states. And as this situation persists, more people will flock to anti-government groups, they will feel more confident, and they might even up their demands against the state. And why not? In addition to the reduced fear of being targeted, keep in mind that dictatorships are brutal forms of governance, so the opposition's grievances are probably widely viewed as legitimate and likely resonate with many of their fellow citizens.
To avoid this issue, if we play the logic out, we would expect dictators to clamp down on political opponents at the first sign of trouble. (Stephen Walt, among others, has voiced this and similar concerns). They will forcibly contain if not outright repress their opponents, preventing them from gaining momentum and growing in numbers and power. Moreover, we'd anticipate dictators attempting to sow fear within their countries. At bottom, they'll aim to make people afraid to openly criticize and contest the power and legitimacy of the government and communicate the grave consequences of doing so.
So dictators might send in armed forces to confront protesters, perhaps even arrest and harm them, especially if they appear unruly, just to signal the state's intentions and clarify any political red lines. Dictators might also find it beneficial to target opposition leaders, those who are the brains and inspiration behind anti-government activities. More often than not, all of these actions will drive significant numbers of the opposition back into their homes, work places, and schools, and can cause internal rifts within the opposition. Combined, this undercuts the strength of the resistance. And a weakened opposition is no match against a state apparatus that has a monopoly over the use of force.
It is quite obvious that a few Middle Eastern leaders have recently opted to forcibly halt the advance of opposition movements in ways that are consistent with the logic stated above. Bahrain and Syria and Iran have witnessed especially bloody crackdowns. Arguably, the clerics in Iran, in league with their armed thugs, have led the way, pounding the 2009 Green Movement into submission and throwing many of its supporters and leaders in prison or placing them under house arrest. Under such coercive pressure, the Green Movement has completely lost steam, though it still labors at the fringes of Iranian politics and in underground settings.
If the dictators in the Middle East didn't internalize the lesson of Iran, then they surely understood it well by February 2011. Though the Arab Spring didn't produce any pronounced spillover effects in Saudi Arabia, the Saudi Royal Family was on heightened alert for any signs of large demonstrations through the spring and summer. The monarchy in Bahrain violently stopped the nascent but growing pro-democracy movement, and was eventually supported in its effort by thousands of Saudi troops.
And by the spring, Libya only reinforced these trends to the trigger-happy dictators in the region. Simply put, Gaddafi showed how not to deal with a gathering storm. He unwittingly allowed the rebels enough time and space to create the foundation for a successful rebellion. His weak central authority enabled rebel forces to quickly organize and then seize and hold Libyan turf. And by relying on a divided military and a rag-tag group of mercenaries and government loyalists, Gaddafi was never able to stop the forward march of the rebels. And it is this progress, along with the invitation from the NTC and the Arab League, that gave NATO the go-ahead to put the finishing touches on the Gaddafi era.
And now, of course, Syria is engulfed in bloodshed and mayhem, following in same path as Iran and Bahrain. Bashar al-Assad is making the same bet that the others have made. He wants to cripple the protest movement and force it to negotiate on his terms. Because al-Assad hit the opposition hard from the beginning, it hasn't had a chance to metastasize in numbers or on a large-scale. Which means that the opposition is left fighting a valiant but losing conflict against a murderous state.
2. What if leaders are unable to quash a rebellion and it gathers steam? At a certain point, it could threaten the government and the entire political system. If things get too hairy, too out of control, should the opposition put up a formidable, somewhat organized bellicose resistance, then dictators should realize from the Libyan case that it's better to step down from office than fight a prolonged internal conflict. This is point made by Charles Krauthammer in his last Washington Post column. The risks are too high to fight and cling to power. For if dictators are captured during a struggle for power, they will likely be killed. Gaddafi learned this lesson the hard way.
In my view, Krauthammer's on the mark here. In my dissertation, this is an argument that I discussed. See, the academic literature on regime survival tends to focus on whether governments will receive punishment for indiscretions, wrongdoings, and bad policies. The conventional wisdom is that democracies have routine, periodic elections in which voters can "punish" elected officials for actions, decisions, and events they don't like. And so democratic leaders have to be careful about what they do while in office. By contrast, leaders in authoritarian regimes, which lack public means to sanction leaders, have a freer hand to do as they wish. Mostly, they simply have to worry about satisfying their core elite base of support. Authoritarian politics is all about behind the scenes, out of the media's eye, coalition building and maintenance. This goes even for the most powerful autocrat, for even this individual, at a minimum, has to build bridges to the people with the guns and preferably bring them into his/her camp.
Sounds sensible, right? But what's overlooked in this logic is the type of punishment that officials can potentially face, because this impacts how we look at both democratic and authoritarian states. For the purposes of this blog post, let's focus on authoritarian states. The chances that authoritarian leaders will face punishment for any wrongheaded decision is possible, but mostly unlikely. The immediate source of such punishment will come from people (family, ethnic kin, co-religionists, bureaucrats) who depend on these leaders for wealth, power, and prestige. They might voice their frustrations and disagreement, but probably won't rock the boat. There's too much at stake for them.
Yet at rare moments, there are events so repugnant and so momentous as to galvanize and stimulate grassroots anti-government movements into political action. Such events also risk degrading elite support for the government and emboldening dissenting elites to compete for domestic political power. If grassroots and/or elite opponents put enough pressure on dictators, making the prospect of punishment seem likely, then leadership incentives begin to change.
Consider the following quote from my dissertation, which contains the punchline:
The type of nondemocratic punishment could be severe and harsh. Aside from the instances in which transitions in power are managed in private by elites (such as 19th century Spain, contemporary China, and so on), a major mode of engineering nondemocratic change is through internal revolt, which carries the threat of punishment, exile, and death to existing nondemocratic elites. Obviously, a number of cases throughout non-first world countries fit this description today. To take one current newsworthy illustration, Pervez Musharraf took power in Pakistan via a military coup in October 1999, which led to the ousting of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who then went into exile abroad. But since then, in the absence of elections in a country with pockets of politico-religious extremists, Musharraf himself has been the target of several assassination attempts. In general, severe punishment could occur for several reasons. The opposition-turned-ruling elite might seek revenge for previous repression. Severe punishment might be viewed as a vehicle to deter future repressive activities and exclusionary control by nondemocratic elites. And finally, it might be employed to prevent the old guard from re-constituting itself and coordinating behavior by rallying around former leaders and their associates. Nondemocratic elites have an incentive to avoid deeply unpopular situations... which over time could inflame anti-government sentiment and action, for they potentially place the life of themselves, as well as their friends, associates, and family, in jeopardy.So what should dictators do under these circumstances? They ought to take measures to preserve and guarantee their personal safety, not escalate disputes with their opponents. At this point, dictators can't undo past misdeeds, can't make sincere apologies or take back policies. It's too late. These things won't be enough to satisfy the opposition. It would be more sensible to back down to opposition demands, typically by stepping down from office, whether via a negotiated exit or by unilaterally fleeing the country. This is what Hosni Mubarak and Ben Ali did and it saved their lives, and it also placed their countries in a better position to pursue political stability and democratic reforms.
Now, this doesn't mean leaders will necessarily act according to the logic indicated above. They could ignore these incentives and pressures, for various reasons. As examples, ego, lust for power, belief in their invincibility, and so on, might trump any punishment concerns. And so leaders like al-Assad or Ali Abdullah Saleh might not step aside, even though they and their country would be better off in the end. But should they go this route, preferring to fight until the end, they'll make a huge gamble, one that could cost them their lives.
Let's look at Saleh's situation in more detail. I have no idea what choice Ali Abdullah Saleh, the embattled President of Yemen, will make, though he should clearly understand the point I'm making here. His country has been ripped apart by the Arab Spring, along with other factors, and he's already suffered serious wounds from a June attack on the presidential compound, which forced him to head to Saudi Arabia for surgery and recovery. Many foreign affairs observers believed that Saleh would remain in Saudi Arabia, thereby valuing his health and security over any hubristic interests. Yet in late September, Saleh arrived back in Yemen, where conflict and violence is ongoing. If Saleh doesn't agree to a transition in power and negotiated departure from Yemen sometime very soon, the chances are that he'll get killed in some fashion. The writing is on the wall.