One year after the start of the Arab Spring, we have seen tremendous variation in the outcome of uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East. Though not entirely peaceful, political reform in Tunisia and Morocco stand in stark contrast to brutal repression in Syria by the Assad regime and the violent crackdown against dissidents in Bahrain. How can we explain these differences? Does social science research help us to understand why some governments undertook reform while others used a heavy-hand against protestors? Although the role of the military, external pressure, and individual personalities all matter, one important—though often under-appreciated—factor is the ethnic and sectarian rift between the regime and the opposition.
In 2007 we published an article (ungated, pdf) demonstrating that differences in the size of a regime’s ruling coalition had tremendous, often horrific, implications for the willingness of governments to use lethal violence when faced with a challenge. We argued that governments that are not broadly representative, but that concentrate power in a narrow ethnic elite are more willing to use coercion to respond to threats. Put simply, leaders exchange lucrative patronage opportunities to their co-ethnics in exchange for loyal, often fierce, support.
Although our focus was on armed rebellion, massive popular uprisings can similarly threaten incumbent rule. This has borne itself out it the Middle East as Syria’s Alawite minority has rallied around Assad and Bahrain’s Sunni minority desperately clung to power. For these rulers, caving into the demands of the opposition and implementing democratic reform could mean that members of their group are permanently marginalized. Similar concerns have been expressed by Sunni leaders in post-Sadaam Iraq. By contrast, in Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, the split between the government and the protestors did not revolve around ethnic identity in the same way making it easier for ruling groups to eventually change course.
A second finding in our research, and more troublesome in the current context, is that the relationship between the size of the ruling coalition and its willingness to use repression works in much the opposite way in democracies. Conflicts are more deadly when democratic rules empower the ethnic majority. Yet these are the exact demands currently on the tables of many Arab leaders.
Opening up the political process to democratic reform could spell disaster for the ruling coalition as they are unlikely to survive—sometimes quite literally—in the new government. Far too often, vote-getting in democracies revolves around emphasizing ethnic rather than ideological differences: think Kenya or Nigeria. As political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville warned, democracy risks becoming a ‘tyranny of the majority’ if minority rights are not protected—scapegoating ethnic minorities can become a popular political tool. As opposed to persuading the public with reasoned platforms, politicians play to baser concerns. In Egypt, the Coptic minority is rightly worried about how they might fare in a democratic system dominated by Islamist parties. In Syria, the Alawite minority is concerned about being a demographic minority in a political system dominated by Sunnis.
Lest we think that these ethnic and religious attachments are ‘backward,’ ‘archaic,’ or a product of decades of authoritarian rule, let us remember that similar concerns affect our own democracy. From battles between Anglos and Latinos over redistricting in Texas, to concerns about the religion of our presidential candidates, to efforts to ban Sharia law in several states, ‘playing the ethnic card’ is a recurring theme in political battles, even in established democracies such as ours.
What can the international community do? For an array of ethnical and pragmatic reasons, the international community has a duty to protect those targeted by predatory and repressive states. Less obvious, however, is that the international community should also provide a “way out” for leaders facing popular pressure. By ensuring political elites some role in the transition process and a graceful removal from power, the international community can positively influence the transfer of authority. Above all, current leaders need assurances that they will not be politically marginalized and that the ruling elite will not fall victim to the angry mob. Although “golden parachutes” are often seen as distasteful since they let autocrats off the hook for decades of human rights abuse, the alternative is for them to hold on to power and continue killing their people. Allowing Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh to leave the country for New York is seen by many as harboring a tyrant, but is preferable to escalating violence in that country.
For the opposition, it is imperative that legitimate demands for political reform are not presented in sectarian terms. Admittedly, this is easier said than done. In contexts where ethnic and kinship networks defined who does and does not have access to power, it is quite easy to fall into the trap of mobilizing one group against the other. However, the international community must strengthen the moderate opposition and agree to work only with those that do not cater to one narrow segment of the population.
Finally, in crafting new constitutions across the region, attention to nuanced institutional design is paramount. Ensuring the rights of minority groups through strong provisions for civil liberties and judicial protection should be a first-order priority in guarding against future abuses. Electoral rules should also be crafted such that political parties cannot hope to win by making narrow appeals to one ethnic or religious group. Short of these protections, the tyranny of the minority may simply become the tyranny of the majority.