Tyranny in the Arab Spring

We are excited to welcome the following guest post from Lindsay Heger and Idean Salehyan.


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.


6 Responses to Tyranny in the Arab Spring

  1. Realist Writer March 13, 2012 at 4:28 pm #

    But by strengthening the constitution in such a manner as to prevent the majority from by infringing on the so-called “rights” of the minority (which are only defined by the constitution and could be seen as an attempt to secure power for these minority groups), you are merely creating a “tyranny of paper”. Or, more accurately, a “tyranny of whoever gets to write/interpret that paper”.

    Oppression, coercion, ethnic appeals, and abuse of power can occur in any and all government systems. The solution is constant monitoring and cynicism, not replacing one set of tyrants with another and then declaring a victory for “democracy”.

  2. Rex Brynen March 15, 2012 at 7:16 am #

    It isn’t clear to me that, to date, data from the “Arab Spring” validates the hypothesis.

    The Middle East has seen six cases in which regimes have been seriously challenged by opposition mobilization: Tunisia, Egypt, Libya (where regime change has all occurred), Yemen (where it may have occurred), and Bahrain and Syria (where regimes have so far held on through repressive means). In no other case have regimes faced challenges that have required widespread use of violence for purposes of regime survival, so they can hardly serve as tests of how “ruthless” the leader might be.

    If we measure the intensity of repression in terms of deaths per million population, by far the most “ruthless ruler” was Muammar Qaddafi of Libya (c1250/million)–a case with a supposedly wider (ethnic) ruling coalition. Syria comes in second (c450). However, while the Syrian coalition is narrow if we understand it only to include Alawis, it is much larger if we include other non-Sunni minorities, and still larger if we include those segments of the Sunni population who have historically been thought of as Ba’thist supporters. At present the regime probably enjoys support in the 25-30% range (with another 25-30% fence-sitting), a level of popular support that might compare with that enjoyed with Qaddafi, Mubarak, or Ben Ali.

    Our next bloodiest cases would be Yemen (c75/million) and Bahrain (c65/million)–one of which is a middling coalition as understood in the article (Saleh is Zaydi, who are about 45% of the population) in the ethnic terms of the article, the other of which is narrow. However, while the Sunni/Shiite split has been central in Bahrain, lines of allegiance in Yemen have not followed Zaydi/Sunni lines.

    Finally, Tunisia and Egypt would be the two cases where the least repression was applied by regimes.

    Part of the problem here may be measuring the size of the ruling coalition in ethnic terms. First, there is no particular reason to believe that ethnicity is the sole or even primary marker of a ruling coalition in the Middle East or elsewhere. Second, there is the inevitably thorny question of what constitutes the relevant ethnic category. Libya is overwhelmingly Arab and Sunni, but is divided by “subethnic” tribal and regional divisions. In Syria ethnicity matters, but the Bathist coalition is better thought of as “non-Sunni + some Sunnis” than as “Alawi” given Christian and Druize support for the regime. In a country like Jordan, East Bank/Palestinian difference matter, even though that division isn’t usually thought of as an “ethnic” one. In Morocco the boundaries of Arab and Berber are extraordinarily blurred–in Algeria they are much sharper and politically relevant.

  3. Geoff March 19, 2012 at 7:44 pm #

    I’m increasingly troubled by the public promotion of golden parachutes, which is a notion heralded by David Frum, John Yoo’s co-author Julian Ku, and other hyper-conservative political thinkers. The brings up a number of questions for the authors:

    Is there any actual evidence that leaders stay in power for fear of being tried for human rights crimes, or is this a hypothetical based on formalized logic? Aren’t authoritarian leaders who rule with an iron fist likely to hold onto power at all costs regardless of the potential for punishment? Isn’t that what history tells us of the nature of authoritarianism? If their brutal rule is already being delegitimized; if they have lost support among their base, however small; or if there reign has been broken by rebellion, why should dictators be given assistance by the international community? If they still have great power in their country, like Assad does, is the hope of exile likely to make them step down? I don’t see any evidence that it would.

    Was it ultimately better for Haiti that the US flew Duvalier to France to live out 20 years in comfortable exile? Would he have fought longer if this was not an option? I don’t think that a case can be made to support that idea. He only left at the end, when his life was already in extreme danger.

    Is the idea that we should have an island of exiled dictators who did not succeed in their extreme repression? Could that possibly be a serious advocacy?

    Finally, it doesn’t seem to me that Ali Abdullah Saleh’s visit classifies as an example of what the authors are promoting. He was reportedly given medical treatment in the US, after which he returned to Yemen, where he now resides. Is there something I am missing?

  4. Idean Salehyan March 23, 2012 at 1:19 pm #

    Good points raised by all. Thank you for the comments and the discussion. As for “golden parachutes,” I hate the idea as well. It is quite distasteful to allow awful dictators to live out their lives in exile, with little fear of punishment. However, I do think that the worse alternative is letting the conflict linger on. In some cases, it may be the lesser evil.

    Are there examples? I think the case of Charles Taylor is instructive. While he is in the dock now, part of his exit deal involved a “holiday” in Nigeria. What would have happened if he knew he would eventually face life in prison? Would he have bowed down without the exile option? I think a case can be made that he would have never agreed to step down and would probably still be in power in Liberia today. As another example, take the end of the Apartheid regime in South Africa. The T&R commission was non-punitive . Would the White government have allowed reform if they thought stiff punishments would be in the cards? Again, it is hard to judge counterfactuals, but I think amnesty in some, limited cases can be effective in hastening reform.

    • Scott Monje March 23, 2012 at 4:45 pm #

      Following on the Taylor example:

      Taylor was indicted in the summer of 2003 and then, a few weeks later, agreed to step down, ending the civil war in Liberia, in exchange for immunity and exile in Nigeria. In spring 2006, he was arrested in Nigeria and transferred to the Special Court for Sierra Leone.

      While many people in Africa saw the Taylor arrest as justice delayed, others complained bitterly that a purely African peace settlement had been undone at the behest of Western powers. Nigeria objected to the arrest and was pressed into cooperating; Liberia refused to indict him, leaving the task to Sierra Leone (where Taylor had supported one side in another civil war). An article in a Ugandan newspaper stated that, after the Taylor arrest, “only the most credulous” would trust “conflict resolution mediations.”

      In summer 2006, the Ugandan government promised not to turn LRA leader Joseph Kony (granted, not a head of state, but I’m not sure that that matters) over to the International Criminal Court, which had indicted him, if he signed a peace accord. An accord was negotiated but Kony refused to come down from the hills to sign it, and the war continued.

      Now Kony may have had many reasons for not signing that accord, but the question arises: was his decision influenced by the decision to detain Taylor despite promises to the contrary? Indeed, why would his decision not have been influenced by that?

  5. Idean Salehyan March 23, 2012 at 1:28 pm #

    One more thing: this isn’t a hyper-conservative issue. Snyder and Vinjamuri (hardly right-wingers) make the claim in International Security.