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Paul Buchanan: Middle Eastern Transitions - A Skeptic's View

Analysis: Assessing Middle Eastern “transitions:” A Skeptic’s View In Four Parts.*

A Word From Afar – By Paul G. Buchanan.

middle east, dominoes, domino effect, Yemen, Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran
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Part One: Expecting too much from the Tunisian crisis.
Part Two: Hard-liners and soft-liners in the construction of post-authoritarian regimes.
Part Three: Why a putsch is not a revolution.
Part Four: The Other Learning Curve.

Introduction.

Paul
G. Buchanan – image by Jason DordayIt has been a winter of discontent in the Middle East. The wave of unrest and demonstrations sweeping the region have served as a wake up call to autocrats and their foreign sponsors while giving hope that the long-awaited moment of Arab emancipation will occur. The world media has taken up the cause, using words like “revolutionary” and ‘democratic' to describe events in which they themselves have become protagonists. There is much talk about the role of new social media in pushing the “contagion effect” from one country to the next, and of its ability to make the thirst for freedom a global phenomenon unencumbered by government censors or ideological differences.

The trouble with these views is that while commendable and worth encouraging as much as possible, they simply are not grounded in a realistic assessment of the processes at play, or in the comparative historical context in which they are being played. They display much conceptual confusion and more hope that reason.

In order to clarify some of the issues involved and offer a pragmatic assessment of how things have played out so far (through the first six weeks of 2011), this essay offers a skeptic’s view in four parts that are chronologically ordered as events unfolded.

Part One: Expecting too much from the Tunisian crisis.

The lack of understanding of what the Tunisian political crisis represents has been alarmingly evident in the media coverage of it. Journalists began their coverage with inanities such as “until a couple of days ago Tunisia was a beacon of stability in the region…” and raised the possibility of a so-called ripple or contagion effect spreading from Tunis to other North African capitals. They have called the popular uprising against the ousted president Ben Ali the “Jasmine Revolution,” thereby demonstrating their profound ignorance of what a revolution really is. The truth is that Tunisia was a small powder keg waiting to blow but no one wanted to state the obvious about it, and when it did blow the reaction has been to over-estimate its magnitude and repercussive effects. 

Let me dispel some of these misrepresentations. First, the uprising in Tunisia was not a revolution. A revolution is an overthrow of the state by a mass-based, ideologically driven and collectively organised armed resistance movement that results in parametric change in the political, economic and social institutions governing society. In Tunisia what occurred were sometimes violent popular demonstrations against an unpopular and corrupt long-serving despot, which precipitated an inter-elite crisis that resulted in the exile of Mr. Ben Ali, his family and close allies. The regime did not fall, the military has re-gained control of the streets and the protests have not coalesced into an organised, focused, counter-hegemonic opposition that poses itself as an alternate sovereign and has the capacity to engage in a war of maneuver against the repressive apparatuses of the state. All the demonstrations and protests have done is allow the Tunisian regime the opportunity to reform-monger in order to placate popular discontent while shifting the focus of blame on the disgraced former president. The “opposition,” such as it is, has no plan for taking control of the reigns of state, has no program for governing, and is in fact mostly made up of jobless youth aimlessly venting their rage at symbols of power rather than constructively organising am effective counter to it. Given those facts it is naively optimistic to expect that the crisis will result in major change of a democratic sort. It may be the impetus for a political opening, but it is no guarantee of it.

As for the ripple or contagion effect of the purported “Jasmine Revolution.” Undoubtedly the Arab street has taken notice of the Tunisian crisis and oppositions in places like Egypt, Algeria, Jordan, Morocco, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen and Libya have been encouraged by the events in Tunis. But the elites in these countries have also taken notice and have no doubt shared information with each other on the nature and threat posed by their respective domestic oppositions. Largely disorganised and ideologically heterogeneous, Arab oppositions also often have overt Islamicist tendencies in incipient leadership positions (and in some cases, like Algeria, an active Islamicist armed resistance tied to al-Qaeda), something that will prompt Western backing for the political status quo in these countries even if they go about re-shuffling their own leadership cadres as a result of the warning provided by the Tunisian crisis.

Where these oppositions do have an organisational core, it is more often than not undemocratic in nature and, in the case of Islamicists, explicitly opposed to democracy and supportive of a return to theocratic rule (in states that by and large have worked hard to promote a measure of institutional secularism that coexists with religious hierarchies operating in parallel spheres of influence).

Then there is the lesson of other so-called “colour revolutions” such as the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine, Rose Revolution in Georgia and Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan. These have resulted not in democracy in these states but in the emergence of electoral authoritarian regimes that, if better than the former Soviet republics that they replaced and certainly more pre-Western in nature, do not come close to offering the full measure of voice, representation, transparency and accountability that their adherents so fervently hoped for during the heady days of street protests that ushered in regime change in each.

Thus a sober assessment of the Tunisian crisis should see it for what it is: a wake up call to the Tunisian and other Arab political elites that ignoring simmering popular discontent and failure to engage in macroeconomic and socio-political reforms will ultimately cause tensions to boil over, and such popular boil-overs pose the risk of regime change if well-organised and supported in the face of regime paralysis. It also means that just because a regime is pro-Western does not mean that a blind eye should be cast on its excesses and exclusions, if for no other reason than doing so will encourage the type of leadership behaviour that gives ideological ammunition to extremists who otherwise would not gain the support of the majority.

For Arab oppositions, the lessons are also clear. “Spontaneous” revolts may garner media attention, but nothing substitutes for ideological consistency, collective organisation and the cultivation of mass appeal in preparation for the moment when what Rosa Luxemburg called the “mass strike” is to be launched. And that, of course, is exactly what the Arab political elites are already keenly focused on preventing with the aid and assistance of their Western counterparts, all under the guise of the so-called “war on terrorism.” Even so, intelligence failures, particularly by the British, French and the US, to predict the unrest in Tunisia and elsewhere in the region speaks volumes about Western lack of understanding of the real dynamics on the ground in North Africa. How hard is it to assess that a long-lived, openly despotic kleptocracy with repressive contempt for its own citizens would engender popular resentment against it, especially with unemployment levels running at 15 percent of the adult population and more than 20 percent for males under the age of 30? Or does being “pro-Western” absolve such regimes of all sins? Is this what passes for “stability” in the myopic eyes of the Western press and diplomatic corps, or is the mere lack of an organised opposition that gives such regimes a mantle of legitimacy they neither deserve nor have in practice? In other words, does the absence of a viable opposition by default grant authoritarian regimes legitimacy (at least in the eyes of the West if not their own people)?

This is not to say that all opposition is futile. To the contrary. But incipient democracy movements in these countries need to refine their message into a clear ideological counter to the status quo, seek to establish broad based constituencies based upon coherent platforms for policy reform, and look to each other as well as viable interlocutors in the West so as to jointly press for substantive reform of their respective political systems while deflecting accusations of ideological extremism and inflexible militancy. Until they do so they will be seen as a rabble-rousing mob rather than as a viable political alternative.

That is why the Tunisian crisis, while significant for both its domestic and regional implications, is more of a false hope than a first step in the democratisation of North Africa. For the latter to happen both elite and popular attitudes towards governance will need to change, and nothing in the character of regional oppositions or the tone of their approach to organised resistance, to say nothing of government responses to popular discontent, indicates that is about to happen anytime soon regardless of the immediate impact of the winter of Tunisian discontent.

Part Two: Hard-liners and soft-liners in the construction of post-authoritarian regimes.

Judging from press reports, there appears to be some misunderstanding of what constitutes a “revolution” and what the prospects for democracy are after an authoritarian regime collapse or withdrawal. Specifically, there appears to be common misapprehension as to the difference between revolutions and revolts, uprisings, coups d’état and other forms of regime change. Most worrisome, there appears to be a belief, apparently shared by many in the Western Press, that revolutions are intrinsically good things and lead to democracy. Let me address the issue directly and explain some dynamics of regime change that impact on the direction of said change and the prospects of democracy after the collapse or withdrawal of an authoritarian regime.

Let it be clear: Revolutions are not just a transfer of political power. They are a form of mass collective violence mobilized against a political regime and its repressive apparatus that results in the overthrow of that regime and its replacement with a new political, social and economic order. Second, no revolution in the 20th century led to democracy as a direct result. What revolutions do is replace one authoritarian regime with another. This is due in part to the fact that what it takes to be a successful revolutionary leader is ruthless determination, ideological zealotry, supreme organizational, strategic and tactical skills in both the armed and propaganda fields, and steadfast unwillingness to compromise in pursuit of victory. That is not the stuff that genuine democrats are made of. In fact, the very traits that make for good democratic leadership—compromise, flexibility, and toleration of difference-- are anathema to revolutionary leaders. Hence, if one has a preferential bias in favour of democracy, then revolutions are not the best way to achieve it. If one is less interested in democratic outcomes and more interested in imposing a preferred social construct, then revolutions are the best way to achieve that end, albeit very hard to achieve.

The other major reason why revolutions lead to authoritarian outcomes is because the defeated authoritarian regime has allies and supporters inside and outside the country that will continue to attempt to block revolutionary reforms after the change in power. These counter-revolutionary forces include former opposition factions that do not share the militant revolutionary goals even though they participated in a tactical alliance with hard-liners against the ancien regime. Confronted by a more radical agenda for change than they anticipated or are prepared to accept, such moderate opposition factions tend to switch sides and propose a moderate counter-revolutionary platform that only serves to strengthen the resolve of the revolutionary hard-liners.

Needless to say, for a revolution to be successful the opposition must be organised and have mass support, while the old regime must suffer decisive internal fractures, especially within its security forces and in the relationship between the repressive apparatuses and the regime elite. So long as there is ideological unity and corporate discipline within the armed forces and other security agencies and the regime elite retain the loyalty of those specialised in the management of organised violence, then no amount of external pressure will topple it. This is true even if some regime leaders are sacrificed to appease public discontent and co-optive reforms or concessions are offered to mollify specific grievances and induce opposition acceptance of the “new” regime (which itself is a divide-and-conquer tactic used on the opposition that allows to the regime to more clearly target intransigent factions within the former). As part of this, a leadership putsch may occur in which more nondescript or less tainted people who are nevertheless committed members of the ruling elite replace despised individuals.

Thus, revolutions are neither always progressive nor democratic, as the Iranian Revolution demonstrates. For those interested in seeing a democratic outcome to situations of authoritarian regime crisis amid popular unrest, there is actually a baseline formula that needs to obtain, and it falls far short of revolution. It goes as follows.

Authoritarian regimes and their oppositions can be broadly divided into hard-line and soft-line (militant and moderate) factions. Hard-liners in the regime are usually the political leadership and those directly engaged in acts of repression during its tenure (which can extend down to street level police, paramilitary thugs, intelligence agents and, if complicit, elements of the military itself). Soft-line elements of the authoritarian regime are those who benefited from it but who did not have visible decision-making roles and those uninvolved in repression, as well as the minority few who genuinely worked from the inside to promote reform.

Hard-liners in the opposition are ideological militants and those who suffered directly at the hands of the authoritarian regime. Their suffering can be physical or economic and their numbers depend on how repressive and criminal the regime was in its dealings with political opponents and non-allied economic and social agents. For the hard-line opposition, the thirst is for revenge, not reconciliation. On the other hand, soft-liners in the opposition are all those who, while having a dislike for the authoritarian elite, did not suffer directly at its hands. For them, the issue is not so much revenge as it is change.

The formula for a democratic transition stemming from authoritarian collapse or withdrawal is simple. If hard-liners dominate both the authoritarian elite and the opposition, the prospects for a democratic outcome are negligible and civil war is probable. If hard-liners dominate the regime and soft-liners dominate the opposition, then regime continuity with minor reforms is the likely outcome. If soft-liners dominate the regime and hard-liners dominate the opposition, the reforms will be more significant but regime continuity will most likely occur simply because of the fear of retribution amongst the regime elite and its supporters when confronted with a hard-line opposition victory. Or there could be civil war.

The only situation is which a transition to democracy is a potential outcome is one where soft-liners dominate in both the regime and opposition. The trouble for these actors is that they must fend off and eventually subordinate their hard-line counterparts while at the same time negotiating the terms and conditions for a transfer of power to openly elected authority. That is a very delicate matter that involves, among other things, an “ethical compromise” whereby both sides agree not to prosecute most of those responsible for state atrocities or insurrectionary violence (in other words, although some notorious figures may be offered up as sacrificial lambs by both sides, the bulk of those involved in human rights abuses and non-state terrorism will walk free). The examples of the Southern Cone of Latin America, Central America and South Africa are illustrative in this regard. If anything, prosecution of human rights violators must wait until the new regime is more or less consolidated in its institutional structure and in the transparent application of universal law. That can take decades.

Hard-liners on both sides will see the soft-liner negotiations as a threat and move to denounce them as sell-outs and lackeys (if not attempt to remove their leaders from the scene). The more secret the negotiations between the soft-liners on each side the more the minority hard-liners will resort to obstructionist and provocative tactics to thwart any agreement. This can involve internecine as well as partisan bloodshed. The more the hard-liners can thwart soft-liner agreement, the less likely it will be that a peaceful transition of power to democratically elected authority will occur.

The strategic position of the country in question will impact on the influence of external actors. In strategically inconsequential countries, external actors will be less inclined to involve themselves in domestic crises and will prefer to observe an internal resolution so long as it does not impact on their national or material interests. Conversely, in countries that have strategic import or geopolitical significance, the more likely it is that external actors, acting individually or in consort, will involve themselves in efforts to shape the outcome. For them, expending diplomatic capital is necessary because of the stakes involved, especially when a transition outcome could have deleterious repercussive effects on regional or international stability.

That, in sum, is why democratic outcomes of popular revolts against authoritarian regimes are less probable than many hope for. Besides the non-democratic outcome of genuine revolutions involving the overthrow of an authoritarian elite, the dynamics of regime extrication and replacement are such that the more likely outcome of a transition short of revolutionary overthrow is authoritarian regime restoration under different guise, limited democratisation with ongoing authoritarian elite veto power, authoritarian reaffirmation or high-or low-level civil war.

Best to keep that in mind when observing recent events in the Middle East.

Part Three: Why a putsch is not a revolution.

Further definitional clarification is in order when viewing events in Egypt. A coup is the overthrow of a regime by the military. A putsch is the involuntary removal of government leaders within an extant regime. Neither is a revolution, even if occurring within the context of mass protest. Thus what occurred (so far) in Egypt is neither revolutionary nor a coup. It was a putsch carried out within a context of social unrest and mass mobilisation. It is a forced internal reconfiguration of the military-dominated regime that has been in power one way or another for over thirty years, and it has been carried out precisely to maintain the regime in the face of popular protests that centered on Hosni Mubarak but which do not challenge the military’s primacy in Egyptian politics.

The removal of an individual in a military putsch is NOT a democratic revolution, even if the masses rejoice. It is an internal transfer of power that may or may not lead to regime liberalization, which itself does not imply a genuine move towards democracy. It will be interesting to see if internal reconfiguration of the Egyptian regime leads to significant reform over the long term, regardless of the promises of the military elite with regard to their commitment to free elections and democracy down the road.

Although it is influential, foreign pressure will not play the decisive role in the military calculations on whether to reform, retrench or repress. That will be a function of inter-elite bargaining and the organisational strength and practical demands of the opposition. But one thing is sure: due to issues of corporate self-interest and professional autonomy, the Egyptian military has no interest in exercising long-term direct control over the governmental apparatus. Instead, its interest lies in overseeing the conditions leading to a referendum on constitutional reforms followed by elections, with the primary objective being maintenance of social stability, resumed economic growth and geopolitical continuity no matter who wins the presidency and parliamentary majority. For that it needs a constitution that safeguards its interests while opening space for ore political voice. It also needs a civilian-led political vehicle with which to marshal its interests and compete electorally. All of this will have to be done within a relatively short time frame.

That is the bottom line of the Egyptian “transition.”

Part Four: The Other Learning Curve.

Media coverage of events in Egypt and the rest of the Middle East continue to display a willful ignorance of the realities on the ground. It is one thing for the participants in the Egyptian, Tunisian and other demonstrations to see themselves at the vanguard of a revolutionary moment. They are, after all, immediately involved in the process, and have felt the intensity of the moment with visceral awareness. But because they are the participants, many do not have the objective distance required to see the bigger picture at play.

Foreign governments have utilised the moment to pursue their own agendas in the Middle East: witness the US calls for demonstrations in Iran to be allowed to proceed unimpeded and Iranian calls for more uprisings in the Sunni Arab world, both of which clearly have geopolitical motives beyond support for democracy (if even that). For their part, media outlets may also see themselves not so much as disinterested reporters of events as they are accelerators of the revolutionary sweep. By constantly calling events “revolutionary” and emphasizing the new and apparently “uncontrollable” networking possibilities of social media, the media make themselves protagonists in their own stories, in a meta replication of the micro reporting of events on the ground. First-person accounts of the likes of Anderson Cooper are designed to give personal “feel” to ”real time” reporting even if it is consumed in immediate minutia rather than the bigger picture. This is a variant on embedded journalism–now it is the crowds rather than military units into which reporters are seconded. More broadly, traditional print and visual media run stories about the role of Facebook and Twitter while interjecting their own opinions about the impact of the new media. In effect, the media are more than participant observers–they attempt to be shapers not only of opinions but also of the events themselves.


It is understandable that those involved in the demonstrations see themselves as revolutionaries and it is laudable, in some measure, that corporate media outlets want to contribute to the revolutionary momentum, such as it is. But there is another side to the story, one that involves interests and actors with objectives that are directly the opposite of the “revolutionaries” and their media and foreign supporters. That is the dark side of the crisis learning curve.

Across the Middle East and elsewhere, authoritarian leaders have received a wake up call about ignoring popular discontent. But what they have learned does not necessarily mean that they will give up their autocratic ways and open up their political systems in a democratic, much less revolutionary direction. To the contrary. What they have learned is that they must get out in front of incipient or embryonic protests by using a mixture of inducements and constraints (carrots and sticks, if you will), that allow them to reform-monger around the edges of their rule but which do not, as Gramsci noted long ago, “touch the essential” of the regime–to wit, its economic foundations, class base and power distribution.

Already, the response to demonstrations and protests in Iran, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, Jordan and, in the wake of Ben Ali’s exile, Tunisia, has been a mix of selective repression and preemptive reform. The repressive aspect is designed to prevent large-scale mass mobilisations that require mass-scale repression. Instead, via the selective targeting of would-be protest leaders, the monitoring and censoring of social media networks, restrictions and controls on movement, to include access to food, health care and other public goods, authoritarians hope to pre-emptively decapitate the opposition before it is well organised. Let us remember that at its height the Egyptian protests amounted to 300,000 people in a country of 80 million, so the selective targeting of incipient leaders, to include more than their simple arrest and detention, sends a chilling message to all but the most hard-core opponents of the regime.

Since most disaffected people are more interested in immediate things such a stable employment, lower prices for consistently available household goods, reducing crime and having regular access to everyday public services rather than revolutionary regime change, they will see selective repression for what it is intended to be: the use of force against those who would directly challenge “the essential” for goals that are not immediate but ethereal. For the majority uninterested or unwilling to challenge “the essential” as defined by the regime, avoiding being a target becomes a major concern. Individual fear of persecution, in effect, becomes a debilitating constraint on revolutionary collective action.

For the carrot and stick approach to work, however, two things must obtain. On the one hand, the repressive apparatuses of the state must remain loyal to the regime. On the other hand, there must also be inducements offered that mitigate public anger. That requires agreement to concessions regarding political participation, which can be granted via cooptation into existing political structures or the incorporation of new ones.

Most importantly from the regime’s perspective, immediate material concerns need to be addressed in order soften the context in which discussions of political reform are engaged. The more material concerns are immediately satisfied, the more amenable to regime initiatives the population will be, which in turn will impact on the political opposition’s strategy and demands. It will also help isolate the hard-line elements in the opposition from the majority, thereby making the former easier to repressively target while reinforcing the context in which “reasonable” opposition demands will be heard.

Confronted by such a mix of incentives and disincentives, it will be hard for the non-militant majority, who are rationally risk adverse, to not abandon support for radical regime change in favour of a more reformist option. This is what Middle Eastern autocrats are contemplating at the moment. Their thought process is not focused on democratic opening but how to successfully engage in the controlled manipulation of popular unrest in order to ensure continuation, even if in changed garb, of the status quo. To this can be added one other factor in their favour: the attitude of the international community.

For all the rhetoric about democracy, freedom and human rights, the international community as a whole (by that I mean nation-states, international organisations and private transnational actors) abhors two things–power vacuums and instability. If the prospect of democratisation in the Middle East brings with it the risk of radicalisation of national regimes and the destabilisation of the regional balance of power, which in turn raises the potential for war, then the international community, albeit behind a veil of crocodile tears, will quietly work to ensure that the status quo is preserved in one form or another. Individually and collectively the international community will publicly speak about freedom and quietly work for accommodation. And if that fails and conflicts become violent (particularly if they are fueled by foreign sponsors or irregular transnational actors), it may preferentially side with the forces of repression rather than those of change. That may not be an ethically superior choice, but for the powers that be in the Middle East and beyond, it is the only choice, made out of self-interested necessity.

Summary.

There is along way to go before the new landscape of Middle Eastern politics is discernable. The question is whether change will be significant or cosmetic, in what direction it will go, and where. As the balance of forces stand today (mid February 2011), the power remains with the regional status quo, although the initiative wavers between concerned (and vulnerable) elites looking for a restorative solution and those seeking a new political order. An outlier exists in Bahrain, where a majority Shiia population that is the bulk of the lower classes and which has foreign clandestine support poses a genuine potential revolutionary threat to an oligarchic Sunni minority that is outnumbered by a factor of almost 2:1. Elsewhere the prospects tend to favour elite-managed reform projects rather than revolutionary or substantively democratic change.

This may not be all bad, as history has shown that managed “top-down” authoritarian regime transitions, while taking more time and incremental in nature, tend to lead to democracy more consistently than “bottom-up” mass upheavals leading to rapid regime change. The key to ensuring that authoritarian regime liberalization leads to authentic democratisation lies with the ability of the opposition to enter the game as given yet convince moderates amongst the authoritarian elite that it is in their self-interest to open up the political process more fully. That may require structural guarantees as well as guarantees of political moderation and foreign policy continuity, but one of the hallmarks of democracy is the acceptance of compromise as one of its virtues as well as one of its vices. After all, in democracy no one gets everything they want all of the time, and that is as true for the transitional moment as it is for the everyday maintenance of democratic regimes.

More broadly, in order for the uninstitutionalised uncertainties of the transitional moment to be resolved in a democratic as opposed to authoritarian manner, they must be replaced with the institutionalized uncertainty of open competitive elections rooted in a foundation of substantive guarantees between all political actors and key social groups. Those are the procedural and substantive bases of democratic compromise, and it is the outcome of the negotiations about these mutually binding guarantees that will ultimately determine, nation by nation, whether the Middle East becomes more democratic or not.

*******

*This essay originated as a series of blog posts at Kiwipolitico.com. It has been edited and updated to shape its present form.

Paul G. Buchanan is the founder of Buchanan Strategic Advisors, Ltd. a New Zealand based political risk consultancy. Currently Visiting Associate Professor of Political Science at the National University of Singapore, he was previously an analyst and consultant to several US security agencies.

 
 
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