The Days of Authoritarian Regimes Are Numbered

31 January 2011 | 15:54 Code : 10173 General category
Interview with Hossein Salimi
The Days of Authoritarian Regimes Are Numbered
 IRD: During the recent weeks, the world has been witnessing a wave of protests that started from Tunisia and spread to other Arab countries, most importantly Egypt. Was it the similar social structure of these countries that sparked off the spate of protests?

HS: Identifying the social structures of these countries with each other would be methodologically incorrect since no two countries have the same social structure. However, the governments quenching protests in each of these countries can be all labeled as ‘authoritarian’. No democratic institutions or powerful civil societies exist in these countries. Up to at least seven or eight years ago, a one-party state that wielded a horrid oppression machine and held a firm grip on the economy ruled over the country. There has been no history of pluralism in these countries, so the social and political forces shaping up in these societies eventually press for changes in the political structure, which is of course rejected by the ruling potentate.

IRD: The initial impetus of the protests was economic. Just how important are the economic factors in these countries?

HS: Although the early stage of demonstrations revolved around economic concerns, soaring prices, unemployment, deteriorating social services etc. but this was merely the outward appearance. Consider that in most of these countries, Tunisia, Jordan and even Yemen, the economic growth rate has been significantly high during the recent years. In a country like Tunisia, economic competitiveness is comparable to some European countries. James C. Davies’ statement may hold true here that revolution occurs in countries which have experienced economic growth at first and then face a period of “sharp reversal during which the gap between expectations and gratifications quickly widens and becomes intolerable.”

In these countries, what we see is an increasingly powerful private sector and an incipient social class whose sphere of activity is out of the reach of the government. Besides, mass education has accelerated formation of a middle class which functions as the very core of these protests. Even the working strand and trade unions which are actively involved in these protests belong to the middle class, not the lower class. These groups are potentially destructive to the authority of the regime.

Pay attention to another fact: except for Algeria, North African countries lack natural resources and have to bank on tourism revenues. Nevertheless, we are still witness the existence of a rentier state, that is, a state which dominates economic resources and manipulates them as a tool to extend its political power. This is naturally an impediment to formation of civil society, competitive economy and free market. So it is not at all surprising to see international political fractures emerging in these countries. Contradiction between the state-promoted culture and the one prevalent in the streets also paves the way for protests.

IRD: Why were the protests fruitful in Tunisia while so far they have failed to bear the desired outcome in Egypt, where they have a robust civil society and a longer history of struggling against Husni Mubarak’s regime?

HS: It is too early to speak of success in Tunisia. So far, only the president has fled the country, but the power structure has not changed. About your question, success of the protests is contingent upon several factors including the level of solidarity among the ruling elite and their determination to suppress the protests. History shows that whatever the extent and intensity of protests, if the establishment is keen on cracking down the movement, there will be no victory at the end of the day. The early 90s’ uprising in Algeria -after the Islamic Salvation Front won the parliamentary election- is a strong proof. However, in a country like Tunisia where the establishment wavered in reacting to the protests, a smaller popular movement led to massive political change. As we saw in Tunisia, the army refrained to oppress the citizens. And there was also schism among the ruling elite. These two elements disarmed the regime and accelerated Ben Ali’s flight.

But the Egyptian citizens are facing a tougher dictator. It is too soon to talk about the course of developments in Egypt, but it is clear that solidarity among the ruling elite and mettle of the security forces is higher. Clashes have been much more intensive in Egypt, for example in a city such as Alexandria, but they have not as effective as the Tunisians. In Egypt, we are facing a sick, senile president clinging to every tool possible to maintain power. So in Cairo, reconciliation between the pro-democracy movement and the establishment is more likely than a far-reaching structural transformation. Transformation of structures is possible if the situation turns more radical.

The situation holds true for other countries with an autocratic regime. What is clear is that in these countries the status quo has to change. The increasingly assertive middle class, a quasi-democratic atmosphere for the media, economic growth and similar factors undermine the foundations of the authoritarian, rentier state. Meanwhile, the international community does not tolerate such establishments as it used to as it has become aware of their nature. Such regimes are generally unstable and prone to radical changes and dealing with them is risky even if serve the interests of great powers.

The international circumstances have never been more conducive to spread of pluralism and democracy in these countries. The changes will be contagious, but it is too early to predict if these changes lead to regime change or top-down reforms. The days of autocratic states are numbered.

IRD: To what extent can these developments influence the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East?

HS: It’s too soon to tell. But many of the international, regional and security issues are not significantly affected by the internal structure of countries. They are largely a product of international arrangements. So, if no radical changes occur, the policies of Tunisia, Egypt and other candidates of popular uprising won’t change on issues such as the Arab-Israeli conflict. Developments in North African countries are to some extent comparable to the 1980s’ developments of the Latin America. The junta regimes of those countries, though allies of the US, were ousted and replaced by democratic regimes and 20 years later, there are no sign of the generals in Latin America. However, their successors did not change the mode of relations with Washington. Little changes are likely in their foreign policies, but nothing fundamental.

* Hossein Salimi is professor of Allameh Tabatabae’i University and international affairs analyst.