Don’t expect the Middle East to fall like dominos
First it was Tunisia’s leader, then Egypt’s. Now the protests in the Middle East seem to have spread to riots in Yemen, Bahrain, Libya and elsewhere, including to the point where the Libyan leader, Mu’amar Qadhafi, is close to being overthrown.
But how valid is the ‘domino theory’ of popular protest? Are we seeing the start of a region-wide collapse of leaders and regimes?
Probably not. One or two more leaders might go: Qadhafi is truly in trouble, as is Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh. However real revolutions are rare, and for good reasons.
First, a distinction needs to be made between leadership change and regime change. Thus far in Tunisia and Egypt we have seen the former, not the latter. In Tunisia, an interim government is set to make some changes to the system, but not to replace it wholesale.
In Egypt, the removal of Hosni Mubarak was more a coup than a popular revolution: the army will probably start some real political reform, but will maintain much of the system, including the parts that give it and its officer class their status and opportunity.
Thus, even if the popular protests spread and claim the scalps of other leaders, that may mean leadership change, but not necessarily deeper systemic change.
The second question, of course, is will the protests spread successfully across the region anyway? They have already spread in the sense that much of the region has seen protests, but the size of these has varied from simple groups of a few thousand people to major movements with the potential to actually succeed in removing a leader.
The seeds of protest are there in most countries. People are angry above all at socioeconomic conditions: at unemployment that regionally averages 15%; at limited opportunities for young people; at endemic corruption; and at stale old leaders.
How effectively this leads to protests, though, varies. Beyond these seemingly-ubiquitous grievances, also needed is an agreed target – a leader – to whom people want to vent their anger.
But the popularity and legitimacy of leaders varies: in places like Oman the Sultan is genuinely popular; in Jordan the monarchy is legitimate enough to deny the protestors a critical mass of support; and in places like the UAE and Qatar the leadership shares some of the enormous energy wealth and is tolerated.
So protestors need to be angry and have a target. But then, there needs to be some sort of division among the political elite, so that those who control the system no longer agree on its desirability and durability. One or more of the business community, the media, the bureaucracy, or others normally must disaffiliate with the leadership.
Above all, the military and/or the security services must stop protecting the leader, by siding with the protestors or simply stating openly that it will not use force against them.
This, then, is where the dominoes will keep falling or stop toppling, and this pattern of what makes protests succeed or not, coupled with the evidence in other states where leaders are clinging to power, suggests that only a couple more dominoes, at most, will fall. In some countries such as Bahrain, the regime has had to negotiate, fearful that a momentum was building and that the military and security services – mostly staffed with foreigners – would not be able to back the royals.
In places like Iran and Syria, however, there is much more likelihood of the military’s top brass and elite forces remaining loyal to the leadership, and agreeing to suppress protestors violently.
This, too, has been the case in Libya thus far. While the violence seems to have bolstered the protestors, if the military stays loyal and the state is willing to be really nasty, Qadhafi will probably survive. But any hesitation by him or his key security forces will probably see his demise.
In other states, the leadership is larger and stronger. In Saudi Arabia, for example, there is a royal family of some 7,000 princes, who together reach into the institutions and social forces of the country. They are the bureaucratic elite, the diplomats, the flag officers, the top police, the regional governors. They all have a stake in the system, which – on top of their control of the military and security services – gives a lot of durability to an otherwise unpopular leadership.
As much as many observers want to see change in the Middle East, a realistic analysis of the region’s politics suggests that real change will be harder coming than many people expect. The failures of past protests in the region are a reminder. So too is the very modest successes of ‘coloured revolutions’ in other parts of the world.
Some things will now change in the Middle East: Tunisia and Egypt will probably gain greater political freedoms – which is great – but change there does not necessarily mean that the rest of the region will – or can – follow suit.
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