Commentary |
11 March 2020

Paranoid leaders hoping repression can lead to stability

This is an edited extract from the Lowy Institute Analysis ‘The Path of Least Resilience: Autocratic Rule and External Powers In The Middle East’ by Anthony Bubalo. The extract first appeared in The Australian.

Anthony Bubalo
Anthony Bubalo

Regimes such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia rely on even more repression to reinforce their legitimacy when they are providing less by way of social and economic benefits to their citizens, and when their attempts to offer security unravel.

This they have always done; rely more on repression. This is already happening, but there has also been a deeply consequential shift in how regimes balance consent and coercion in the way that they govern.

In Egypt, for example, President Abdel-Fattah el- Sisi has not simply reverted to the authoritarianism of his predecessors. Egyptian regimes have always harassed, arrested or tortured critics and opponents. They have shut down independent media and limited opportunities for public expressions of dissent. They have built cults of personality around the ruler. But not since the time of the military rule of Gamal Abdel al-Nasser have all of these measures been deployed simultaneously and so ruthlessly.

The most powerful opposition movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, has been systematically broken, but the bloody crackdown on the Brotherhood that followed the military coup was just the start of a broader campaign to restore “stability”. In the months after the coup, thousands of Egyptians were arrested, both Islamists and non-Islamists. Over time, anyone seen as a potential rival to Sisi’s rule, including within the military, wound up in prison. Independent media has been all but eliminated. So pervasive are these efforts to control society that they even extend to the supervision of the scripts and themes of Egyptian television soap operas.

In Saudi Arabia, the level of repression is significantly lower than that being applied in Egypt, and by lessening religious and social restrictions the regime is arguably introducing some pressure relief valves. Nevertheless, even in Saudi Arabia the centralisation and arbitrary exercise of power goes beyond that of previous regimes. The gruesome execution of Saudi dissident Jamal al-Khashoggi was just one example. Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has also presided over a new round of repression of the kingdom’s Shia minority that has included mass executions. Few segments of society have been spared arrests and in some cases torture, from civil society and religious figures to business people and members of the royal family.

Some observers will argue that it is precisely the control and repression now being exercised by regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia that makes them resilient. The modern history of the Middle East suggests that another outcome is likely. In the past when concentrated pressure was applied to a society, the result was usually an explosion of instability or violence. In Egypt, a regime offensive against Islamists by Anwar Sadat in the 1980s produced a generation of radicals who later assassinated the president and launched a violent insurgency against the state in the 1990s. In Algeria in 1992, the military aborted an election and cracked down hard on mainstream Islamists, and then fought a decade-long conflict against their more militant progeny that killed more than 100,000 Algerians. More recently in Iraq, the mistreatment of Sunnis by Shia-dominated governments after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein produced hundreds of willing recruits for the movement that would eventually become Islamic State.

In fact, past autocrats in the Middle East came to understand that periods of ruthless repression needed to be leavened with periods when that pressure was eased. In Saudi Arabia, former kings would regularly “rehabilitate” political opponents after they had spent sufficient time in the kingdom’s prisons. In Egypt, for example, regular crackdowns on the Muslim Brotherhood were often followed by truces that allowed the organisation to operate publicly within agreed limits. Former president Hosni Mubarak was an unreformed autocrat but created new, if heavily circumscribed, avenues for political participation and relatively free discussion of national issues in the media.

Today’s crop of rulers, with their paranoid reactions to the slightest hints of dissent, appear to believe that it was Mubarak’s leniency that led to his downfall.

Regimes seem so unsure of the utility of repression that their only solution is to apply it more strongly. The result is unlikely to be the stability and security that regimes, their international partners and many of their citizens desire, but what might be termed “accordion cycles” of violence and instability. That is, in the same way that an accordion is played by compressing the instrument’s diaphragm, regimes are squeezing their societies to the point of explosion of protest and/or violence that, to extend the metaphor, then forces the instrument’s diaphragm open. But at that point, instead of addressing the pressures causing these demonstrations, regimes simply squeeze the diaphragm again until the next breaking point.