Sunday, January 30, 2011

What Should Mubarak Do?

Observing the current turmoil in Egypt, one obvious question is what tactics would work best for Mubarak, assuming he wants to stay in power. The official U.S. government answer is that he should be a good guy—permit more freedoms, reduce corruption, not prevent demonstrations or arrest opponents or try to shut down sources of information critical of him.

It's the obvious thing for Obama and Clinton to say, given that they are playing mostly to the American public. And it is what most of us would like to believe. But is it actually good advice? Are there examples of dictators who responded to mass opposition by shifting towards a freer and more democratic system and stayed in power as a result, or is such a move interpreted as evidence that the dictator is on his way out, hence a reason for more people to join the opposition?

The current Iranian government, faced by mass opposition, took the opposite strategy and is still in power.


Unknown said...

"Tyranny and cruelty may make men justly wish the downfall of abused powers, but I believe that no government ever yet perished from any other direct cause than it's own weakness."

-Edmund Burke, "Thoughts and Details on Scarcity"

anewaccount said...

I don't think it's very sound advice for someone like Mubarak. He's ruled the country as a dictator for the last 30 years, to allow his system of governance to shift towards a freer and democratic society now, is to release three decades of silenced repression. If he does not legitimize his authority by the use of force, we might have a Chauchescu like Revolution in which the Romanian dictator could not or would not enforce his will and was subsequently killed.

I'm not sure there are any examples of dictators that have stayed in power by moving towards a democratic system in response to mass opposition. Had he shifted progressively towards democracy within say the last 10 years without that opposition coming forward, maybe he could have survived or avoided a possible flight or deposition by his people.

The situation itself makes me think not of the more recent Jasmine Revolution of Tunisia but of the Green Revolution of Iran in the wake of the 2009 Presidential elections. It was the Revolutionary Guard, answerable only to the Supreme Leader, that cracked down on the protestors. Both Mubarak and Obama are kind of stuff between a rock and a hard place in how to respond.

sconzey said...

Wow. Difficult one. Given this it might be pertinent to temporarily suspend diplomatic relations with the US, and expel some (or all) diplomats. To be extra safe he might want to extend this to all non-Arab countries, NGOs and aid agencies, and extend the internet filtering operation.

He goes on television and announces that he wishes representatives of the riot to step forward so he can arrange constitutional reforms, the end of his government, and free and fair elections.

When the ringleaders come forward he has them arrested before going on television and announcing that "playtime is over" and henceforth his soldiers will be using live ammunition to enforce the curfew, dispel riots, and discourage looters.

Surprise surprise, people don't want to get shot, so stay indoors and the protests peter out.

After the dust settles he should concentrate on finding employment for those disaffected youths, even if it comes in the form of tariffs on the middle classes white goods.

sconzey said...

On second thoughts, I've been reading The Prince recently; maybe it's gone to my head... ¬_¬

Will McLean said...

Doubling down on brutality increases your chances of staying in power, but it also increases your chances of dying if unseated.

For example, see Nicolae Ceau┼čescu.

In contrast, Gorbachev seems to be pretty healthy.

Anonymous said...

It's pretty clear that announcing some reforms will not work. The options are (1) hold firm, or (2) resign.

I'm sure the other Arab leaders are urging Mubarak to hold firm. A successful rebellion in a major Arab nation would set a terrible precedent, from their point of view.

mantrid said...

In Poland 1981 communist government imposed martial law to "stabilize" the country and avoid possible Soviet intervention. They kept power but social unrest was increasing. They ended it after 2 years and began slowly "accepting" the opposition in the country. In 1989 they handed power to the people.

In democratic Poland they still held some significant (declining) influnce for first years. Then they turned mainly into businessmen (similar can be said about todays China Communist Party members). Some Poles are upset for letting them remain power and wealth and see them as a source of todays corruption, some others think this was a price to pay for freedom. Anyways, Poland turned into West-like democracy, with its pros and cons, peacefully.

Anonymous said...

The Blackadder Says:

Mantrid mentioned Poland. You could tell a similar story about Pinochet in Chile, or about the transitions to democracy in Taiwan, South Korea, Spain, Mexico, etc.

BobW said...

Mubarak is definitely between a rock and a hard place.

In much of the world the people in power are expected to enrich their supporters. If they do not, their support melts away and even the opposition despises them for it.

The problem is that such support tends to come at the expense of the general welfare. The regime becomes more corrupt, and the people get squeezed until they cannot take it anymore.

lelnet said...

If the present regime wants to remain in power, their best historical bet is probably to follow the example of China. Put down the rebellion, restore public order by any means necessary and expedient, and THEN, once order is fully restored and everybody who thinks that violence against the government is a winning tactic is dead, begin liberalizing.

It may be far too late for Egypt to go down that road, though.

SheetWise said...

Freedom is possible for civilized people only after the long struggles that led them to civilized behavior. Civil rights are a luxury only free people can afford.

They're not there yet. Any call for freedom or civil rights is a call for war. He needs to first bring in the military, second take note of the disaffection for the ruling class, and third begin transferring power to mid-level brokers in a framework that will lead the population toward civilized behavior.

Anonymous said...

" He's ruled the country as a dictator for the last 30 years, to allow his system of governance to shift towards a freer and democratic society now, is to release three decades of silenced repression."

How long did Franco rule?

Anonymous said...

"How long did Franco rule?"

Did you want an exact answer, or was that a rhetorical inquiry?

neil craig said...

Probably he should have been extremely rude to Obama. Playing up a foreign enemy is a good distraction (it would have worked for Galtieri in Argentina if he hadn't been beaten militarily in the Falklands; has worked for Castro; & worked for Clinton attacking Yugoslavia to help the KLA organleggers to divert from Monica). It is a high risk strategy since losing can mean losing big which is why it would be safer to have dissed Obama than attacked Israel.