After the relatively swift triumphs of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions in deposing their dictators earlier this year, other Arab dictators drew a different set of lessons than their populations did.
Fed up with decades of repression, corruption, and the break down of state institutions, as well as the complete loss of faith in any meaningful political or social reforms in their societies, people across the Arab world this spring have waged simultaneous mass movements to force sweeping changes.
Arab autocrats, sustained for decades by the powerful security state, were shocked and startled as they observed in horror the dismantling of the security apparatuses in Tunisia and Egypt, facing fearless populace willing to sacrifice their lives to liberate themselves from the yoke of tyranny and regain their freedoms and dignity.
To their credit, in both the Tunisian and Egyptian models, the armies refused to shoot at their people after the failure of the security forces to clamp down. The popular uprisings spread across each country with incredible determination and zeal as the fear barrier of the ruthless regimes completely broke down.
Shortly after the fall of the Egyptian dictator, people across the Arab world took to the streets in peaceful uprisings against their long time repressive rulers. The concurrent massive demonstrations were especially widespread in Yemen, Libya, Syria, and Bahrain, against the decades-old repressive regimes of Muammar Gaddhafi in Libya (41 years), Ali Saleh in Yemen (33 years), the Assad family in Syria (Bashar and his father before him- 40 years), and the minority Al-Khalifah dynasty in Bahrain (230 years.)
The primary lesson learned by the Arab masses watching the revolutions unfold in Tunisia and Egypt was that the people’s collective power and determination can ultimately triumph in the face of isolated regimes that have been ruling them with an iron fist.
However, the authoritarian regimes drew different lessons from the Tunisian and Egyptian experience. They did not see the power and determination of the people but the weakness of the regimes and fragility and indecisiveness of its leaders.
In each case, though engulfed in its own particular circumstances and distinct features, the overall framework of how each regime dealt with its own popular uprising is strikingly similar.
As in the Tunisian and Egyptian models the first response of each regime was to rely on the security forces to put a quick end to the uprisings before they spread. When such attempts fail within the first few days, the next step is to try to contain the demonstrations by embracing the demands of the protesters while asking for a return to calm in order to implement reforms.
The problem with these initial steps is that they are perceived by the people as disingenuous and are almost always too late. Like Tunisia and Egypt before them, in each of the cases in Yemen, Libya, Syria, or Bahrain, the initial brutal response of the security forces had an adverse effect and did not stop the protests. In fact, the increasing casualties in the streets intensified the opposition and the revolts became widespread.
For instance, the initial demonstrations that started in Benghazi in mid-February to protest the arrest of a human rights lawyer quickly spread to western Libya, where they were met with repression. Similarly the protests in Yemen spread the same week from Sanaa to the rest of the country as Saleh’s security forces cracked down on the demonstrators. When the people of the southern city of Dar’aa in Syria protested in mid-March calling for freedom and reforms, the protests quickly spread as the Syrian army shortly thereafter surrounded the city killing dozens and arresting hundreds of protesters.
In the next phase of the confrontation between the people and the authoritarian regimes the dictators would call for dialogue and claim to have embraced the calls for reforms. For example, within days of the fall of the eastern city of Benghazi to the opposition, Qaddafi’s son, Saiful Islam, promised that if the protests ended then all demands were on the table. But then he asserted that no reforms or dialogue would be initiated unless the protests ended. President Saleh in Yemen made similar overtures to his people promising to form a national unity government and initiate political reforms if the protests ended.
In Syria the regime announced several steps for political reforms and the end of the state of emergency, which had been in place for almost a half century. The Syrian people held hope that their president would announce, and immediately take steps for far-reaching constitutional and political reforms.
But when the Syrian president addressed the parliament at the end of March it became clear that the reforms embraced by the regime were superficial and vague while requiring a significant amount of time to implement, a ploy that seemed designed to contain the popular uprising. Moreover, the party officials entrusted to propose and implement these reforms were themselves people known to defend the status quo that has favored them for decades.
As in Egypt, when the trick of calling for dialogue and the embrace of a reform agenda fails to attract the people and the opposition groups ? mostly marginalized for decades- the regimes would then mobilize their supporters to mount counter-demonstrations.
However, many of the supporters of these regimes act like goons, bullies, and criminals, as they beat up and abuse the opposition. Such elements supporting the regimes include thousands of security officers or party loyalists roaming the streets in civilian clothes. They were called baltagies in Egypt, balatega in Yemen and Shabbiha in Syria. Their main role is to brutalize the people and punish them for their protests in a desperate attempt to halt them. But often times, the end result is the opposite as the people link these thugs to the regimes and become even more enraged.
As the casualties mount and international condemnations of the regimes become widespread, the dictators employ a new tactic by charging that there are armed “Islamic terrorist” groups tied to Al-Qaeda who are killing the protesters and wreaking havoc upon society.
Ultimately, the main strategy of each regime is to regain the initiative from the streets so they continue to use these different tactics in order to split the opposition or wear down the people. Endless promises, delay tactics, and old style propaganda techniques and maneuvers are utilized. President Saleh employed his infamous delaying schemes to wear down the opposition, thus promising to step down five different times as a result of the Gulf Cooperation Council initiative, only to renege each time. Eventually, the GCC itself completely abandoned its own initiative. The Syrian president officially lifted the state of emergency. Yet since then, over 1200 people have lost their lives and over 12,000 have been detained without trial. Electricity as well as water and phone lines were cut off from some cities that were under siege by the military for many days.
Watching Hosni Mubarak, his sons, and other high-ranking officials in Egypt dragged to prison and tried for political and financial corruption solidified in the minds of these regimes the fate that awaits them. In essence, the dictators and their cronies are fighting, not just to stay in power, but also to literally escape punishment for their crimes. But perhaps the most brutal and effective tactic to derail any peaceful revolution is to drag the country into civil war.
Regional players such as Israel and the Saudi ruling family, as well as other international players are very nervous about the popular discontent and the changes sweeping the region. The status quo has benefited these regimes and the international order for a long time.
People in the Arab world are instead determined to rely on themselves with an uncompromising will to continue their just struggle for freedom and dignity echoing the voice of another young leader in the Latin American jungles many decades ago, as Che Guevara reminded his comrades “Until victory always” but “better to die standing, than to live on your knees.”
Esam Al-Amin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org