Challenging the rules of authoritarian survival

Urwah Saari

International Development Analyst

25th January 2011

The day that hundreds and thousands of Egyptians gathered at Tahrir Square demanding for a total change of the country’s autocracy and the resignation of the then President Hosni Mubarak. It was a remarkable Egyptian revolution. The longest-serving autocratic leader in Egyptian history finally conceded and paved the way to the country’s first democratic election. The Arab Spring.

So, the important bit now. What explains the origin of dictatorship and revolutionary regime? In the durability of revolutionary regimes, Levitsky and Way define it as “those which emerged out of sustained, ideological, and violent struggle from below, and whose establishment is accompanied by mass mobilization and significant efforts to transform state structures and the existing social order”. They indicated the key to revolutionary regimes durability to hold up against many extraordinary challenges as 1) the destruction of independent power centres; 2) strong ruling parties; 3) invulnerability to coups, and 4) enhanced coercive capacity.

To eliminate independent centres of power, most of the authoritarian leaders often share a similar approach. Politics 101 – gain strategic position and influence of the state’s military. Saddam, Mubarak, Gaddafi, Castro and Kim II-Sung, they emerged from military background supported by mass mobilization. They earned the highest quo in the army and established invulnerability state to any coup. While some regimes like the Mexican’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) used coercive measure to crackdown resistance in 1986’s student protest and 1989 Tienanmen massacre respectively, other regime failed to use the military as we can see during 1998 Reformasi Indonesia.

To avoid total international isolation, every regime inevitably had to adopt “their own democracy ”. So, it’s not surprising that Mubarak gained close to 90% support in any election held and dominated the parliament through a strong single ruling party.

The Arab Spring could be one of the most historic political moments in the modern era, however, the revolts against secular leaders (republic) had been much more successful than those against the monarchs. The monarchs were exempted and ‘sitting comfortably on their thrones’ and ‘secure against winds of change’. Yom and Gause in “Resilient Royals: How Arab Monarchies Hang On” explained this “monarchical exceptionalism” and suggested one that links the historical legacy of domestic choices with a permissive international environment.

It is not difficult to understand how monarchs survived any deposition, despite their continuous autocratic ruling. The Arabs kings, sultans and emirs enjoy exceptional legitimacy of divine “thanks to Islamic values, tribal mores and hereditary principles that resonates with their societies”. King of Saudi, for example, proclaims himself as The Custodian of Two Holy Cities (Muslim’s holy cities of Mecca and Medina) which makes him superior in the eyes of Muslims. 

Despite other factors such as fanatical support based on tribal origins and tradition of Sunni and Shia, external assistance also plays an important role. Foreign aids, military interventions and diplomatic assurance have been major factors helping Arab monarch regimes stay in power, and the Bahrain revolution has proven a failure.

After all, change is inevitable even though the revolutionary regimes and authoritarian rulers holding themselves with the rules of survival.

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