What is the difference between a democratic society and a dictatorship? In a nutshell, a death in a democracy is a personal tragedy, but in a dictatorship it is a political crisis. To grasp this core point is to understand the basic design flaw within autocratic governance; while democracy limits the powers of a ruler, often by placing time limits on leadership and facilitating a strong opposition ready to take the reins of power, autocracies usually have to improvise and hope that a succession crisis does not emerge.
Death, of course, is ever present, and a dictatorship always stands on the brink of collapse created by, and not despite, the existence of the system itself. The Arab world is one of the greatest crisis factories of our times precisely because of the near ubiquity of authoritarian regimes. What we see today is the continuing slow death of the Arab political order, with the revolutions of 2011 being the first scene in the act.
Lebanon and Iraq are now in a potential revolutionary situation; their citizens are tired of poor and incompetent leadership with empty promises of a stable future. For some the mere existence of the latest protests is a sign that protesters are already revolutionaries in their own minds. The people are not only willing to look beyond sect and clan loyalty, but are also looking to take back the streets from those who lord over them. Of course it is still too early to tell if Lebanon and Iraq will be successful or arrested revolutions, and there are many unanswered questions about the future of such movements. Their exact causes, for example, are a matter of lively debate; indeed what causes revolutions in general has been debated since the 1789 French Revolution.
There is no consensus or generally accepted theory about how and why revolutions occur. What might be accepted in one society could lead to revolution in another. Theories posited would have to explore why some erupt and others don’t.
The autocrat offers no comprehensive explanation as to why citizens might rise up against them, at least none that are made public. Instead, people are offered a mishmash of conspiracy theories, most of which do not stand up to scrutiny, but that hardly matters, as the purpose of such theories is not to convince you of a truth but rather to create doubt, mistrust and disbelief in anything and everything. For Arab leaders the conspiracy theory has become the ultimate weapon of mass destruction in their arsenal. Instead of seeing the people on the streets as dissatisfied citizens, they see them as agents of foreign powers.
It used to be the case that metaphysical power to create events, and intoxicate and arouse a people to action, were attributed to either God or the devil. Today, it is attributed to a handful of foreign powers, chief among them the United States. While belief in an American conspiracy might be more believable in the case of Iraq given the 2003 US-led invasion, the belief that Washington is behind every event in the Middle East is unfounded. It also ignores the fact that 2003 invasion was not a conspiracy; it was all open and above board. More importantly this approach ignores everyday life and politics across the region; in other words, you would have to disregard the agency of the people. The reliance on conspiracy over reasoned discourse contributes to the inherent instability of the dictatorial model of governance.
This issue is serious and is about to get a whole lot worse. The regional growth in population, greater technological interconnectivity, climate change, a slowing global economy and rising education levels mean the crisis is going to intensify. The decline of the US as a global power is not clearly a good or bad thing for Arab autocrats, as Washington has helped prop up Arab governments for decades. Since 1946, for example, the US has given Egypt $83 billion in aid.
However, America’s decline presents new opportunities for Arab dictatorships to rebuild a new autocratic world order with emerging powers like Russia and China; this might be their final life line. Even in such scenarios, though, the instability of the autocratic model will continue to haunt dictatorial regimes. The only solution for the rest of us is to look towards long-term stability and not short term illusions. That means challenging dictatorships in the Arab world and not appeasing them.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.