UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Autocrats who are seen by their citizens as beholden to foreign powers stand more risk of being swept away by popular protests than equally repressive ones who pursue more independent policies.
Commentators looking at the people’s uprisings that have shaken Tunisia and Egypt in recent weeks have also focused heavily on the loyalty of security forces as pivotal in what happens to rulers.
In Tunisia, President Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali fled into exile on January 14 after army chief General Rachid Ammar refused to fire on demonstrators. In the so far unresolved drama in Egypt, the stance of the armed forces also appears critical.
By contrast, in Iran in the summer of 2009, police and Basij Islamic militia who showed no signs of wavering crushed protests against presidential elections the opposition said were rigged.
In Ivory Coast, attempts by Western and African nations to oust incumbent Laurent Gbagbo from the presidency they say he lost to challenger Alassane Ouattara in a November 28 poll are based in part on a belief that if Gbagbo runs out of cash to pay his troops he will collapse.
But analysts say that as important in blunting uprisings as the brute force available is the extent to which a ruler, ruthless authoritarian as he may be, at least appears an authentic champion of his country and not a pawn of others.
While foreign affairs seem so far to have taken a back seat in Tunisia and Egypt to issues of poverty, corruption and police brutality, Ben Ali and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak both have been known as friends of the West. So have the leaders of Jordan and Yemen, where protests have also erupted.
“Mubarak is the most pro-American leader in the Arab world in the most anti-American Arab society. So that was a recipe for trouble,” said Thomas Carothers, a democracy expert at Washington’s Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Not surprisingly, officials of radical Arab countries such as Syria and Sudan have argued that they are immune from the unrest sweeping their region.
“Syria is stable. Why?” President Bashar al-Assad said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal this week. “Because you have to be very closely linked to the beliefs of the people ... When there is divergence ... you will have this vacuum that creates disturbances.”
A Sudanese embassy spokesman in London, Khalid Mubarak, said in a blog: “Uprisings happen against docile leaders who ingratiate themselves to the West and put its interests above national dignity.”
While such arguments may be self-serving and could ultimately turn out to be wrong — there have already been some protests in Sudan — independent analysts say there is something to them.
“When we look at a regime or a leader and say ‘how likely are they to collapse?’, the question we should be asking is not just will the army shoot the demonstrators or not, but do they have any reserves of legitimacy?” Carothers said.
He recalled meeting a Syrian dissident who said that despite economic failures and repressive rule, Syria’s Assad “still defies Israel and the United States. That’s all he’s selling to the public is defiance. But that sells pretty well.” The same applied to Iran and Cuba, Carothers said.
Lack of legitimacy, as much as economic stagnation, was what finished off the communist rulers of eastern Europe whom their peoples saw as Soviet puppets. After Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev told a Bucharest summit of the Warsaw Pact in July 1989 there would no more interventions to put down popular unrest, his allies’ governments collapsed within months.
Georgia’s “rose revolution” of 2003 and Ukraine’s “orange revolution” of 2004-05, in which mass protests led to power changes in the two former Soviet republics, were also essentially against leaders seen as too close to Moscow.
In Latin America, U.S.-backed dictatorships faded away in the 1980s and 1990s as their value to Washington as bulwarks against communism declined.
Autocrats with no foreign dependence are also insulated from the kind of pressures Mubarak has come under from U.S. President Barack Obama and others to restrain action by security forces against demonstrators.
While Western powers deplored incidents like the Chinese army’s forcible clearing of democracy protesters from Tiananmen Square in 1989 and the 2009 Iranian actions against opposition demonstrators, they had no leverage to bring to bear.
As those episodes showed, if an authoritarian government wants to stay in power, it also needs to build up disciplined, motivated enforcers of their rule who will not decide when the going gets tough that the moral force has passed to the demonstrators.
Iran’s ruling clergy appeared to have learned lessons from the Islamic revolution that toppled the pro-Western Shah and brought them to power in 1979.
Then, security forces faced with huge demonstrations lost the initiative despite overwhelming firepower in a classic case of what 1960s Doors rocker Jim Morrison called “They got the guns but we got the numbers.”
“One of things authoritarian leaders seem to have learned is that when opponents of the regime start to mobilize, the way to stay in power is to immediately begin repressing and to do so hard: zero tolerance for dissent, no negotiations, etc,” said Jennifer Gandhi of Emory University in Atlanta.
“At the end of the day, I think what matters are the concrete benefits that regimes offer to key supporters — whether they come from the military, the political or the economic elite.”
Editing by Frances Kerry