Paul Pillar

How Does a Ruler Stay in Power?

The popular upheaval in the Middle East, and the reactions of regimes in the region to that upheaval, constitute a laboratory for studying the effectiveness of different strategies for retaining political power. A variety of strategies have been tried. Libya's Qaddafi, for example, has followed one of the harder lines, while other regimes have emphasized carrots for the populace more than sticks. Several regimes are mixing the hard and the soft, although in varying proportions and in different sequences. The variation does not simply track the character of the regimes; it is not just a matter, say, of Qaddafi following a tough line because he is a harder edged tyrant and the previous regime in Egypt following a different course because gentler souls live there. The different strategies reflect calculations by rulers about which approach is most likely to keep them in power.  The results in most countries in the region have yet to be determined. They can't all have the best strategy. Who's right?

There is no general answer to that question. The question involves inherent trade-offs. Toughness is best able to quell unrest directly, and it also demonstrates determination. But it antagonizes people and therefore stimulates more anger and possibly more unrest. Concessions and conciliation can defuse unrest without generating more anger, and can bolster a regime's popularity. But it also be seen as weakness and as such may make regime change appear all the more within reach. Mixed strategies have a logical appeal, sending the messages both that continued opposition involves paying a price and that supporting the regime has its rewards. But such mixtures often are interpreted as vacillation and a sign of indecision. These dilemmas are not new. They arose, for example, when the rule of the shah of Iran began to shake. Disagreement persists to this day over whether the shah's regime could have been saved and if so, what strategy was best designed to save it.

The results of different regime-saving strategies are indeterminate partly because whether a regime stays or goes depends also on other variables besides the regime's selection of a strategy. They depend on the specific characteristics of the country in question and on the issues that have arisen there. They sometimes depend on the postures of outside powers (as is the case with Libya today). They depend on the location of the tipping point, which again varies by country, between popular anger and popular fear. And they depend on the same sort of unpredictable catalysts that gave rise to the unrest in the first place.

One implication of the indeterminacy is that we should retain a large dollop of agnosticism in trying to anticipate where this story in the Middle East is going. Another is that if are thinking about giving advice to regimes we want to stay in power (such as the one in Bahrain), we probably should think again. We ought to have little confidence that whatever advice we give is the right advice. Yet another implication is that many people—ourselves, Middle Eastern rulers, and future analysts and historians—are likely to draw incorrect lessons from however events in the region play out. We are apt to hear generalizations such as that toughness pays, or toughness does not pay, and most such generalizations will be wrong. They will be invalid extrapolations from outcomes the basis of which is far more complicated than that.