The End of Dictatorship: Globalizing the Arab Spring

Arab Spring
By Ramee Mossa

Dictatorships have generally withstood the test of time as a result of a series of myths perpetuated amongst the populations of their countries. These myths revolve around the unchallengeable power of the dictator and the futility of resistance. However, the Arab Spring is playing a key role in falsifying these beliefs, creating a watershed moment in history which will be remembered as the beginning of the end of dictatorship.

While these myths are perpetuated in a variety of ways, constants exist throughout time and across states. Dictators regularly flaunt their military might in the streets of their captive nations, reminding the people of their power. This was true in the Soviet Union, North Korea, Iraq, and Egypt, just to name a few. In the face of resistance, dictatorships react with overwhelming aggression in order to set an example, as has been seen in Syria, Bahrain and Libya.

Ever expanding access to information and means of communication has allowed calls for resistance to spread faster than ever before. However, this phenomenon is not new. In fact, in a Foreign Affairs article, Lisa Anderson says that the use of global communication to spread revolt has been seen as early as 1919. She points out that in the final phases of the First World War, shortly after Woodrow Wilson’s famous fourteen points speech outlining his view of a post-war world, his message was disseminated throughout North Africa using the telegraph and sparked protest movements across the region.

However, the Arab Spring differs in an important way. While it is true that mass media and social networks were widely used to disseminate messages throughout the Arab world in order to organize protesters, communications technology was also used, perhaps unintentionally, to help destroy the myths that have held these dictators in power for so long.

The Arab world was long held back by the myth that armies would always support tyrants and would therefore always prevail over the people, and for good reason. Most Arab states invest a substantial sum of resources in their armed forces, giving the world a false image of internal stability. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, of the top twenty highest national military expenditures as a percentage of GDP, Arab countries represent over ten of them. Combined, the Arab world spends nearly US$100 billion a year on defence primarily designed to subdue internal threats while being relatively inefficient in inter-state confrontations.

The main question for those tyrants and dictators still hanging on to power is, do these facts mean anything anymore? Despite thousands of dead, many dictators will try to hold on to power with an iron fist. But it was the fall of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, an American ally and commander of a massive and competent army that was primarily responsible for unravelling the myths that have made them hopeful of crushing dissent. Long held beliefs about the power of the military had been turned upside-down in a matter of months.

The Army did not come to Mubarak’s rescue despite its sizeable resources which could have crushed the protest movement on its first day without much effort. His closest allies, including the US, while supportive at first, eventually allowed his regime to fall. It was widely believed that the US would come to his rescue. The Western myth of a lack of democratic or liberal values in Middle Eastern politics and culture, it seems, was no longer tenable. Libya reinforced the lesson that Western powers would no longer tolerate tyrants if they attacked their own people. In Bahrain, despite the West’s odd silence on events there, little public support has been given to the royal family. In fact, at the end of the day, Saudi Arabia has now taken on the role of supporting tyrants in the Middle East.

If the myths of dictatorships had not been challenged in the six months preceding the Syrian protests, the Army would have quickly and successfully crushed the rebellion. Brave Syrians continue to take to the streets at the time of writing, week after week, without relenting in the face of seemingly impossible odds because they no longer believe that resistance is futile, because they no longer believe that the army is undefeatable. Defectors continue to leave the army in droves.

Other oppressive regimes in the Middle East have been increasingly agitated and are taking actions to re-negotiate the bargain between themselves and those they rule. In Jordan and Kuwait, cabinets have been dismissed or have resigned; important figures have also resigned in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Oman, Qatar, Morocco and Algeria have called for political reforms. The rulers of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have also called for significant increases in public spending; the King of Saudi Arabia has granted women the right to vote, the last country in the world to do so.

As myths erode, rulers are forced to slowly give in to demands in order to keep the peace. In other words, rulers are being forced to rely less on sticks, and more on carrots, to maintain the peace, which will inevitably lead to new compromises and new bargains that will diminish their powers. As a result, change is taking place at an unprecedented pace in a region of the world best known for its lack of democratic values and backward forms of governments.

The world is on a one-way journey to democratization. As each dictator falls, the myths which hold others in power fall with them. A new message is spreading around the world, not about why people should fight for their rights, but about why they will prevail if they do.


3 December 2011