When Strongmen Become Straw Men

tunisia-immigrants-italy-OV03-hsmall
Tunisian immigrants stand in front of a reception center on a street of Lampedusa, Italy on February 14, 2011. Roberto Salomone / AFP-Getty Images

In a park in the middle of Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, sits Hosni Mubarak. The bronze statue, erected in 2007, stands against a hokey-looking backdrop of diminutive pyramids, but the subject’s face still bears “the wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command” that Shelley once ascribed to another fallen pharaoh. “Look on my works, ye mighty,” Mubarak could be saying, “and despair!”

In fact, the sense of desperation—perhaps mingled with hefty quantities of indecision and wishful thinking—is palpable these days among the mighty, and not only in the Middle East, but in Europe and the United States as well. Western decision makers would be worried enough about what might emerge from massive popular revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, and from the simmering conflicts in Bahrain and Yemen, but they’re also contemplating the prospect that similar unrest could spread far outside the Arab world, from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe. “This is like Eastern Europe in the 1990s,” says a senior official in U.S. intelligence. “You take the lid off, and you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

The current upheaval is more threatening to Europe than any turmoil since the Balkan wars of the 1990s, and it hits at more levels. In the name of stability, Europe’s leaders relied on strongmen who have now proved to be straw men, and there’s no real sense of who will replace them—or even how. Western leaders have based their economies, their diplomacy, and their defense against terrorism on what seemed solid assumptions: reliable energy supplies, relatively controlled migration, and the ability of public-security forces to maintain order inside their national territories. Those were considered givens, but now they’re not given at all. As one U.N. official in Geneva puts it, “Every day you add another country to the conundrum.”

Security is a primary concern. Forget the absurd charges made by the likes of Libya’s flailing tyrant, Muammar Gaddafi, who last week blamed Al Qaeda for the massive popular uprising against his regime. But even if peace descends on the cities of North Africa along the Mediterranean and the Nile, and liberal democratic governments replace the old dictatorships, what will happen in the vast desert hinterlands where Al Qaeda has worked for years to establish a presence? “These could become nonstate areas,” says the intelligence officer, who is not authorized to speak on the record. “They could become North Africa’s version of FATA”—Pakistan’s untamed Federally Administered Tribal Areas, where Osama bin Laden’s key lieutenants have taken refuge. (Much of Yemen was outside the central government’s control even before protests began.)

The risk that new terrorist sanctuaries will be created is only one piece of the chaotic picture taking shape, and it’s not the most immediate. Last week high winds and ferocious seas prevented North African, sub-Saharan, South Asian, and other immigrants from taking small boats to Europe’s shores. Before the gales began, thousands were landing every day on Italian soil, and tens of thousands more are expected as the skies clear. Anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim xenophobia is already a central theme of right-wing European politics, and the hatemongering will only intensify if the trickle of refugees and asylum seekers becomes a flood.

Mainstream politicians in the European Union are doing their best to avoid apocalyptic language, but sometimes they just can’t help themselves. The knock-on effects are simply too menacing. Jean-David Levitte, as cool a customer as French diplomacy has to offer and the top foreign-policy adviser to President Nicolas Sarkozy, went out of his way to warn a press conference last week that “today, tomorrow, we risk being confronted by a true threat of massive migration” that could challenge the fundamental EU effort to preserve open borders on the continent. “The European Union is not sufficiently equipped to meet such a phenomenon,” warned Levitte.

Meanwhile, the shock of Libya’s unrest rocketed the price of a barrel of crude above $100. It seems likely to stay in that vicinity for some time, threatening the global economic recovery, and Western Europe’s situation is even more worrisome than that of other parts of the world. Italy, Germany, France, and Britain are all heavily reliant on Libya’s particular high-quality petroleum. Western leaders have established a long record of eating their pride, ignoring Gaddafi’s terrorist past and swallowing his bull while posing for photo ops to win his approval and cut deals for his crude. The most egregious example is Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who encouraged Italian companies to invest billions of euros in Libya and brought billions home from Tripoli for Italian banks, industries, and even the Juventus football team. Nor was that all. Berlusconi also gave parties where he allegedly liked to play “bunga-bunga” sex games that he said he learned from his good friend the Libyan leader.

For policymakers trying to plot a course forward, the first question is how far and how fast the region’s popular revolts are likely to spread. And, unfortunately, there’s no way to tell. “The movements underway are different from one country to another,” Levitte told his listeners. “And even if the whole of the Arab world is in turmoil, each country has its history, its traditions, its regime.” The common theme is fundamental frustration with the established order, whatever that may be. And that’s hardly limited to Arab or Muslim societies. “What has happened in North Africa is on the screen for everybody to see,” former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan tells NEWSWEEK. “It is going to have repercussions, a ripple effect, not just in North Africa and Africa, but around the world. Leaders have to be conscious of what has happened, and people are also conscious of what has happened. The dynamic has changed, and leaders will have to adapt.”

But adapt to what? The onslaught of uprisings seems to have blindsided the sharpest analysts in the business. “We are not clairvoyant,” U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper explained lamely to the Senate intelligence committee on Feb. 16, five days after Mubarak stepped down. Tellingly, there were only passing references at that hearing to Yemen and Bahrain, where serious protests were already underway. There was no mention at all of Libya. And its uprising began in earnest the next day.

The conventional wisdom in Washington has always been that Mubarak and Gaddafi were solidly in power. Today’s CW is that strongmen may be at risk, but hereditary kings and princes have more claim on their subjects’ loyalty. And if negotiations between protesters and the crown in Bahrain collapse, or if tribal leaders encourage their people to relaunch massive marches against King Abdullah in Jordan, the current assessments of royal durability will obviously have to be revised as well.

A more reliable rule might be that when they’ve held power for three or four decades, individual autocrats tend to become more vulnerable to uprisings. Their people grow sick of their perpetually omnipresent faces, which offer a perfect target for all sorts of discontent, whether from Facebook groups or tribal councils. Where repression is harder to personalize, crowds are harder to mobilize. Protests began in Algeria even before they did in Egypt, but they have yet to reach critical mass. One reason may be that Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is generally understood to be less important than the cabal of fearsome and almost faceless senior military men who are usually referred to simply as Le Pouvoir (“The Power”). Even the sons of past potentates may be more secure in power than long-entrenched old-timers. Bashar al-Assad’s family may have ruled in Damascus since 1970, but he’s been president only since 2000, and (so far, at least) his regime has mostly avoided the current wave of unrest.

One of the most enduring assumptions about Middle Eastern autocracies has been that the rich ones can buy off dissent with their petrodollars. There used to be a predictable correlation between low crude prices and what previously passed for times of unrest and reform: When oil was cheap, dissenters had room to maneuver, and people listened. When oil was expensive, the regimes simply paid everyone off, and those who wouldn’t be bought could be isolated, even eliminated. But the recent upheaval in Libya has given the lie to that old truism. As high as the global market is right now—and as rich as Libya’s reserves are—Gaddafi has been unable to buy a moment’s peace. He can’t even keep the members of his cabinet, his military, and his diplomatic corps, who have defected in droves.

The implications for Europe’s energy supplies are suddenly much more complex than they seemed in the past. The government of Iran, for instance, seems as confused as any regime in the region. Before Egypt and before Tunisia, the Iranians’ massive street demonstrations to protest against fraudulent election results in 2009 were the first breathtaking examples of “people power” at work in the modern Middle East. Eventually the regime of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad managed to crush them, partly because protesters never managed to focus their anger on one target. Today, as much smaller protests continue to erupt, the message on the street is much clearer: “Down with Khamenei.” So while the mullahs applaud the protests elsewhere, they’re doing everything possible to stifle them at home. Nevertheless, each successful overthrow of another Arab government puts more pressure on the Iranian regime.

The biggest question mark, however, is Saudi Arabia. So far, it remains remarkably calm amid the region’s upheaval, despite having an ailing king in his 80s and a crown prince who is almost as old and reportedly even sicker. A Western academic resident in Riyadh says the public’s mood seems “quiet as a mouse.” Even so, Saudi King Abdullah—the former regent who assumed full power only five and a half years ago—clearly likes to play things safe. In a blatant bid to buy public support on his return home after three months out of the country for a back operation and convalescence, the king promised to spend $36 billion on social welfare.

Europe and the West will have to hope it works: Saudi Arabia is the only country capable of producing so much oil that it can take up the slack and stabilize prices when a producer like Libya goes offline, which is precisely what Riyadh vowed to do last week. But young Saudis are no less educated, less frustrated, or less numerous than those in other countries. Half the population is under 25, and as many as 60 percent of young college graduates are unemployed. How long they will be immune to the allure of revolution sweeping the region is anybody’s guess.

Farther afield, the tremors are only beginning to be felt, but friends and foes of the world’s hardline regimes seem well aware of the potential for trouble. In China, online discussions of North Africa’s uprisings have suddenly become inaccessible. In Zimbabwe, 46 people have been arrested and charged with treason after going to a meeting called “Revolt in Egypt and Tunisia: What Lessons Can Be Learnt by Zimbabwe and Africa?” And a conservative politician in South Korea announced a program to send picnic baskets tied to balloons into the North, along with pamphlets encouraging the people there to emulate the mass movements in the Arab world—not that Pyongyang allows most North Koreans to hear of any such news.

But the biggest immediate concern may be the oil-producing states of Central Asia and the Caucasus, especially Azerbaijan. “It’s clear the leadership is nervous and chastened—chastened, not frightened—by what is happening in Egypt and elsewhere,” says a former U.S. intelligence officer who remains close to the leadership in the region. Ilham Aliyev, 49, who took over Azerbaijan’s presidency from his father in 2003, has launched a high-profile anti-corruption campaign in an effort to appease public opinion. And it may be working. Small groups of protesters have gathered around Mubarak’s statue in Baku, but with little apparent impact. Then again, the protests in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya started small. The conundrum keeps spreading.

With Tracy McNicoll, Owen Matthews, and Eric Pape

Join the Discussion