Foreign Policy Blogs

The True Lesson Of The Arab Spring

Earlier this week Stephen Walt drew the wrong lesson from the Arab uprisings:

So let me get this straight: one former dictator ultimately decides not to unleash massive force against anti-government demonstrators, and eventually leaves power more-or-less peacefully, if not exactly voluntarily. His reward? He winds up in jail (maybe deservedly).   Another dictator responds by using loyal military units to repress unarmed demonstrators, and when they arm themselves, he starts using all the means at his disposal to defeat them and remain in power. But because the United States is now desperate to end the Libyan debacle and avoid a costly stalemate, Washington ends up trying to find him some sort of safe haven for him.

Meanwhile, what lesson will future autocrats draw from these events? The obvious one, it seems to me, is “No more Mr. Nice Guy,” which may not be the message we really want to be sending.

But as one of Walt’s commenters noted, Mubarak was offered asylum by Saudi Arabia.  He turned them down.  And more importantly, Mubarak didn’t ‘decide’ not to use force against protesters.  The military decided this.  Had he military force at his disposal, chances are he would have used it.  And as I wrote in the first post I wrote about the Egypt protests, this is the thing to watch.  A leader will not lose control of his country until he loses control of his security forces.  Mubarak did so.  Qaddafi retained control over enough forces to allow him to continue fighting to hold power.  So this is the lesson for the world’s dictators and any government facing internal stability: maintain control over your security forces.  This is a lesson of revolutions that dates back at least to the 1930’s – with Crane Brinton’s The Anatomy of Revolution – if not earlier.  What happens in Libya, and other countries experiencing unrest now, will only confirm this dictum.