The Authoritarian International goes on the defensive
It has been a bad couple of weeks for what Vitali Silitski, a political scientist, calls the Authoritarian International.
Mr. Silitski is from Belarus — a good background for studying authoritarian rulers — and he is a student of the troubling way in which the world’s autocrats responded to the “color” revolutions in some former Soviet republics a few years ago by increasing repression at home and forming a loose international support group.
China is the star of this Authoritarian International, with its robust growth guided by a government that quashed the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests but now wins plaudits even from many Western business leaders who concede that it is often better at getting things done than querulous democracies.
But just as the Authoritarian International drew strength from the Chinese model and the so-called “Beijing Consensus” it inspired, the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia have been unsettling for the world’s unelected rulers.
“When you see somebody like Chávez in Venezuela reaching out to somebody like Ahmadinejad it is clear these authoritarian regimes are forming an alliance that helps them to maintain their control,” Aryeh Neier, the president of the Open Society foundations, said, referring to President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran. “If I were Hu Jintao,” he said of the Chinese president, “I would be nervous at this moment.”
If you happen to be a dictator, the scariest thing about the Egyptian uprising is its suddenness.
Mohamed A. El-Erian, chief executive of the bond giant Pimco, is the son of an Egyptian diplomat, holds an Egyptian passport, and spent much of his childhood in Egypt. He is an expert in emerging markets, where regime change is the norm, and he spent Christmas with his family in Egypt. But he, like everyone else, was taken by surprise.
“These processes aren’t linear,” Mr. El-Erian said. “Nothing happens, and nothing happens and nothing happens, and then everything happens. The protest movement got ahead of policy makers in both Egypt and the West.”
That was certainly true last week at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, which largely ignored the world-changing events in the Middle East in its long-set official program. Yet Egypt was the talk of the corridors and cafes, and, apart from the Arab participants, some of the most riveted were the Russians.
That is because, as the Russian opposition leader Boris Y. Nemtsov said by telephone from Moscow this week, “many in Russia are drawing direct parallels between Mubarak and Putin.”
A key similarity between the Egyptian leader and Prime Minister Valdimir Vladimir V. Putin, in the view of Mr. Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister and provincial governor, is that “both are corrupt regimes and both regimes have been about the enrichment of a small group of people around the leader.”
Mr. El-Erian agrees that the gap between the super-privileged and everyone else was an Achilles’ heel of the Mubarak regime.
That weakness was invisible — or deemed irrelevant — to many because of the growth of the economy overall.
But the lesson of history is that the most fragile authoritarian regimes aren’t necessarily the poorest ones. They are often those where the economy is doing reasonably well, but where gains are unequally shared. Hence, for example, the complaints in Tunisia about the enrichment of Leila Trabelsi, wife of the deposed president, and her family.
“In Egypt, there was an income distribution problem, even though the economy was growing impressively,” Mr. El-Erian said. “But there wasn’t enough trickle down.”
China’s mandarins are seen by some as the world’s smartest authoritarians. One example might be the information war that China has waged around the events in Egypt, restricting online access to independent news while in the official media emphasizing the “chaos” attendant upon the uprising.
Another is that Chinese leaders are conscious of their vulnerability to public perceptions that Communist Party rule is about enriching the cadres, rather than generating prosperity as a whole. That is why the most surprising story out of China recently was the conviction of Li Qiming, son of a senior police official, who ran over and killed a young woman.
At some level, the Russians have listened. Speaking in Davos before the uprising in Egypt had gathered true force, President Dmitri A. Medvedev said: “What happened in Tunisia, I think, is quite a substantial lesson to learn for any authorities. The authorities must not simply sit in their convenient chairs but develop themselves together with the society. When the authorities don’t catch up with the development of the society, don’t meet the aspiration of the people, the outcome is very sad.”
Mr. Nemtsov doesn’t think that Russia’s rulers will necessarily heed that advice. Russia has oil, he noted, “but the Russian regime is so corrupt it requires the price of oil to constantly increase. Oil won’t save Putin.”
For the West, one conclusion must be that even though authoritarian plutocrats can be easier to work with than dissidents — a few weeks ago, Hillary Rodham Clinton, the U.S. secretary of state, has spoken publicly about her warm personal friendship with Mr. Mubarak and his wife, Suzanne, who has upheld women’s rights — staying close to the activists is not just morally justifiable, it is pragmatic, too.
Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister, wrote in an e-mail that one indirect consequence of the uprising in Egypt will be that “Western governments will be more alert to the need to reach out to civil society in these societies and be more proactive on some sort of democracy agenda.”
He sent that message from Warsaw, where he was working to support the beleaguered opposition in Belarus.
Indeed, the hardest part of overthrowing authoritarian regimes is often the day after. “If you look at the most successful transitions — Poland, Mexico, Taiwan — they’ve been long hauls,” said Lucan Way, a political scientist at the University of Toronto. “You want there to be established oppositions, and that doesn’t happen in a two-week period.”
Mr. Silitski argues that the Authoritarian International was emboldened by the disappointing performances of the governments that were installed by the color revolutions — the Rose Revolution in Georgia, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan.
What one might dub the Democracy International could be needed now to prevent a similarly disappointing second act in the Arab world.