What are the lessons the world’s dictators are drawing from the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East? The most obvious and the most depressing is to shoot first and ask questions later. As in Tiananmen in 1989, and Tehran in 2009, the lesson of Bahrain and Syria — at least so far — is that regimes that have the will and the political unity to crack down on protesters can stay in power. (That bitter conclusion, by the way, is one reason the battle in Libya is so important: if Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s brutal repression of his own people works, autocrats around the world will have more evidence of the efficacy of massacre.)
Robert B. Zoellick, the president of the World Bank, is urging us all to learn something quite different and more cheering from a political transformation he believes is as profound as the 1848 “springtime of nations.” In a powerful speech he delivered in Washington this week and in an interview afterward with me and my colleague Lesley Wroughton, Zoellick argued that even dictators must empower their citizens — or risk facing their wrath in their local Tahrir Squares.
“Let’s take it to the ground in the Middle East and North Africa,” Zoellick said. “If you’re a transition leader or somebody that is going to be trying to run for election in Tunisia or Egypt, doesn’t it make sense to try to figure out, ‘How can I engage these people that were in the street? How can I connect them to the development process?”’
Zoellick admitted that reaching out to the rebels might not be every autocrat’s immediate impulse: “Now, the first instinct for some might be, ‘I don’t want to cause any turmoil. So, in a sense, let’s go back to government-controlled systems.”’ But knee-jerk repression, he argued, was the wrong reaction — even from the point of view of an authoritarian ruler intent on staying in charge.
“The lesson is that it’s been very expensive, and it hasn’t really worked,” he said. “It certainly didn’t work in the socialism of Central and Eastern Europe. So, if that is a dead end, if the idea is that top-down development, getting the macroeconomic statistics right, that by itself doesn’t work, how do you move beyond what I referred to as partial modernization?”