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An inside look into the Arab dictators' playbook

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After the relatively swift triumphs of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions in deposing their dictators earlier this year, other Arab dictators drew a different set of lessons than their populations did.

Fed up with decades of repression, corruption, and the break down of state institutions, as well as the complete loss of faith in any meaningful political or social reforms in their societies, people across the Arab world this spring have waged simultaneous mass movements to force sweeping changes.

Arab autocrats, sustained for decades by the powerful security state, were shocked and startled as they observed in horror the dismantling of the security apparatuses in Tunisia and Egypt, facing fearless populace willing to sacrifice their lives to liberate themselves from the yoke of tyranny and regain their freedoms and dignity.

To their credit, in both the Tunisian and Egyptian models, the armies refused to shoot at their people after the failure of the security forces to clamp down. The popular uprisings spread across each country with incredible determination and zeal as the fear barrier of the ruthless regimes completely broke down.

Shortly after the fall of the Egyptian dictator, people across the Arab world took to the streets in peaceful uprisings against their long time repressive rulers. The concurrent massive demonstrations were especially widespread in Yemen, Libya, Syria, and Bahrain, against the decades-old repressive regimes of Muammar Gaddhafi in Libya (41 years), Ali Saleh in Yemen (33 years), the Assad family in Syria (Bashar and his father before him -- 40 years), and the minority Al-Khalifah dynasty in Bahrain (230 years.)

The primary lesson learned by the Arab masses watching the revolutions unfold in Tunisia and Egypt was that the people's collective power and determination can ultimately triumph in the face of isolated regimes that have been ruling them with an iron fist. Furthermore, they understood and appreciated the power of peaceful change, not only as politically expedient but perhaps more significantly as morally imperative. In the process, old cliches such as apathy and despair on the one hand, or armed struggle and violent overthrow of regimes on the other, were abandoned and totally discredited.

However, the authoritarian regimes drew different lessons from the Tunisian and Egyptian experience. They did not see the power and determination of the people but the weakness of the regimes and fragility and indecisiveness of its leaders.

In each case, though engulfed in its own particular circumstances and distinct features, the overall framework of how each regime dealt with its own popular uprising is strikingly similar. They all seem to be operating from the same guide, which might be dubbed: "The Dictator's Manual for Suppressing Popular Revolts."

As in the Tunisian and Egyptian models the first response of each regime was to rely on the security forces to put a quick end to the uprisings before they spread. When such attempts fail within the first few days, the next step is to try to contain the demonstrations by embracing the demands of the protesters while asking for a return to calm in order to implement reforms.

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The problem with these initial steps is that they are perceived by the people as disingenuous and are almost always too late. Like Tunisia and Egypt before them, in each of the cases in Yemen, Libya, Syria, or Bahrain, the initial brutal response of the security forces had an adverse effect and did not stop the protests. In fact, the increasing casualties in the streets intensified the opposition and the revolts became widespread.

For instance, the initial demonstrations that started in Benghazi in mid-February to protest the arrest of a human rights lawyer quickly spread to western Libya, where they were met with brutality and repression. Similarly the protests in Yemen the same week spread from Sanaa to the rest of the country as Saleh's security forces ruthlessly cracked down on the demonstrators. When the people of the southern city of Dar'aa in Syria protested in mid-March calling for freedom and reforms, the protests quickly spread as the Syrian army shortly thereafter surrounded the city killing dozens and arresting hundreds of protesters.

In the next phase of the confrontation between the people and the authoritarian regimes the dictators would call for dialogue and claim to have embraced the calls for reforms. For example, within days of the fall of the eastern city of Benghazi to the opposition, Gaddafi's son, Saiful Islam, promised that if the protests ended then all demands were on the table. But then he asserted that no reforms or dialogue would be initiated unless the protests ended. President Saleh in Yemen made similar overtures to his people promising to form a national unity government and initiate political reforms if the protests ended.

In Syria the regime announced several steps for political reforms and the end of the state of emergency, which had been in place for almost a half century. The Syrian people held hope that their president would announce, and immediately take steps for far-reaching constitutional and political reforms.

But when the Syrian president addressed the parliament at the end of March it became clear that the reforms embraced by the regime were superficial and vague while requiring a significant amount of time to implement, a ploy that seemed designed to contain the popular uprising. Moreover, the party officials entrusted to propose and implement these reforms were themselves people known to defend the status quo that has favored them for decades. The pathetic performance of a bygone era of the Syrian parliament represented the best evidence that the regime was immune to any real reforms.

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As in Egypt, when the trick of calling for dialogue and the embrace of a reform agenda fails to attract the people and the opposition groups -- mostly marginalized for decades -- the regimes would then mobilize their supporters to mount counter-demonstrations in the hopes of stemming the tide and convince outside observers, especially Western countries that they are popular, legitimate regimes, and still in charge.

However, many of the supporters of these regimes act like goons, bullies, and criminals, as they beat up and abuse the opposition. Such elements supporting the regimes include thousands of security officers or party loyalists roaming the streets in civilian clothes. They were called baltagies in Egypt, balatega in Yemen and Shabbiha in Syria. Their main role is to brutalize the people and punish them for their protests in a desperate attempt to halt them. But often times, the end result is the opposite as the people link these thugs to the regimes and become even more enraged.

In Libya people witnessed in horror as attorney Iman Al-Obaidy was dragged from a hotel lobby by security officers as she was describing her brutal gang rape a few days earlier. In Syria people were enraged when they saw the body of    13-year-old Hamza Al-Khatib tortured and riddled with bullets and his penis cut off. Before his body was returned to his family, Al-Khatib was protesting in the city of Jiza in southern Syria few days earlier before being arrested and brutally tortured by the security forces.

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Esam Al-Amin is a regular contributor for a number of websites.

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Unlike the nonviolent popular revolts in Tunisia a... by Vernon Huffman on Saturday, Jun 4, 2011 at 5:10:08 PM
"Arab Dictators' Playbook"! I like the name but de... by syed mahdi on Sunday, Jun 5, 2011 at 6:35:17 AM