Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali did it. Hosni Mubarak gave it a try. For a while, Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh tried to see if it would stick. Col. Moammar Gaddafi started almost right away. Gulf monarchs quickly got on board. And last week, in a highly anticipated speech that ultimately offered nothing, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad became the latest in a string of Arab rulers to turn to the same rhetorical device: Conspiracy theories.
As these regimes have come under increasing pressure for political reform, Arab autocrats have been forced to turn to their most desperate arguments to explain the chaos to their compatriots. Afraid to admit to the genuine roots of the revolutions that engulf them, these strongmen attempt to characterize peaceful protesters as anything but what they are. So, Ben Ali described the youth in Tunisia’s streets as “masked gangs” who were engaging in “terrorist acts.” In Egypt, Mubarak’s right hand man and newly appointed vice president, Omar Suleiman, claimed that “foreign influences” were behind the revolution. Egyptian state television promoted bizarre theories of the United States and Israel provoking massive protests, despite the fact that both countries were deeply supportive of the Mubarak regime until the final days. Bahrain’s rulers have blamed the unrest there on Iranian agents. Gaddafi has consistently insisted that the Libyan rebels are no more than “drug addicts.”
Of course, authoritarian regimes in North Africa and the Middle East aren’t the first to try to castigate a popular rebellion as a foreign plot. Most recently, this was the dictatorial line taken by regimes in central Europe during the wave of color revolutions that swept through Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan. Quickly, authoritarians as far removed as Vladimir Putin and Hu Jintao argued that these revolutions were entirely the work of foreign-funded NGOs. It was true that these countries did have Western civil society organizations working there. But it has never been explained how a handful of employees from a few poorly funded nongovernmental organizations were capable of toppling a string of authoritarian regimes. I brought up this point the other day to Srdja Popovic, who helped lead the youth movement that brought down Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. Popovic laughed. “Ah yes, the conspiracy theories of dictators. The language hasn’t changed in 20 years — terrorists, junkies, foreign mercenaries, traitors,” he replied, listing off some of the most common labels used by these regimes. “Chavez likes to call them seduced youth. They are desperately predictable.”
It should be pointed out, however, that there have been some “foreign elements” at work in the Arab street. The trouble is, these foreign forces are on the payroll of the regimes themselves, not the people challenging these governments. Gaddafi has relied heavily on foreign mercenaries from Chad, Sudan and elsewhere. In Bahrain, the government is offering large bonuses to lure Pakistani soldiers and has leaned on Saudi security personnel to maintain its grip on power.
This Arab Spring has rewritten the region’s future in incredible ways. People who have only known the stultifying weight of dictatorship may now, for the first time, have the chance to have a hand in their country’s future. It is too early to describe these revolutions as an unmitigated good, but they are nothing if not a chance to break the rhythms of repression these people have known. And among the achievements of these popular movements is the way in which they have rendered the statements of desperate regimes led by desperate men utterly hollow.