The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Arab authoritarian regimes learned to defeat popular protests

Riot police chase Bahraini anti-government protesters on the outskirts of the capital of Manama on Oct. 2, 2012. (Hasan Jamali/AP)

The Arab world never seemed more unified than during the incandescent days of the 2011 Arab uprisings. Tunisia’s revolution clearly and powerfully inspired Arabs everywhere to take to the streets. Egypt’s Jan. 25 uprising, which resulted in the removal of Hosni Mubarak, taught Arab citizens and leaders alike that victory by protesters could succeed.

The subsequent wave of protests involved remarkable synergies that could not plausibly be explained without reference to transnational diffusion. Bahrainis, Yemenis and Jordanians alike attempted to replicate the seizure and long-term encampments in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, and protesters across the Arab world chanted the same slogans and waved the same signs.

But what happened in the months and years after those heady days? Did similar processes of diffusion and cross-national learning shape the post-uprisings era? Did autocratic regimes learn from one another in the same way that protesters did? In June, more than a dozen scholars came together in Hamburg, Germany, for a workshop jointly organized by the Project on Middle East Political Science and the German Institute of Global and Area Studies. The workshop closely examined learning, diffusion and demonstration across autocratic regimes during the Arab counter-revolution. The papers for that workshop, available here as an open access PDF download, closely examine the ways in which Arab autocrats did — and did not — learn from one another.

Diffusion and demonstration effects continued at the societal level, of course, but often took different forms than in the peak days of revolutionary enthusiasm. Tunisia’s Ennahda handed over power in August 2013, soon after Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood had been toppled in a military coup. Syria’s descent into a horrifying civil war offered a cautionary tale to would-be challengers across the region, discouraging once hopeful protesters elsewhere. The images and news from Syria inspired a remarkable number of individuals to open their pocketbooks or leave their homes to join the struggle, but as time went on, the relentless parade of horrific images also served to deter would-be challengers from taking the risk of protest.

But what about at the level of regimes? Maria Josua observes that authoritarian regimes adopted a number of remarkably similar policy responses to mass protest, including the denial of access to public space, dehumanizing discourses and mobilization of a xenophobic nationalism. Protesters across countries found themselves labeled — in remarkably similar language — foreign-backed provocateurs, alien agitators or drug-addled criminals.

But such similarities do not, in and of themselves, prove that diffusion or learning have actually taken place. As German scholars Thomas Richter and André Bank emphasize, not everything that looks like diffusion is necessarily so. Many policy responses may simply be obvious tactics available to any reasonably competent political actor, not innovations that had to be learned. Authoritarian regimes hardly needed to be taught to torture or jail their own people, strip citizenship from dissidents, monitor social media, clear the streets of protesters or censor the media.

Even more plausible cases of learning may not have been quite as they appeared. The Turkish military did not need the Egyptian example to conceive of the possibility of an effective coup. On the contrary, Turkey has been profoundly shaped by a number of successful military coups over several decades — likely more potent influences than an Egyptian coup that had been loudly and violently denounced across the Turkish political spectrum for three years. However, while coups may not spark imitation rebellions elsewhere, according to Jonathan Powell and Curtis Bell, they do often prompt pre-emptive repression by potentially threatened leaders.

In Tunisia, Ennadha’s decision to cede power in the summer of 2013 looked to many observers like an obvious reaction to Egypt’s coup, but Monica Marks has carefully documented it had more to do with local Tunisian and internal party dynamics. In short, many seemingly similar outcomes are in fact common responses to a similar cause, filtered through local particularities, creating dangerous opportunities to over-predict diffusion.

The contributors to POMEPS Studies 21 Transnational Diffusion and Cooperation in the Middle East go considerably further than past studies have done to show how significant learning and diffusion did take place among Arab regimes in the years following the uprisings. Demonstrating diffusion and learning requires careful attention to timing and sequence. It also requires scrutiny of the mechanisms by which ideas are transmitted, whether passively as actors observe events in the media, or actively as agents make direct efforts to spread those ideas. While direct evidence of the thinking and interactions between secretive autocrats may be hard to gather, these scholars carefully trace the timing and sequencing of these processes to show where learning and diffusion mattered. Such careful scrutiny of local conditions and the precise mechanisms of diffusion introduces healthy skepticism into the research agenda, but it does not lead to the conclusion that no diffusion occurred. Today’s Arab world is profoundly shaped by forces promoting transnational interactions, from pervasive social media and satellite television to weakening states, refugee flows, cross-border military interventions.

Authoritarian learning may be indirect and partial, as desperate regimes experiment with various strategies which have worked for them in the past or which more recently have seemed to be working for their friends. Steven Heydemann, who for years has been at the vanguard of studying the processes of authoritarian upgrading and cooperation, describes a distinct political ecology within which regimes have learned survival strategies. Reinoud Leenders goes further in his compelling account of “counter-revolutionary bricolage,” in which threatened regimes are “pursuing their international linkages to cobble together counter-revolutionary policies, strategies and tactics from a variety of repertoires or tested methods of governance … regime incumbents reassemble these elements in adjusted forms for local use as they seek effective measures to counter challenges to their rule.” Surveillance of dissidents might be standard practice for these regimes, for instance, but they still needed to learn specific methods for infiltrating and exploiting social media. Leaders scrutinizing the divergent early international responses to the repression of protests in Egypt, Bahrain and Libya might learn lessons about how much and what kind of violence they could safely deploy. Such learning is indirect, filtered through local experience, and tailored to particular conditions — but clearly manifests transnational influences.

Sean Yom, by contrast, observes a more active process by which Arab monarchs came together in novel ways to pursue collective self-defense. In Yom’s account, the diffusion of policy instruments, along with material support and technical assistance, is much more direct and intentional. Kevin Koehler and Ruth Santini trace similarly intentional diffusion through a close observation of security cooperation and the sharing of military and policing practices across autocratic regimes. Those influences include international alliances, as Leenders and Schlumberger note. The willingness of the United States to sell arms and to remain supportive of even the most brutally repressive among its allies, from Bahrain to Egypt, challenges popular theories of moderating influence of democratic allies and offers an alternative channel by which such autocratic practices might spread among allies.

The consolidation of a “monarchies club,” the adoption of common practices of surveillance and repression, the spread of distinctive new forms of sectarianism, and more have all unfolded at the regional level. Most states in the region have grown weaker over the last five years, resorting to ever-fiercer domestic repression out of a profound sense of threat and ever more brazen military and political interventions abroad. Transnational forces will only grow stronger, from growing transnational sectarian identities and networks to the relentless expansion of borderless social media. Cross-national diffusion and learning are likely to be an increasingly prominent feature of Middle Eastern politics. The contributions to POMEPS Studies 21 have decisively advanced our understanding of these processes of diffusion and learning in regional politics. Download it today.