Mass protests, uprisings against authoritarian rule, and even democratization often come in waves, spreading within countries and across borders. The 2011 uprisings left few Arab countries untouched and toppled four autocratic rulers in the most visible wave of mass protest since the anti-colonial movements of the mid-20th century.
But it is not just mass protests seeking justice, dignity and change that are capable of spreading from one place to the next. Other, less laudable, kinds of political behavior diffuse, too. It can be tempting to overemphasize the diffusion of hopeful ideas and developments, while downplaying the potential for authoritarian tactics to spread across countries.
A wave of repression?
The years since the Arab uprisings have seen an uptick in repression across the Arab world, as leaders seek to prevent further challenges from the street. In Morocco, as the 2011 protests subsided, the regime quietly began arresting activists and independent journalists. When protests erupted in the Rif region in 2016 after a fishmonger was crushed inside a garbage truck while trying to recover fish confiscated by the police, the regime cracked down and arrested protest leaders. In recent weeks, Algerian authorities deployed tear gas, shut down the Internet and arrested journalists. Sudan’s Bashir declared a state of emergency last year in response to the growing protest movement, authorizing security forces to suppress demonstrations.
These recent cases are hardly the only ones where an increase in repressive tactics can be observed. Arms sales to the region have increased, and states like Egypt, Yemen, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have used arms against civilians at home and abroad. Across the region, civil society organizations, human rights defenders, and press freedoms are increasingly under attack.
Why the international climate encourages authoritarian tactics
Similarities across cases do not prove that diffusion has taken place. The resurgence of repressive authoritarianism could be entirely domestic in origin, as leaders respond to local conditions using tried-and-true tactics out of the autocrat’s playbook. But the ubiquity of such tactics, as well as their timing, suggests that domestic factors may not be the sole triggers. Instead, the international climate may be emboldening brutality in the region through two pathways.
First, Syria’s descent into civil war provided the autocrats who survived the Arab uprisings with a vivid, horrifying illustration of how an uprising can go terribly wrong. Regional leaders have long justified their rule by pointing to their ability to deliver stability. With the onset of war in Syria, the fragmenting of the Libyan state, and the 2013 coup in Egypt, these claims no longer ring as hollow as they did in the early months of the uprisings, when demonstrators hoped for transformation that would bring not only stability, but dignity, freedom and new opportunities. The Syrian war has provided rulers with a rationale for suppressing demonstrations, repressing free speech and denouncing opponents as agents of foreign countries seeking to destabilize the state.
Second, the stance of the United States toward repressive tactics has shifted since the 2016 election. In the past, U.S. presidents consistently supported democracy and human rights in the Middle East, even as their willingness to act on those goals varied. President Barack Obama, unlike George W. Bush, did not prioritize democracy promotion in the region, but he denounced human rights abuses and professed support for civil society organizations. Such statements may be dismissed as “cheap talk,” but is the rhetoric of a world leader entirely inconsequential?
Diplomatic statements alone cannot fully deter repressive tactics — such tactics have long been employed throughout the Middle East — but they do operate as a constraint by forcing leaders to consider whether repression is worth the price of international condemnation, which may encourage domestic opposition groups to keep fighting for change. Since 2016, however, the U.S. president has been far more likely to praise tough autocrats than any prior president. After the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributing columnist, President Trump contradicted U.S. intelligence on Saudi responsibility, stating, “[I]t could very well be that the [Saudi] Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event — maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” Trump’s turn away from even rhetorical condemnation of abuses such as these gives leaders one fewer reason to hesitate before employing repression. Arab leaders have less to fear from an administration that expresses little opposition to the use of brutal tactics.
Will increased repression work to suppress protests?
Although the contemporary international environment has emboldened autocrats, the recent uptick in repression has not succeeded in stifling calls for change. In Sudan, crackdowns have not stopped protests from growing. The Algerian government’s long history of repression has also not deterred the ongoing demonstrations. In Morocco, the arrests of Rif activists turned a local protest movement national. Repression no longer appears as effective as it did immediately after the 2011 uprisings.
Recent academic studies help explain why repression can backfire. Elizabeth Nugent has demonstrated that widespread repression increases solidarity and unity among opposition groups. Protesters are also capable of learning from repression and adopting tactics to counter police action or reduce the visibility of their actions. While repression may work in the short term, over the long term it can be counterproductive; a recent study shows that when activists are repressed, their friends and family members are motivated to join protests, even years after the repression occurred.
It might seem like an inauspicious time for a new Arab uprising. Violence and instability continue in Syria, Libya and Yemen. The leader of the world’s most powerful country appears to admire the region’s autocrats, expressing little support for pro-democratic forces. Yet the conditions for upheaval remain. The grievances that prompted the 2011 protests have only deepened, and the use of repression does not guarantee the survival of autocrats.
Adria Lawrence is the Aronson Associate Professor of Political Science and International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.