North Africa, West Asia

Arab dictators: between tactical brilliance and strategic stupidity

Maged Mandour

The Arab World is becoming increasingly unstable and the current elites are using severe coercion to remain in power. However, the use of coercion will lead to instability, as the opposition becomes more radicalized and prone to violence.

Maged Mandour
13 January 2015
Army stole the revolution, 2011.

Army stole the revolution, 2011. Khalid Albaih/Flickr. Some rights reserved.It has been almost four years since the advent of the Arab Revolt and Arab dictators seem to be as secure as ever.

The old power structure remains largely intact and it seems that the Arab protest movements have all been sidestepped and defeated. In a feat of tactical brilliance, Arab dictators have managed to discredit, radicalize and/or marginalize the opposition, placing themselves as the only force that stands between the Arab polity and total collapse.

In the short term they secure their position. However, in the long term this position seems to be untenable, as these regimes have placed themselves in fragile positions, in effect, planting the seeds of their own destruction through a series of ideological and material contradictions that will prove very difficult to reconcile.

This, however, does not automatically mean that the Arab revolution will triumph, but rather, that the Arab World will become more ungovernable, and the use of naked force will be indispensable for the maintenance of current power structures.


The military in Egypt has successfully exploited the first mass protest that erupted to eliminate local rivals, in addition to using an old ally to discredit and suppress the protest movement, eventually eliminating all players and centralizing power in their own hands. A pattern that has not been seen in Egypt since the advent of Nasser and the Free Officers.

When the Egyptian revolt erupted in January 2011 there was an ongoing power struggle between the military elites and the crony capitalist class, who acted as the civilian junior partners in the ruling coalition and the backbone of the ruling party, the National Democratic Party (NDP).

The essence of this struggle was the expansion of the crony capitalist class’ influence, which manifested itself in the desire of Gamal Mubarak - the son of Hosni Mubarak - to succeed his father -  a plan vehemently opposed by the military establishment, as represented by the defense minister Tantawi and head of the general intelligence agency, Omar Suleiman.

This led to the “fragmentation” of the Egyptian ruling class, which was instrumental in the military’s decision not to protect Mubarak and the crony capitalists in favor of the protestors. By one stroke this have the military the cover of “legitimacy” for the removal of all their opponents within the Egyptian power structure. This conflict was essential for the early successes achieved by the protestors.

After the completion of the first phase, the Egyptian military reached an accommodation with the Muslim Brotherhood to crowd out and suppress the protest movement. This was done in combination with classical state violence; adopting tactics of both physical and ideological repression using Islamic rhetoric and slogans. In essence, the Brotherhood “crowded out” the protest movement until they reached what they naively assumed to be the height of power, with the election of Morsi as president.This alliance, however, proved to be tactical in nature, as the military quickly turned against its ally.

The coup of July 2013, and the mass repression of the Brotherhood that has followed is clear evidence of this. The Brotherhood became an official terrorist organization in a matter of months if not days. This was followed with repression, which included that of activists not even connected to the Brotherhood. In fact, the majority of activists targeted also opposed the rule of President Morsi. This was then followed by a phase in which the military centralised economic and political powers in its hands.

The military is currently aggressively expanding its control over the Egyptian economy, which it already dominated, at the expense of any conceivable civilian partnership with the crony capitalist class. The position of the military seems to be secure in the short term; however, in the long term could prove to be less propitious.

The current leadership has forgotten an important lesson learned by the military after their defeat in 1967; the need to mystify the relations of power within the Egyptian polity by using a civilian cloak. In essence, the need for a civilian partner that could deflect popular anger and who would give a semblance of democratic governance. The lack of civilian partnership, whether the NDP or the Brotherhood, has manifested itself in the predicament of having to hold parliamentary elections, which the regime seems to be postponing time after time with no clear timetable in sight.

Thus, with no real change in policy, the contradictions of the system, which concentrate material wealth in the hands of the military elites at the expense of the civilian elites and the Egyptian masses, can prove to be a powerful rallying cry against the military who will find themselves in an awkward ideological position. In other words, the military has put itself in a very difficult position by destroying all potential surrogates for military rule. The slogan of 'fighting terrorism' may have a short life span.


In Syria, the incumbent dictator was able to outmaneuver an already fragmented opposition, radicalize the revolution and single handedly destroy the country.

Rather than opt for a political compromise that would have allowed the current power structures to remain intact, the Syrian regime, supported by the urban Sunni middle class and the majority of the minorities, has opted for turning the revolt into a struggle to the death.

The regime, using extreme violence and sectarian policies, has radicalized the revolt and in the process sacrificed its control over vast swathes of territory, paving the way for the rise of ISIS. Additionaly, as the regime turned the revolution into a sectarian civil war that is total in nature, it has insulated itself from possible pressure from allied groups, hardening the alliance between the Syrian military, the Sunni middle class and their minorities. In other words, the possibility of defection from the ruling alliance has become minimal, as fear of reprisal from the Sunni population in the periphery rises.

This provides the regime with an almost unassailable base of support, making its short term position secure. This security is compounded by international support that the regime is receiving form Russia and Iran, as well as general agreement from the west that Assad is a 'safer' option than ISIS, and that his removal will lead to even worse destabilizing effects, and as such his forces should not be targeted.

In the longer term, the picture differs. The Syrian civil war has bled the country and has caused major material destruction. Thus, even if the Syrian regime is able to win the war, the level of material destruction will hamper the ability of the regime to accumulate material wealth for years to come. Simply, there is little left to pillage.

The more realistic scenario, which is prolonged military stalemate, will only produce a fragmented country, also limiting the ability of the regime and its allies to accumulate wealth, thus increasing pressure on the regime. In essence, rather than compromise and slowly stifle the opposition, the regime in Syria opted for a drastic solution, turning the struggle into a total struggle for survival, but in the end destroying its own base for capital accumulation in the process. If Bashar cannot rule Syria then he will destroy it, and the ruling elites, endangering their own interests, have followed him blindly into the abyss.    


In Iraq, a sectarian regime has been used to destroy the country and has led to partial state collapse. The Iraqi regime has brilliantly used the Sunni elite to suppress the insurgency, through collaboration with the Awakening councils and then, in stereotypical Machiavellian fashion, suppressed and marginalized those same elites after they had served their various purposes.

Furthermore, the regime did not heed the warning of the Sunni mass protest that immediately preceded the rise of ISIS, neither did the fall of Fallujah to ISIS make any discernable impact on the course followed by the regime. Rather, it was used to sell the rhetoric of “fighting terrorism” as the pillar of its legitimacy.

In the end, the regime was able to maneuver itself to remain in power, however in the process planting the seeds of its own undoing. At best, the regime will only be able to effectively rule the south of the country. Even if it is able to defeat ISIS, its hold on other parts of the country will be very weak.

The Sunni community will no longer tolerate the rule of this regime, unless it significantly reforms and includes them within the power structure. Iraq seems to be heading to a situation of ungovernability marred by long term violence and instability.


This is not to argue that the Arab Revolt will eventually triumph in Egypt, Syria and Iraq. Rather that the Arab world will become increasingly unstable and the current elites will use severe coercion to remain in power. The use of coercion will not lead to higher levels of stability; rather to instability, as the opposition becomes more radicalized and prone to violence.

Arab dictators had a brilliant tactical plan but almost no strategic vision. There is no perception of the interests of the various social groups, and the need for tactical retreats in order to create a governable polity.

For example, in Egypt the military could have used the Brotherhood as its civilian cloak to remain in power behind the scenes.

In Syria, the ruling elites could have opted to send Bashar into exile, with a partial opening of the regime, which would have kept the country intact.

In Iraq, the regime could have heeded the calls for inclusiveness after the Sunni protest, which might have thwarted ISIS.

In the end, they are bad students of history. They seem to be unaware of the lessons learned from Bismarck, the archconservative, who instituted sweeping political reform in order to thwart a possible revolution in Germany. Sometimes you have to sacrifice a finger to save the arm.                

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