Archive | August, 2011

Who’s Next? Does Longevity Equal Vulnerability?

24 Aug

Joshua Keating looks at the world’s longest-ruling dictators. From his post:

Barring a truly remarkable turn of events, Muammar al-Qaddafi’s rule appears to have come to an end. Having taken power 41 years and 357 days ago, Qaddafi had been the world’s longest-ruling sitting leader (not counting royals). He fell short of the all-time record of 49 years set by Fidel Castro, as well as those of Chiang Kai-shek (46 years) and Kim Il Sung (45 years.) So who takes the crown now?

According to Wikipedia, it’s Cameroonian President Paul Biya, at 36 years. However, that’s disputable since Biya was actually prime minister for the first seven of those years and only assumed the office of the presidency when the sitting president died in 1982.

Going down the list, there’s Mohamed Abdelaziz, president of Western Sahara –which is not a generally recognized country — at 34 years. Then there’s Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh at 33 years, though his grip on power is tenuous to say the least.

That leaves Equatorial Guinea’s kleptocratic President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo as the world’s longest-serving undisputed ruler at 32 years and 21 days. Jose Eduardo dos Santos of Angola and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe are close behind him, both at 31 years.

Given that Obiang and dos Santos are both 71 and Mugabe is 87, Castro’s all-time dictator longevity record appears to be pretty safe.

Some hypotheses worth testing someday:

1). As the leader’s health dwindles, movements may see new opportunities for mobilization. This was true in Iran when the Shah got some bad health news, and it seems true in Egypt and Yemen as well. Wild cards may include countries where succession is clear (like in Saudi Arabia or North Korea) versus countries where the next leader is contested (like in Zimbabwe).

2). The longer the leader’s tenure, the stronger the population’s grievances. I’m not sure whether this holds in Cuba, but it seems like people get more and more irritated with corrupt leaders the longer they are in power. Hence, the longer you rule, the more vulnerable you become.

Thoughts?

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Wednesday Roll Call: Rational Stuff I Like

23 Aug

Joshua Goldstein argues war is on the decline for good.

Verizon employees continue to strike, making Verizon start to sweat.

Juan Cole dispels myths about the rebels’ success in Libya.

Chilean students conduct thousands-strong protests to demand fair education policies.

Mary King analyzes security force defections (or the lack thereof) in Syria.

Anna Hazare continues hunger strike against corruption in India, prompting the government to offer talks.

Jay Ulfelder lays out the prospects for democracy in the Arab world.

China continues to witness country-wide protests against environmental abuses (among other things).

Gene Sharp weighs in on Syria.

Rational Insurgent gives an interview on Portland’s KBOO radio.

What Now in Syria?

23 Aug

Reuters reports the following:

Some opposition figures expressed fears that Libya’s endgame might encourage voices among the opposition calling for the arming of a hitherto largely peaceful movement in Syria.

“I fear that some in the opposition who are in a hurry to end the regime, who we have always warned against repeating the Libyan example, will say now it has been successful and resort to arms,” said Hussein, who was detained during the uprising.

“But we will resist such proposals, regardless of where they are coming from.”

Good on you, Hussein.

According to my research with Maria Stephan, resorting to violence will reduce the odds of success for the Syrian uprising by over 30%–even if a hypothetical violent Syrian uprising gets military backing from the international community (which it won’t).

Resorting to violence will also reduce the odds for democracy by about 40%.

Some movements have found it useful to make repression even more costly by switching to unpredictable methods like strikes, boycotts, go-slows, and stay-aways. These are low-risk for opposition activists, yet they keep the momentum moving. Strikes are particularly crippling and agitate the economic elites. If the security forces remain more or less united, the economic elites might be vulnerable to coercion. Apparently, the Syrian uprising is now a well-developed, national, coordinated campaign. Check out some of the innovations the campaign has implemented.

Pardon the Hiatus

22 Aug

The American Political Science Association Annual Meeting will be held in Seattle, WA from August 31 through Sept. 4. This means that I am trying to finish two separate papers that I will be presenting at the conference. One paper compares repressive policies of five different Middle Eastern and North African countries, and the other introduces a data set that seeks to explain the onset of nonviolent uprisings.

Seeing as these papers are already overdue, I’ll be wrapping them up within the next few days. But I have lots to say about recent events and will be weighing in again shortly.

Anarchists Anonymous: Rationality Without Morality is a Bummer

8 Aug

Now, this hack into the Syrian Ministry of Defense was pretty spectacular. Here is the message Anonymous pasted, in English and Arabic, on the site:

To the Syrian people: The world stands with you against the brutal regime of Bashar Al-Assad. Know that time and history are on your side – tyrants use violence because they have nothing else, and the more violent they are, the more fragile they become. We salute your determination to be non-violent in the face of the regime’s brutality, and admire your willingness to pursue justice, not mere revenge. All tyrants will fall, and thanks to your bravery Bashar Al-Assad is next.
To the Syrian military: You are responsible for protecting the Syrian people, and anyone who orders you to kill women, children, and the elderly deserves to be tried for treason. No outside enemy could do as much damage to Syria as Bashar Al-Assad has done. Defend your country – rise up against the regime! – Anonymous

For news about Anonymous, click here. On that site, you’ll find a propaganda-ish video promoting their work:

For the last couple of days, I’ve been pondering whether Anonymous qualifies as a rational actor.

The first thing a rational insurgent will do is establish a clear set of goals. In this case, the goal appears to be total free speech–the inability of any government or any person to maintain any privacy. The rational insurgent will then survey the field of available methods by which to pursue those goals, selecting the techniques that will yield the highest return. Anonymous certainly seems to have a comparative advantage using cyberwarfare, and resorts exclusively to this highly effective strategy. Under rationality assumptions, in conflict, the incentives are generally to be maximally forthcoming with information about one’s credibility and resolve. Anonymous has clearly been forthcoming with information, releasing statements and digital media claiming and explaining different cyberattacks. So, on the surface, they’re pretty much on target as strict definitions of rationality go.

But this case is a little more complex.

First, rationality is more a process of means than ends. We simply assume that actors have goals, and make no judgments about whether the goal is crazy or sensible, right or wrong. This group’s goal is essentially anarchy. They apparently want total, free, unrestricted information, which would involve governments, corporations, hospitals, and other institutions letting go of any privacy or confidentiality. In my view, this goal is unachievable. It also violates one of the most fundamental human rights (see Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), which innumerable people have fought and died for over the millenia. And, they seem unwilling to practice unrestricted information themselves. If they were really committed to their stated goals, they’d go ahead and tell us who they were.

Second, in addition to taking down the Syrian Defense Ministry’s website, Anonymous’s compatriots Anti-Sec have also been hacking into domestic law enforcement in the United States in retaliation for the arrests of hackers affiliated with their anarchist cybernetwork (h/t to Jack D). The network claims to have “no sympathy” for the well-being of law enforcement officers in the release of their personal information, since they’ve been “oppressing” people for so long. That’s too bad. One of my family members is a cop, and he spends most of his time protecting us from folks who literally want to hurt us. He gets threatened all the time by violent suspects and has gone to considerable lengths to get his personal information removed from public records to protect himself and his family. In our system, law enforcement officers exist because we pass laws (including many that constrain their actions to guarantee something close to due process) and pay taxes willingly funding their positions. We rely on them to improve our quality of life. As indiscriminate cyberattack that fails to distinguish between legitimate targets and off-limits ones confuses people. Is the group for the people, or against them? Don’t they realize that in our system, law enforcement are civilians too? Don’t they appreciate that the very presence of law enforcement is, in part, what has assured them the quality of life that has allowed them to develop the skills they now use against law enforcement? Under rationality standards, mixed signals are a bad idea, as they distort the opponent’s perception of what the group wants. One way to mix the signals is to be indiscriminate about targeting, which makes it look like antagonism for antagonism’s sake, no matter how many communiques the group issues to explain its actions. Anonymous and its network seem to think that everybody is a potential target, whether they sympathize with their overall objectives or not.

Rationality can be tricky. A group can have a ridiculous goal but still use rational means to achieve it. But because this group has an arguably unachievable goal, uses mixed signals, and seems to be willing to throw literally everyone (except themselves) under the bus to achieve their goal, I’m not sure their stated goals are truly sincere. Instead, I think they are of the type I’d call “non-rational,” an especially perplexing type of insurgent who appears rational but is really just disrupting society for disruption’s sake.

Now that I’ve said all this, I really hope they don’t hack me.

Extraordinary Documentary on Bahrain

8 Aug

The entire piece is worth watching (h/t to Nada AlWadi.).

 

Three questions that arise for me:

1). NEGOTIATIONS. Should the protesters have allowed the opposition to negotiate lesser terms than full abdication? Some gains are better than none, and some progress may have allowed the opposition some breathing space to figure out next moves. See Maciej Bartkowski and Les Kurtz on how to negotiate transitions.

2). CONFRONTING FOREIGN TROOPS. What can civil resisters do to confront foreign troops or mercenaries, as were present in Bahrain and Libya? My initial reaction is that they should avoid playing that game entirely. In other words, they should shift to more dispersed methods, like strikes, that remove the opportunity for the imported troops to crack down. Although it’s true that expats from Asia make up the majority of the labor workforce, Bahraini nationals make up 43% of the workforce, which is largely concentrated in the public sector and in the petroleum industry. As in Iran, if oil workers or civilian bureaucrats withdraw their support from the regime through a general strike, it could be crippling to the state. Although I haven’t seen the political profile of the oil workers, it wouldn’t surprise me if they are generally regime loyalists, which would preclude that possibility. But there are likely to be dissenters among them. The other option is to simply retreat, wait, regroup, and when the foreign troops go home, relaunch. Foreign powers like Saudi Arabia might be willing to take decisive action like this occasionally, but I highly doubt they are willing to do so regularly.

3). GLOBAL INFLUENCE. Although the film is clearly critical of the United States and others for standing idly by while the Bahraini regime had its way with the uprising, the question remains of what exactly foreign powers could have done to help the opposition. Although it no doubt improves morale to know that the world is on your side, what precise tools could foreign powers have used to intervene and change the course of the conflict? The United States could have denounced the regime even more harshly, and stated its support of the campaign more clearly, but would that have truly helped the strategic position of the movement? After all, nonviolent campaigns that succeeded between 1900 and 2006 mostly did so without any support from foreign powers, although they may have been inspired by other successful nonviolent uprisings.

I welcome discussion.

Regional Players Criticize Assad: Implications for Civil Resistors

8 Aug

Some key regional players–especially Saudi Arabia and Turkey–had some pretty harsh words for Bashar al-Assad’s regime this weekend. The long and short of it: the Arab League has strongly condemned Syrian crackdowns, Saudi Arabia is recalling its ambassador to Damascus, and Turkey is sending its foreign minister there for an intervention about Assad’s behavior.

How will this affect the uprising?

Well, the resistors shouldn’t get their hopes up for any material support from anyone on the outside. In truth, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and others have strong political motivations for criticizing Assad. Turkey is increasingly worried about refugees spilling over into its border and would prefer the bloodshed to stop so it can manage the thousands of Syrian refugees who have already found their way to Turkey. Saudi Arabia is probably genuinely supportive of the uprising’s goals, since their fulfillment has the potential to up-end one of the Kingdom’s regional competitors and diminish Iran’s influence at the same time. Also, maintaining legitimacy has been a bit of a struggle for the Saud monarchy of late, and the king’s condemnation of the bloodshed in Syria is likely to win him some political points at home. But given Saudi Arabia’s behavior toward its own nonviolent uprising, and its recent assistance to regional allies in crushing domestic revolts, its support for the Syrian opposition itself is likely to be ambivalent at best.

Interestingly, though, the opposition in Syria is probably better off without support from the outside, for two reasons. First, material aid from the outside can further divide the movement, undermining its unity. Some people currently involved in the resistance may be reluctant to accept aid from an outside power with whom they disagree. Add money to the mix, and you’re likely to get lots of infighting. Second, in Why Civil Resistance Works, we find that participation is key to successful nonviolent resistance. The more people involved, the better. But if potential participants get the sense that the movement is funded from the outside, they are likely to stay home rather than participate. Why would they risk their necks for a movement that has a steady stream of revenue from an outside source? The influx of cash could create the classic free rider problem. Syrian oppositionists seemed to grasp this and other risks, as evidenced by their reported rejection of U.S. funding offers.

Fortunately, our research also finds that outside support is not critical to success. In the aggregate, material aid from an outside state neither helped nor hurt civil resistance movements around the world (based on data from 1900 to 2006). Fewer than 10% of nonviolent resistance campaigns during that time period received material support (financing), while over 50% of them succeeded in their aims of regime change, anti-occupation, or self-determination.

What about regimes that continue to support Assad? The most important source of support to Assad’s regime, Iran, will stand by him until the bitter end. Because Iran is already such a pariah in the international system, there is little that can be done to alter Iran’s preferences in that regard. We don’t have many carrots or sticks left to persuade Iran to change. But in Why Civil Resistance Works, we found that even when regimes solicit their allies to help crush nonviolent uprisings, they aren’t necessarily more successful in doing so. Therefore, despite Iran’s continued meddling, activists can still be optimistic about their chances of pushing Assad out. That said, a well-timed withdrawal of diplomatic or military support for the regime by a key player like Turkey could make a difference. We saw this in the Philippines in 1986, when Ferdinand Marcos finally abandoned his struggle to maintain power as soon as he learned that Ronald Reagan’s administration would no longer defend him.

And moral support from the rest of us always helps, insofar as Syrians can sense that we’re here.