Arab Leaders Make Efforts To Maintain Power

February 2, 2011

Alan Greenblatt

These are serious times in Egypt and the Middle East, but it's worth bearing in mind an old joke.

It goes: When Hosni Mubarak first became president, he came to a fork in the road. He asked his driver which way his predecessors had gone. Sadat had turned right, while Nasser turned left. Mubarak said, "Signal left, but turn right."

This is the strategy that many Arab leaders are pursuing in the wake of upheaval in Egypt and Tunisia, experts are saying.

"The goal is to signal a political opening, while in fact pushing a tightening," says Jon B. Alterman, director and senior fellow of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.

The potential collapse of Mubarak's regime is deeply unsettling to leaders throughout the Arab world, Alterman says. They believed that Egypt was incapable of rapid change. Now, they wonder which country will be struck next by revolutionary fever.

In order to inoculate their states against such contagion, they are pursuing a variety of strategies — cracking down preemptively on dissidents, or offering economic help to their citizenry. Mostly, Arab leaders are doing a combination of both those things.

"There's a certain formula," says Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. "There may even be like a playbook that they pass around between different leaders."

Here are some of the common steps they might pursue, based on that playbook:

Step 1: Strengthen The Security Service

Arab security ministers meet en masse with some regularity. They are now "burning the midnight oil," Alterman suggests, trying to come up with strategies to avoid letting popular discontent to morph into a mass movement.

"You basically elevate people who have been in charge of internal order and security," Katulis says.

Last week, President Mubarak appointed Omar Suleiman as his vice president. Suleiman had guided Egypt's security services for nearly two decades. Mubarak also picked as his new Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik, a former Air Force commander.

It's the same strategy King Abdullah II of Jordan pursued Tuesday by anointing Marouf Bakhit as the new prime minister. Bakhit, a former general, has also served as Jordan's national security adviser. He previously served two years as prime minister, with his first appointment coming just after the 2005 terrorist bombings of three hotels in Amman.

Aside from personnel changes, many regimes in Africa and the Middle East are doubtless taking quieter steps to tighten security, such as increasing surveillance of dissidents.

Step 2: Promise Political Reforms

In recent days, leaders such as King Abdullah II and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have promised greater openness and access within the political process. Meanwhile, Mubarak and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh have said they won't seek re-election.

How sincere they'll be remains to be seen.

Jordan has been a place that in the past has opened up the electoral process at times as a kind of release valve when agitation increases, as after the collapse of the old communist bloc in Eastern Europe in 1989.

Ultimately, however, the question of the king's authority is never broached and the country continually falls short of any movement toward constitutional monarchy.

Democracy advocates are particularly disappointed by Abdullah's pick of Bakhit. The pick of the person does not suggest that the current rhetoric will translate into real reforms, they say.

Leslie Campbell, the National Democratic Institute's senior associate and regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, says that Bakhit is "the worst possible guy" to push for political change.

"The reaction in Jordan clearly was, 'Let's say reform and appoint a government that will tamp it down," Campbell says. "This is a guy who in 2007 called people who were trying to register as domestic election monitors 'traitors' and oversaw a very poor election."

Step 3: Buy Off Unrest

Regimes that can afford to do so are answering complaints from citizens with promises of a better standard of living.

This is most strikingly the case in Kuwait; the oil-rich emirate that last week promised stipends of $3,500 a month to each citizen, along with free staple foods.

Not every country is able to offer such largesse, but many are trying. Last month, Jordan announced a $230 million package to create jobs and cut commodity prices.

In Yemen, civil service and military salaries were increased last week by about $25 per month. That's not a lot, but it was welcomed as a recognition of hardship and the cost of living. Perhaps more significantly, on Monday Saleh ordered the government to waive tuition fees for university students for the rest of this term, which ends in 2013, and to offer increased social services to 500,000 poor families.

A Lasting Shift?

Share-the-wealth strategies, large and small, point to something that could potentially signal a lasting shift. The Arab world has largely transitioned in recent decades from socialist economies to ones that recognize the so-called Washington Consensus that free market policies work best.

"There was a slow trend in Arab countries in doing away with subsidies across the board and trying to create better-crafted safety nets," says Marina Ottoway, director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Ottoway says that Arab states are not going to return to socialism or nationalization of industries, but may once again promise that they can provide basic goods and help control their prices.

"Certainly many governments that feel threatened are offering subsidies," she says. "One of the few statements the Egyptian government has made to its people is that it's stepping up the production of bread, which is incredibly cheap and subsidized." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.