How many ways are there for an oppressed population to shake off its oppressors?
So far, the revolutions of the Arab Spring have shown us two. In Tunisia and Egypt, soldiers or their commanders refused to be the instruments through which entrenched dictators clung to power. Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak soon fell as a result.
Moammar Gadhafi’s army of conscripts, mercenaries and fighters from allied Libyan tribes did not desert him, despite some defections. After some initial setbacks, Gadhafi’s forces nearly overran the rebel capital of Benghazi in March, before NATO’s last-minute air intervention saved the day. Western air power neutralized Gadhafi’s much-feared helicopters, largely immobilized his forces, and allowed the rebellious population to gradually organize a reasonable facsimile of a fighting force. The rebels punched into Tripoli on Sunday and, by Tuesday, had overrun Gadhafi’s apparent headquarters, though with no immediate sign of the self-proclaimed “Guide of the First of September Great Revolution of the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.”
Syria’s military has not deserted Bashar al-Assad, either. It has worked with the state’s secret police forces to assault demonstrators by land and by sea, producing an estimated 2,000 deaths and rising international condemnation. But international action has been limited to financial sanctions, and it seems highly unlikely that any direct military intervention is in the cards, no matter how many people must die to keep Assad in office. Sanctions appear to be the only card outsiders are willing to play.
How strong a hand does that yield against Assad? History is not very encouraging. It is hard to think of any case where sanctions alone have ousted an autocratic government. Sanctions certainly have not worked against Syria’s ally Iran, which has largely succeeded in stifling the protests that followed its 2009 election. A dozen years of sanctions did not push Iraq’s Saddam Hussein from power; foreign soldiers (mostly American) did. Sanctions have not toppled tyrants in Myanmar since its 1989 coup, or in North Korea, where the Kims have held power since 1948, despite near-total isolation from global commerce. Sanctions can ravage daily life for a country’s population, but despots have a near-limitless capacity to inflict suffering on their own people.
A society’s evolution can lead to peaceful expansion of freedom, especially if that society is increasingly involved with the developed world, where open politics is the norm. This occurred in both South Korea and Taiwan in the 1980s. This process could work, or is arguably already working, in some of the more progressive nations of the Arab world, such as Jordan and Morocco. These were never truly police states anyway, though as monarchies with weak popular governments they are not examples of Western-style democracy.
Foreign conquest can, ironically, free a people from statist machinery. This is how Japan and the former West Germany entered the society of free people after World War II. And cohesive populations can organize themselves for freedom against government from abroad. It is how George Washington helped lead the United States to independence from the British in 1783, and it is how Mustafa Kemal Ataturk led Turkey to independence in 1923, also from the British, who had assumed control of what remained of the Ottoman Empire.
Military coups can lead to democracy if the military voluntarily returns to its barracks. This is often promised but seldom delivered, at least right away. Generals, like everyone else, usually find that they prefer to hold on to power and privilege once they have it. But commanders have sometimes allowed their countries to revert to civilian rule. This happened in much of South America in the 1980s, where civilian governments were restored after a hiatus of a decade or two in Chile, Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina. Usually, the generals get out of civilian life only after making a mess of the economy, as in Brazil, or of international relations, as in Argentina and Chile.
In much of the Arab world, now dominated by restrictive, self-perpetuating monarchies and other elites, the military may ultimately be the bridge between today’s entrenched ruling families and the future’s free elections. I suspect it will not be a bridge rapidly or peacefully crossed. I hope I am wrong.