Egypt's Lessons for Asia

The impact of the drama spreading from North Africa into the Levant and Arabia is being carefully tracked and assessed by governments across the region, their foreign patrons and creditors.

For authoritarian regimes and their subject populations, the often inchoate courage displayed on the streets of Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and Yemen may be respectively deeply troubling and dangerously tempting.

Asia's experience with popular uprising, as opposed to slow-burning revolutions, anti-colonial campaigns and civil wars, is limited to the Philippines – where the very term 'people power' was coined – and the simmering and multi-layered response to the elite's disdain for the electoral franchise in Thailand. For regimes that rely on the protection of hard and soft power, reward and condign penalties for transgressors, the failure of these blandishments and threats to maintain the status quo in key Middle East countries will be viewed with a mixture of incredulity and rapid reassessment of policies and loyalties.

What will shock any authoritarian power is the speed with which critical mass can confront and then brush aside a deeply embedded security apparatus, destroying its carefully constructed image of invulnerability from sanction and the sense that the individual citizen is held under constant scrutiny.

While Eastern Europe experienced this epiphany – complete with the stark images of the hurried slaughter of the Ceauşescus on Christmas Day 1989, an event until the present upheaval that must have served as the model bad ending for many totalitarian leaders – few other countries similarly afflicted with regimes that view their own people with fear, suspicion and contempt have failed to do so.

Bend or break

The fate of the besieged political elites in Cairo, Amman and Sana'a will obviously exercise the greatest influence on others who fear the uncontrolled manifestation of popular anger may pose even a distant threat to their – or their successors – status and privileges. This gives the strategies now being employed by Middle East governments seeking to retain collective power and authority a universal significance.

Some lessons have already been well learned in Asia, though there are no parallels for the 'contagion' of revolt now threatening regimes that less than a month ago were seemingly impervious to any realistic challenge.

The first rule for a beleaguered autocracy facing their nemesis is to wear out the protestors through a combination of demonstrating the cost of defying the established order – such as instigating anarchy once batons, tear gas and selective sniping have failed to clear the streets. Relying on the 'adrenaline rule' that can shape street protests – the first 36 hours are invariably followed by a lull due to exhaustion among the more activist elements – either strike hard or use the moment to introduce pledges or reforms.

Some sacrificial sackings can add credibility to this process. Further promises set in the not-too-distant future may be aimed at the less militant or committed sections of the protest movement, as well as foreign patrons and the markets.

If this fails to begin the process of breaking the unity of the protestors, darker forces may be unleashed to accelerate this aim. Physical and character assassination, the unleashing of 'supporters,' rumors of defections and treachery, atrocities allegedly committed by extremists linked to the anti-government movement may all help prolong the regime's existence and reduce cohesion among its opponents. This process appears to well under way in the Middle East.

The greatest threat to an entrenched leadership is less the physical challenge posed by the 'street' than other elements within the regime who either represent a parallel power structure or who see instability or a weakened leader as an opportunity to further their own interests and agenda. The most obvious is the military – which applies across much of Asia as it does in the Middle East.

Efforts to seriously weaken the armed forces as a distinct political entity have largely failed in Asian countries where they have traditionally served as the self-appointed and overt arbiter of power. In these countries - notably Pakistan, Burma, Thailand, all of Indochina. Indonesia, the Philippines and China - the military either controls the state or serves as a Damoclean reminder that it could, and needs no lessons from the Middle East as to how it may be achieved. Nevertheless, the Middle East imbroglio will lead civilian politicians to look again at their generals and perhaps reassess how they may best be held close.

Protest and survive

For anti-government protestors the unfinished lessons of the Middle East uprisings should perhaps be informed by two of Machiavelli's famous dictums; "A prince never lacks legitimate reasons to break his promise," and "Never do an enemy a small injury." The latter advice, with its implication that unless the protestors are prepared to carry through the logical end of their opposition to a regime, they may have generations to rue their decision to rise up in the first instance. The same points apply anywhere a regime with much to lose and nothing to gain through being deposed is confronted by an existential threat.

The main risk facing protestors once they have moved beyond the initial euphoria of action is the ability of their opponents to separate them from the source of their power, which in the case of a popular uprising is its focused and unified mass. As noted, efforts will be made from all directions to erode cohesion, encourage factionalism and undermine command and communications capabilities.

There are numerous examples of seemingly successful revolts failing due to the loss of stamina and nerve by activists and fear and treachery among their leaders. An excellent case study detailing this map happen is offered in the 1536 northern uprising against England's King Henry VIII. A serious threat to the Tudor throne was averted by Henry following Machiavelli's advice, coupled with the recognition by key leaders that their true interest did not lie with those of the masses. The aftermath of what became known as 'the pilgrimage of grace' was also instructive to all those who raise their hand against the state: hundreds were executed, many after extreme torture.

Gavin Greenwood is a security analyst with the country risk firm of Allan & Associates in Hong Kong.