The Toxic Half-Life of Strongman Rule


Bottom Line Up Front

  • Time favors strongman regimes, as leaders alternate between stalling tactics, physical violence and belated promises of reform to attenuate protesters’ momentum.
  • Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced that he would not run for a fifth term, instead postponing elections originally scheduled for next month.
  • Widespread protests have also rocked Khartoum, where dozens have been killed demanding change in government from the 30-year rule of Sudanese strongman Omar al-Bashir.
  • The Arab Spring demonstrated the power of protests, but the rule of dictators and autocrats, often supported by Western governments, is stubbornly resistant to change.

Sustained protests to topple long-standing autocratic governments generate international attention when successful, but more often than not, authoritarians outlast periodic spikes in popular outrage. In some cases, for example Egypt and Russia, what initially appears to be positive trends toward sustainable democracy revert to the status quo. Time favors strongman regimes, as leaders alternate between stalling tactics, physical violence and belated promises of reform to attenuate protesters’ momentum. Offers of increased subsidies for fuel or food, the rising price of which can trigger protests, substitute for genuine policy change. The besieged governments also often use overwhelming force to forestall a burgeoning rebellion. High-profile opposition figures who could institute real change are frequent targets of arrest or arbitrary detention. While every situation is unique and subject to local context and historical circumstances, there are some remarkable similarities in how attempts to force political change actualize across states, especially those in the same region.

On March 10, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika returned from several weeks abroad to calls for a general strike by influential segments of society,  including elements of the dominant energy sector. The next day, he released a message announcing he would not run for a fifth term, instead postponing elections originally scheduled for April. Over the course of many weeks, tens of thousands of Algerians have taken to the streets to protest, calling for an end to the 28-year reign of Bouteflika, who allegedly used flawed elections to stay in power. The 82-year old leader might have assumed his decision to run for another term, and then step down at an unspecified date would placate the opposition, but the opposite has occurred. The President’s sheer ignorance of his perception by certain demographics in Algeria generated more public outrage. Even before calls for a general strike, the government targeted opposition figures with mass arrests. The current political maneuvering could be a way for the ruling elites to alleviate pressure, perhaps suggesting division among the leadership’s inner circle about who should replace Bouteflika. By delaying the election and connecting it to upcoming reforms, the elites are hoping to buy time to figure out their next move.

Another strongman is desperately clinging to power in Sudan, where the abysmal and sclerotic government of President Omar al-Bashir has destroyed the economy, while simultaneously exacerbating societal divides. Since December 2018, there have been massive protests calling for the end of al-Bashir’s regime, which have been met with violence; the security services have reportedly killed at least 57 people over the past several months. Others have been imprisoned for their participation in protests, which has been led in part by the Sudanese Professionals Association, an umbrella group of unions. Al-Bashir has been in power since 1989 and is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes committed in the Darfur region. In a move straight from the dictator’s playbook, he has repeatedly blamed protests on interference by unnamed foreign elements while warning the international community of the impending instability and unrest that would inevitably follow his ouster, highlighting the example of countries in the region, including Libya and Egypt.

The U.S. has a long and sordid history of support for authoritarian leaders. Algeria and the U.S. maintain a working relationship, especially in the realm of counterterrorism. Far too often, the U.S. sides with a ‘stable’ dictator who promises help with counterterrorism issues, while simultaneously perpetuating the oppression and poor governance that fuels the population’s grievances. A stark example is Washington’s support for Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who has created a climate of oppression against legitimate political opposition, human rights promotion and journalism. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has repeatedly lambasted Venezuela and its dictator, Nicolas Maduro, openly calling for his replacement. The practice of selective support for dictators – favoring those who seem to assist in fulfilling U.S. priorities in the short term – is a consistent feature of U.S. foreign policy.

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