And now Yemen: in recent months there has been a remarkable collapse in the ability of dictators to maintain power. The dictator model has been straightforward: control the army. In turn this involved placing family and kin groups in senior officer positions, having an extensive system of military intelligence, and ruthlessly suppressing incipient dissent. The result has been depressingly stable: Hussein, Mugabe and Gaddafi. Indeed, it was so successful that it could spawn dynasties: the Duvaliers, the Assads, the Sungs. Yet so far this year not only in Yemen but in Tunisia, Egypt, Cote d’Ivoire, and Libya dictators have been ousted or are in the terminal throes of it. What has changed? It is tempting to think that in each case the key new ingredient has been the power of the street, as was clearly the case in Tunis and Cairo. But the street was not critical to the ousting of Gbagbo, nor will it be in Tripoli. The key process is the use of a triggering event to initiate a coordinated process of salami-slicing the dictator’s own army.
In Wars, Guns and Votes, I envisaged that in certain triggering circumstances, notably a stolen election, a dictator could be removed if the international community encouraged his own army to oust him. My idea was that once army chiefs felt it likely that junior officers might launch a coup, they themselves would have a strong incentive to act pre-emptively. I imagined the international community inciting this process of defection from within the army. What is now happening is a more potent variant of this process. Incitement is now coming from an alliance between the domestic political opposition and the international community. The domestic opposition is quietly offering immunity, and indeed continuity, to the military leadership in return for defection. Thereby, it is able to commit more credibly than the international community to a satisfactory personal future for defectors.
Meanwhile, the international community is proving capable of squeezing the incumbent regime. In Egypt all it took was public diplomatic pressure. In both Cote d’Ivoire and Libya the key squeeze has been financial: a regime with apparently secure sources of funding rapidly found itself running out of cash. All it then takes is a relatively modest military threat. In Cote d’Ivoire this was internal: the Forces Nouvelles, on paper far weaker than the official Ivorian army, won because the latter largely melted away. Motivating this rapid erosion was not fear of fighting, but recognition that given the financial squeeze the only possible longer term outcome was a change of regime, so that those officers who actively supported the old order would lose their jobs.
In Libya, the military forces of the internal opposition were even weaker than the Forces Nouvelles, which is why they initially required international air protection. But now that the international military intervention has evolved to air attacks that are gradually degrading the official army, there can again only be one end result. The regime can neither access nor finance replacements for the equipment it loses, while the opposition forces are gradually strengthening. With the end-game unambiguous, the officer core will now be making the same calculation as did that of Cote d’Ivoire. As in Cote d’Ivoire, military defeat for the regime may require considerably less actual fighting than currently feared: as the end nears the army will evaporate.
These experiences both illustrate a model and set precedents. The model combines a red line and salami-slicing. The red line is some action that triggers coordination between the domestic political opposition and the international community. In Cote d’Ivoire it was the refusal of Gbagbo to accept the UN-certified result of an election which he had himself requested the United Nations to certify. In Libya it was the ugly public threats of revenge, presenting the international community with the choice between passive complicity in mass slaughter or intervention. In Yemen it was the public humiliation of Middle East envoys as the president reneged on a signing ceremony. So far the Syrian regime has escalated its repression gradually and so avoided a red line.
There have long been red lines, but what is new is the successful resort to salami-slicing of the regime’s army. An international diplomatic-financial-military squeeze generates a credible fear in the officer core that the regime will not last. If the domestic political opposition then promises preferment for defectors, it starts a chain reaction of military erosion. The policy lesson for both domestic oppositions and the international community is that it is now more worthwhile to invest in red lines.
This article first appeared on Social Europe Journal