Why 'Divide and Rule' Survived the Arab Spring

Global Challenges Conflict

Why 'Divide and Rule' Survived the Arab Spring

Posted on: 20th March 2014
Thomas Thorp
Policy and Research

The Arab Spring was widely heralded as the death of authoritarianism in the Middle East and North Africa. The cross-sectarian nature of the protests demonstrated the desire of the people to overcome differences in order to defy the authorities. Muslims carried Christian crosses during protests and Christians linked hands to form a human shield around mosques during prayer times. Tragically, this unity was short-lived. Today churches are being burnt and Sunni and Shia are killing each other in renewed sectarian violence, even in states with new governments. Continuing sectarianism suggests that authoritarianism has survived. Supporters of new governments should be wary of how 'new' they really are.

Steven Heydemann of the United States Institute for Peace, explains this survival through his theory of 'authoritarian learning'. Briefly, Heydemann's argument is that, in response to mass protests, authoritarian regimes have adapted to increase their likelihood of survival by generating greater loyalty and fracturing opposition. Moreover, even when they do not survive, these adaptations severely reduce the likelihood of peaceful transitions. Significant in this process is the promotion of sectarian divisions to create an insecure, contested environment.

The examples of surviving authoritarian regimes in Bahrain and Syria demonstrate Heydemann's theory clearly. In the wake of uprisings in Bahrain that consisted, for the most part, of Shia protestors, the Sunni monarchy has reinforced its patrimonial Sunni networks. This has strengthened Sunni loyalties while Shia organisations have been heavily restricted. In Syria, the regime's Alawite and non-Muslim support base has been reinforced through exclusionary redistribution of economic resources, state media showcasing a conflict between militant Islamist opposition groups and a minority-protecting 'secular' regime, and the reality of increased sectarian 'cleansing' in some conflict areas. In both these cases the promotion of sectarian divisions has strengthened support bases and made the post-conflict outlook increasingly unlikely to be democratic. Indeed, a more repressive regime has emerged in Bahrain and is likely to in Syria whether or not Assad survives.

However, beyond surviving regimes, the experiences of Egypt and Libya suggest that individual authoritarians have learnt to adapt outside of regime structures. In these countries, authoritarianism has survived because regimes that fell, fell so quickly that political actors from before, whose whole experience is under authoritarianism, are still at large in the present. Politicians that defected are now in charge; militaries are still powerful. These authoritarians – those that expect unquestioning obedience to their authority – have authoritarian methods engrained at their core. In the face of continuing unrest and strong protest and opposition movements, new governments have learnt to use authoritarian tactics under a new guise of protecting democracy. In Egypt, for example, the army, always the power behind Mubarak's throne, are in control again after the July 2013 coup, using repressive tactics to suppress protests and, as was seen last week, mass sentencing perceived opponents to death on spurious charges and evidence. In Libya, separatist groups are labelled Islamic terrorists, and militias are used to reinforce political battles.

Divide and conquer has long been an authoritarian tactic. The reason, therefore, that sectarian divisions have persisted is that those in power and who were in power want them to. Authoritarians have always played on the loyalties of believers whose sect is aligned with their own, but the events of the Arab Spring have thrown this into much harsher perspective. The one time that authoritarian methods were overcome was when the opposition united across sectarian divides. Fomenting sectarian divisions is therefore a high priority. This is demonstrated by the sectarianism that has renewed itself in these countries after the initial unification during the protests. Tactics highlighted by Heydemann are evident. Fracturing of the opposition by declaring groups as 'terrorist', putting groups of thugs onto the streets to attack one sect while shouting the slogans of the other, and generally playing sectarian suspicions off one against the other in state media should sound familiar to analysts of Egypt and Syria alike.

Simply put, authoritarians have learnt that dividing opposition along sectarian lines is too successful a tactic for creating a breakdown of law and order that justifies repressive intervention. Inter-sectarian and inter-faith collaboration during the Arab Spring was a beacon for a new, fairer politics in the Middle East. Western governments have been keen to support 'new' governments in order to foster this. But this unity was short lived. Western governments should therefore be cautious. If new governments continue to resort to old tactics, there won't be any new politics to support.

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