How do you get authoritarian leaders to step down before their stubbornness lays waste to their countries? When the Jasmine Revolution forced former President Zine al-Bidine Ben Ali to flee into exile in Saudi Arabia last month, hope seemed to awaken again that people power can topple dictators. Ben Ali had ruled Tunisia for 23 years. Across North Africa and the Arab world, people rose up in protest against their rulers: in Egypt, Yemen, Jordan and Syria.
In the first two countries, the long-time presidents promised not to run for office and not to back their sons as their successors. In Jordan, the king sacked the government with promises of reforms. But as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak rejects the crowd’s demands that he step down immediately, Egypt’s popular revolution has stalled. Mubarak seems to be playing a waiting game.
Mubarak is not the only authoritarian whom opposition seems unable to unseat. In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe’s misrule has impoverished what was once one of Africa’s richest and most advanced countries; and Mugabe seems to be slipping out of the power-sharing agreement with Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. With Mugabe’s new aggressiveness, the country has begun to slip back into a situation of economic and social distress.
In Ivory Coast, President Laurent Gbagbo has refused to step aside for the newly elected Alassane Ouattara, whose government is holed up in a hotel guarded by U.N. troops. Several African Union efforts to mediate an end to the standoff have not altered the situation. The union’s threat to use force has proved an empty one. For a variety of reasons, West African governments are reluctant to take action against Gbagbo.
A major factor, certainly, in the obstinacy of delegitimated leaders is the military. Popular uprisings can lead to political change when the military stands aside, as it did in Tunisia in January or in the Philippines in 1988. In Egypt, however, the military’s position has been uncertain at best. For this reason, the Obama administration is right to attempt to employ its longtime ties to the Egyptian armed forces to facilitate a transition in government. But what the military will do is hard to discern.
What is distinctive about Egypt is not only that the young people’s uprising continues to grow, but that it has maintained extraordinary nonviolent discipline in its ranks. The protestors in Tahrir Square police their own trash, receive and protect visitors and tend to their wounded. More remarkable, there does not appear to be any training in the techniques of nonviolence. Violence has come from agents provocateurs, so-called Mubarak supporters with out-of-uniform police and secret police in their numbers. If the protestors’ nonviolent resistance can be maintained as the movement grows, there may be opportunity for the kind of broad public campaign of noncooperation that could force the military to give up its lingering support for Mubarak in the interest of preserving its identification with the Egyptian people.
In sub-Saharan Africa, nonviolent resistance does not seem yet to be an option. Under the principle of the Responsibility to Protect, the removal of dictators depends on the international community. It appears that the African Union lacks the will and the capacity to force despots from power, so the responsibility falls to the United Nations. In the absence of a standing emergency force, however, the Security Council is also hamstrung. In the Arab world popular resistance may offer an alternative; in sub-Saharan Africa there seems to be no workable alternative to despotism yet.