With Egypt-Fever, Are Any Dictators Safe?

Commentators predict revolutions everywhere from Yemen to Venezuela--but is that really likely? Not all autocracies are equal

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Since Tunisia and Egypt, international observers have been trying to predict where another uprising may occur. Based on the source of the protesters' fervor--such as high cost of food and living under oppressive, corrupt regimes--some see other governments may be at risk. The Economist ranks the vulnerability of the leaders of every country in the Arab League, landing on Yemen as the most likely scene for the next uprising. They point out that in the last week, the Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, "has faced unprecedented street protests in Sana'a." They also suggest that Omar al-Bashir, president of Sudan, has the potential to be toppled, based on recent clashes between police and "jobless youths," in which "at least 70 were arrested and one killed." Other regimes are paying attention, though. The authors notice that "the leaders of Jordan, Algeria and Libya have all lessened taxes on imported food or lowered the prices of stables for fear of provoking unrest."

But commentators are now turning their gaze even to countries outside the Middle East. The Daily Beast's Mac Margolis suggests that Venezuela's Hugo Chavez may be at risk, in spite of a recent announcement that he will run for reelection in 2012. "Such confidence might seem premature," warns Margolis. "There are striking parallels" between the Chavez and the Arab leaders currently under fire. Though on its surface, Venezuela may not look like a dictatorship, Margolis warns "Venezuela under Chavez is an odd but effective political hybrid, a semi-democracy that keeps its grip on society through a combination of fear, favor, and a modicum of liberty." Then, too, he notices that despite Venezuela's large oil reserves, "shortages of basic goods" have resulted in high prices, while, even as "the rest of Latin America is booming, Venezuela posted its second consecutive year of recession." Though Chavez's grip on Venezuela has not wavered since he took office in 1999, Margolis doesn't think it impossible for the people of Venezuela to emulate their Middle Eastern counterparts in the near future.

So how plausible are these predictions? Are other autocracies really more vulnerable just because of events in Tunisia and Egypt?

Not necessarily: At the New York Times, Alan Cowell examines how some dictators hold on to their power and others crumble in the face of opposition. The key, he says, is not to blink. Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali showed his first sign of weakness when he conceded to his protesters that he would leave office in 2014--"a symbolic step backwards"--before he fled, prompted by a warning from the head of his security that "the presidential palace in Tunis was about to be stormed by hostile masses." Laurent Gbagbo of the Ivory Coast, on the other hand, is backed by the country's military and "has utterly refused to leave office despite an election awarded his opponents. He did not blink."

So where will protests spread next, and which government will begin to wobble? It very much depends on government response, since Cowell aruges "a regime's readiness and ability to push back" is a big factor: "revolutions are not only the consequence of protesters' resolve, or of their access to the stirring imagery of Al Jazeera television, or calls to arms on Twitter or Facebook." He also notes that many nearby regimes have taken Tunisia as a hint to make what amount to pre-concessions to their own people, lest they start to feel restless. "In the end, iron rule comes down to power and guile, to the ability to install a protective coterie of loyalists and outwit nascent opposition," he concludes. "In the struggle against democracy, fear works best in tandem with co-option." So, just because protesters were able to knock down one authoritarian ruler, possibly two, probably does not mean we'll see a sweeping overthrow of dictatorships world wide anytime soon.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.