31 January 2011
Nadim Shehadi

Nadim Shehadi

Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme



Business and policy-makers sometimes place a premium on security and stability over values like good governance and transparency. This was especially so after the 9/11 terrorist attacks where strong regimes seemed like better allies in the 'war on terror' and the subsequent violence in Iraq discouraged further attempts of introducing democracy in the region.

Current events in Egypt highlight the need to rethink and re-evaluate risk in the Middle East.

Until recently, Egypt looked secure and stable, with a solid economy and high growth rates, and a strong regime with a positive role regionally and internationally. Iraq by comparison, was - and still is - an unstable country with a political crisis, unable to manage its affairs without outside help.

Egypt's current crisis makes Iraq looks stable in comparison. This is because there is a general understanding of what the problems in Iraq are and these can be factored into decision-making and expectations.

By contrast, the Egyptian crisis was unexpected and there were no outward signs to predict it. The best possible outcome is an organized transition process, where the army maintains control. The worst case scenario is if it turns out that this is not simply a revolt against President Mubarak, but one against the whole system which includes the army and security apparatus in which case there would be complete collapse.

Appearances can be deceiving

An authoritarian regime survives by putting up a façade that looks stable and secure and effectively hides the rot underneath and also demonstrates that any alternative would be catastrophic. Unlike elected leaders who only need to spin it before elections, dictators have to maintain their legitimacy all the time. Once this fallacy is exposed, down goes the regime.

Visitors are impressed by how peaceful these countries appear and business is relatively easy. The regimes project a palatable image with cosmetic economic and political reforms. They have the winning formula: they offer to help with regional problems, often ones that they have created themselves and that only they can resolve. They thus make themselves indispensable for regional peace and stability. They have common interests, vital to the West; interests that they can help secure and threaten at the same time.

The paradox is that the weaker the regime, the stronger it appears. The less secure it is the less it allows dissent, and the more oppressive and rigid it becomes. The symptoms of weakness are rarely apparent, unless they are deliberately exhibited to show that Osama bin Laden is waiting to take over if they blink or if support falters.

If they can't bend, they can only break

What we are seeing now is evidence that when things get worse, they never get better. When the system is unable to bend, with no political process to manage crises it will appear strong until it breaks down. This is never caused by a single incident; it is a cumulative effect with no symptoms.

The protests in North Africa and the Middle East may also be a ripple effect from the fall of the statue of Saddam Hussein in 2003. This broke the taboo of regime change showing that the mightiest of dictatorships look pathetic after they fall. And there can be life after them: as the situation in Iraq improves, populations in the region are beginning to think that they can break away from the stranglehold of regimes.

What recent weeks have shown is that the stability of authoritarian regimes is an illusion, once you can contemplate life beyond them, they have already collapsed.