Thinking Aloud: Reining In the Police State

Apr. 7, 2015 by Darius

Many times in the last decade and a half, a new ruler has come to power in the Middle East.  Almost invariably, activists, diplomats, and ordinary people hope the new leader will initiate a sweeping sea-change of reform.  Equally invariably, they have been disappointed: every single transitional ruler has failed to offer more than cosmetic changes to the regime.

The cornerstone of repressive governments from Morocco to Saudi Arabia and beyond is the mukhabarat, or secret police and intelligence apparatus.  It is the mukhabarat that continually smothers political and civil society and creates an atmosphere of mistrust and fear within the country.  Changing the ruler, as it turns out, does not change the mukhabarat.  In fact, in many cases, the opposite occurs.  Incoming rulers, who often have not had the time or interest to build their own bases of power and popularity, lean heavily on the mukhabarat to ensure a smooth transition.  In return, the new ruler agrees not to pressure or rein in the mukhabarat.  Additionally, the officers of the mukhabarat earn perpetual access to the new leader.  Ultimately, it is simply too convenient for the new leader to continue to rely on the mukhabarat’s indispensable services of manipulating “elections,” turning out appropriate crowds for special occasions, and generally maintaining the illusion of the regime’s popularity.  And so another opportunity for change is lost.

The phenomenon of the resilient police state is apparent when one considers several regime changes in the Middle East around the turn of the millennium.  In Jordan, King Hussein died in February 1999 and was immediately succeeded by his son, King Abdullah II.  Similarly, in Morocco, King Hassan II died in 1999, passing the throne on to his son, King Mohammed VI.  And in Syria, Hafez al-Assad died in 2000 and was succeeded by his son Bashar.  In all three countries, there was a very brief honeymoon period of openness before the mukhabarat restored business as usual.  Fifteen years later, none of these countries have instituted meaningful reforms.

However, it is the experience of the Arab Spring countries that demonstrates the resilience of a dictatorial system held in place by the mukhabarat.  The transitions around 2000 were all hereditary and relatively smooth.  In Egypt, though, the Arab Spring transition was neither.  Protesters attempted to sweep away the entire old regime rather than simply replacing its top.  Initially, they appeared successful.  But the new democratically elected regime was no match for the entrenched Deep State.  The old regime, with a face lift, was back in power in a year. Egypt today looks little different politically than it did in the 1970s, 1980s, or 1990s.

If the actual ruler of a country has little impact on the mukhabarat and, by extension, the fundamental relationship between the government and the people, how can change occur, and how should the United States attempt to bring about change in its policy?  The answer is emphatically not promoting elections, political parties, and such paraphernalia of democracy.  It does no good to have a freely and fairly elected Parliament, for example, if the mukhabarat gets to decide who stands for office, as is the case everywhere in the Middle East, or if the mukhabarat can influence how members of parliament actually vote (which has been exposed in Morocco in particular).  Instead, this is a rare opportunity for quiet diplomacy to work.  Established rulers have the greatest capability to rein in their thugs.  Such rulers should be pressured by the US and everyone else to establish certain uncrossable lines and accountability for the mukhabarat, even if only internally at first.

The claim that Middle Eastern countries are just not ready for democracy because the Islamists would win is used as an excuse for repressive regimes to do nothing at all about reform and continue their system of abuses.  Private US nudging, combined with occasional public shows of concern at the fate of specific dissidents and political prisoners, has occasionally gone a long way towards promoting a less repressive approach to governing, which, in turn, allows for a more open society, regardless of who is in power or how he got there.  Why it is not used more is a shame.

However, as long as the shadow of the mukhabarat continues to hang over a society, genuine pluralism cannot develop.  The first step towards a more open and secure political climate is to close the neighborhood secret police station.

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