The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Autocrats: Key Strategies That Beat Down the Arab Spring and Keep Regimes in Power

The 10th anniversary of the Arab Spring has unleashed a torrent of retrospectives focused on the legacy of the uprisings, mostly their failures. All these years later, the root causes of the uprisings—such as human rights abuses, the lack of social justice, poor economic governance, and widespread corruption—are in some ways more strikingly present than ever before.

After all the exuberance of the Arab Spring, this may appear confounding. Progress and change seemed inevitable somehow. But those years taught a lot of hard lessons, and not just to the activists of 2011 and the period that followed. Authoritarian governments throughout the world drew their own conclusions, too, mainly about adaptability and resilience in the face of dynamic new threats to their power. So they began to update their own strategies to meet the challenge.

Today’s authoritarian regimes are “better adapted to a world of open borders, global media, and knowledge-based economies” and less reliant on brute force, according to the academics Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman. In fact, as a result of long, hard experience, such regimes have developed seven key habits to keep themselves on top in the face of changing political norms and global expectations. In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), the consistent exercise of the seven habits of highly effective autocrats is an important key to understanding the persistence of authoritarianism and roadblocks to change. Here they are, and how they work in practice.

1. Control the Information Space.

Control of information has been largely substituted for naked force in dealings with citizens; violence need only be used if manipulation of the information space is failing. State media (and state-sponsored trolls) will put out the leadership’s message; independent media, if there is any, may be allowed to function, at least to the extent to which they echo official talking points. Above all, social media is the main front in the battle for control.

In Egypt, the government’s information ministry has started a social media program that employs dozens of Instagram influencers to counter negative coverage of the country abroad by highlighting modern, “cool” images of youthful Egyptians at work and at play. While the influencers deny having a political agenda or receiving payment from the government, the regime has offered to boost their social media accounts in various ways, and the ministry admits the intent is to “support Egypt’s image in the media through these influential youth.” Saudi Arabia launched a similar effort after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018. A slightly more sophisticated version of this strategy is being tried in the United Arab Emirates, which now requires social media influencers to obtain a license to operate. The move is ostensibly intended to “professionalize” the industry, but has the effect of ensuring that content meets a wide range of government standards, including political rules requiring posters to “show respect for the UAE leadership” and “refrain from spreading false information” while burnishing the UAE’s image.

If all else fails, repressing online content and discussion is a handy option. Egypt and the UAE are among countries with laws forbidding online speech critical of the government.

If all else fails, repressing online content and discussion is a handy option. Egypt and the UAE are among a number of countries with laws forbidding online speech critical of the government; it is sometimes dealt with under anti-terrorism statutes as well. Hundreds of social media accounts have been banned or shut down by authorities throughout the region.

In addition, governments such as Egypt’s and Saudi Arabia’s employ armies of trolls and bots to harass and threaten activists and regime opponents, and social media apps themselves can be used for online surveillance. The United Arab Emirates, for example, has used ToTok, an Emirati messaging app, to track users’ communications and content. To be sure, the UAE is by no means alone in its exploitation of messaging and social media apps in this regard.

Some governments have set their sights even higher. Pro-regime trolls in Iran apparently tried to influence the 2020 US presidential election by disseminating pro-Trump propaganda, in part through operation of more than 2,200 “sock puppets” on Facebook that interacted with some six million users.

2. Respect Democracy—but Not Really.

A second key habit of effective authoritarian regimes is observing democratic norms and forms. This does not mean, of course, accepting the importance of democracy. Far from it. Successful modern autocracies “simulate democracy, holding elections that the incumbents almost always win, bribing and censoring the private press rather than abolishing it, and replacing comprehensive political ideologies with an amorphous resentment of the West,” according to research by Guriev and Treisman.

Often this is accomplished by hollowing out once-credible institutions of a democratic state, such as the judiciary, and replacing key bureaucrats with regime loyalists. Parliaments are needed to bolster the impression of democracy, but their ability to perform actual oversight of the executive is limited or nonexistent. Extensions of executive power or tenure in office happen regularly, often via seemingly democratic processes such as a constitutional amendment or other parliamentary action. Turkeychanged 74 articles in its constitution in 2018 to grant President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan significant new powers; Egypt amended its constitution in 2019 to allow president Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi to run again, enabling him to remain in power at least until 2030. In many of these systems, parliamentary and presidential elections continue to be held routinely, and opposition parties are allowed to run, but the outcomes are not often in doubt: government-friendly candidates are usually the winners.

3. Control Nongovernmental Organizations.

Preventing citizens from challenging authority, competing with the government for influence, or holding the government accountable—these are the main purposes of laws restricting civil society organizations. At least 50 countries have passed such laws worldwide, including at least six in the MENA region. These often involve burdensome restrictions on registration, prohibitions on certain funding sources (including, especially, foreign funding), requirements for pre-approval of meetings or other restrictions on freedom of assembly, and limits on acceptable areas of work—particularly political or human rights work. All can sharply restrict civil society activities of all types. This helps to ensure that civil society cannot threaten government secrecy, policy, or prerogatives, or compete with government—for example by delivery of social services—in a way that would enable civil society to establish influence or a constituency independent of government authorities.

Egypt is a prime example. After prosecuting a case against foreign NGOs involved in democracy and human rights issues shortly after Mubarak’s overthrow, convicting 43 of their employees of felonies in 2013, Egypt went on to pass a harsh NGO law in 2017 that tightly restricts or bans most domestic NGO activities. The law was amended in 2019, ostensibly to eliminate some of the harshest penalties for violations (such as prison terms) and bring it more into line with international standards. But it had the opposite effect, cutting off all sorts of avenues of work and inquiry. For example, the 2019 law prohibits conducting opinion polls and publicizing their results without prior approval from the authorities; the same is true for any kind of field research. The law also bans any vaguely defined “political” work or activities that undermine “national security.” Cooperation with foreign organizations is also prohibited.

In Egypt, a 2019 law prohibits conducting opinion polls and publicizing their results without prior approval from the authorities; the same is true for any kind of field research.

Restrictions such as these in Egypt and elsewhere have tightly circumscribed the scope and effectiveness of NGO work, cutting organizations off from international financial support, training, and networks, thus making them far easier for government to control while still claiming it allows a broad range of NGO activity,

4. Build the Brand!

A successful modern authoritarian state touts its own success, not just to convince its citizens that it is capable and effective, but to raise up its model as superior to other models. To paraphrase the writer Gore Vidal, “it is not enough to succeed; others must fail.” China and Russia are leading the charge on behalf of authoritarians everywhere to present their systems of governance as the wave of the future, and have found friendly audiences in Egypt, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, among other places.

Governments in the Middle East are beginning to adopt such practices, too.

Iran, for one, has mounted a massive online effort not just to spread disinformation and attempt to influence the recent US election, but also to puff up the regime’s own moral and religious authority while drawing attention away from its failings and abuses. And Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, a massive and hugely ambitious plan for economic and social transformation, has (among other aims) the goal of advancing an image of the kingdom as a cultural and religious leader, not just in the Arab region but worldwide. A flashy new tourism campaign seems designed to help.

Indeed, culture and education are tried and true avenues for building the authoritarian brand. Wealthy Gulf Arab states have sought influence through funding of think tanks, educational institutions, and charities, which helps drive the conversation in the United States and burnish their image. Regional campuses of American and European universities have sprung up throughout the Gulf region, particularly in the UAE and Qatar, serving a similar purpose apart from their undoubted educational mission.

In Washington, competitive brand building has led to something of a lobbying arms race among many MENA countries, often featuring rival states in the Arab Gulf who are intent on building credit with the public while pleading their case to lawmakers, the administration, and the media.

5. Solidarity at the Top.

Successful modern autocracies teach each other, and the best practices they absorb help keep them in power and assist others to do the same. International meetings and regional organizations, some of which are set up by authoritarian regimes themselves, can and have served as autocratic universities, to coin a term, in which anti-democratic policies can be discussed and agreed, providing a veneer of international legitimacy through resolutions, communiqués, and group initiatives. The Arab League, for example, passed a Human Rights Charter in 2004 and established an Arab Court of Human Rights in 2014, both of which served to address international criticisms of human rights abuses in the Arab region without imposing meaningful, enforceable obligations on League members. On occasion, regional organizations can support embattled members more directly, as the Gulf Cooperation Council states did in March 2011 when they authorized military intervention to put down mass protests threatening the Bahraini government.

MENA states have also cooperated to transform the international human rights framework into a more dictator-friendly space by protecting each other in international rights bodies.

MENA states have also cooperated to transform the international human rights framework into a more dictator-friendly arena by protecting each other in international rights bodies and by surveilling and intimidating activists in these spaces. All this helps boost their national efforts to diminish rights and freedoms as well as to “create a parallel human rights framework that denies rights and undermines State accountability.”

6. It’s Always Somebody Else’s Fault.

Blaming the foreigner, or the stranger in the midst, or those whose opinions the government abhors, or a global conspiracy can create a sense of solidarity among the populace and put political opposition on the defensive. For example, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia used the specter of Iranian intervention to justify the bloody 2011 crackdown on protesters in Bahrain, and a number of Arab states have demonized the Muslim Brotherhood to justify severe human rights abuses. The United States, of course, is a favorite foil of many authoritarians, including adversaries like Iran but also allies such as Egypt, which attacked the United States for funding pro-democracy activities in the country after the 2011 revolution. Israel has featured in almost every conspiracy theory purveyed in the Middle East since 1948.

Here’s an important corollary. Just as it helps autocrats to have the right sort of enemies, it also helps them to have friends in high places. To the extent that illiberal policies spread in democratic countries, critics can be turned into friends, lessening any pressure to conform to genuine democratic practices or respect for human rights norms. Egypt’s Sisi found this out after the 2016 election in the United States, as did Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, whom Trump repeatedly protected from congressional punishment for his involvement in the Khashoggi killing and the devastating war in Yemen. And as Freedom House has noted regarding the spread of illiberal ideas, politicians, and parties in the West, “Even when there is no direct collaboration, such behavior benefits authoritarian powers by breaking down the unity and solidarity of the democratic world.”

7. Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste.

The coronavirus pandemic is only the most recent example of a crisis affording an opportunity for regimes to lock up activists and crack down on political opponents. In Algeria, for example, the Hirak protest movement more or less voluntarily withdrew from public demonstrations in early 2020 at the onset of the pandemic, followed immediately by a government campaign to identify and pick off and imprison its leaders, journalists, and opposition figures. In Egypt, the parliament passed amendments to the emergency law still governing the country in April 2020 that granted additional power to the president and the military in response to the virus.

Anti-terrorism laws have been used in the Middle East to criminalize a broad range of speech and conduct ranging from insulting the ruler to damaging social cohesion.

It does not have to be a pandemic, of course. The threat of terrorism, real and imagined, has frequently served as justification for clampdowns on political activities and human rights. Anti-terrorism laws have been used in the Middle East to criminalize a broad range of speech and conduct ranging from insulting the ruler to damaging social cohesion. Strictures put in place to respond to a so-called emergency also have a way of remaining in place far longer than the emergency itself; for example, Egypt has been governed under emergency rule, with a brief interruption during 2012-13, since 1981.

All Good for Now, but for How Much Longer?

In the years preceding the uprisings of 2011, the traditional ruling bargain in the MENA region—in which governments bought social and political peace through government jobs, favors, and subsidies often underwritten by oil wealth—had begun to fail. It only became more dysfunctional after petroleum prices began a long-term slide in 2014. Instead of using the intervening years since 2011 to fashion a new governing bargain, Arab rulers “didn’t make good use of their reprieve. There were no political reforms to make systems more inclusive, and no economic reforms to address corruption, improve governance, and create jobs,” as former Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher has written.

It is doubtful that the practice of the seven habits of highly effective autocrats can keep Arab citizens at bay forever, whether or not regimes enjoy the support of Russia or China. Activists and regime opponents, like their governments, have proven quite adaptable. Cracks in the system have already begun to appear, and they will be exploited by anti-regime forces at some point down the road. Rulers in the MENA region soon must learn to start practicing a new habit—that of listening to and respecting their own citizens—before the next wave of revolution comes along.