In 2005, long before there was an Arab Spring, Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami announced “the autumn of autocrats” and predicted that “the entrenched systems of control in the Arab world are beginning to give way.”
His prediction came to fruition in 2011, when four Arab dictators were toppled and a fifth (in Syria) came under sustained pressure from his subjects. With so many rogue rulers departing in such short order, now is an ideal time to survey the globe for what comes next.
This gallery of rogues is by no means exhaustive. Rather, it represents that collection of autocrats who generate the most news and/or the most worries for the international community—and it’s just a snapshot at that. Given the many forces impacting these regimes—political, cultural, religious, ethnic, economic—each story offers far more complexity than a thumbnail sketch can fully capture.
Yemen: HQ for AQAP
Ensconced as Yemen’s autocrat for 33 years, Ali Abdullah Saleh signed an agreement in late 2011 to transfer power to his deputy, Abed Rabbo Mansour, who is leading a caretaker government until full-fledged elections are held. But Yemen could be sliding from the ranks of Arab autocracy to Somalia-style anarchy. A powerful wing of al Qaeda—al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP)—has seized large swaths of Yemen. “Ongoing instability in Yemen provides AQAP with greater freedom to plan and conduct operations,” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper warns.
Saudi Arabia: The West’s Favorite Autocracy
Freedom House ranks Saudi Arabia among the worst countries on earth when it comes to political rights and civil liberties. King Abdullah’s regime does not allow religious freedom. Freedom of the press and freedom of speech are severely circumscribed. And there is virtually no freedom for women. But the West keeps quiet about these unpleasant realities because Saudi Arabia is a lynchpin of the oil-dependent global economy and a bulwark against Iran. Two successors have died in the past year: Crown Prince Sultan and Crown Prince Nayef. Prince Salman, the defense minister, is next in line.
Syria: Like Father, Like Son
It’s not in Bashar Assad’s DNA to countenance any challenge to his rule. Recall that his father slaughtered 20,000 Syrians to staunch a 1982 uprising. The younger Assad’s army has eclipsed that grisly milestone. However, tens of thousands of Syrian soldiers have defected and formed the Free Syrian Army. If post-Assad Syria is run by the generals, Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass, the highest-ranking deserter, is a possible successor. There is also a Syrian National Council handling civilian matters. Abdelbasset Sida leads the SNC. My Fraser Institute colleague Martin Collacott, who served as Canada’s ambassador to Syria in the 1990s, cautions, “the possibility of arriving at some sort of compromise seems remote due to the brutality of the government’s crackdown.”
Iran: A Tyranny of Terrorists
Not surprisingly, Iran has sent advisors and military personnel to Syria (Wall Street Journal). In addition to making common cause with Syria for decades, Tehran’s record of rogue behavior includes international terrorism, support for Hezbollah, an outlaw nuclear program, bloody proxy wars against the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan, and threats to close the Strait of Hormuz. As if to prove their rogue bona fides, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his puppet Mahmoud Ahmadinejad smashed pro-democracy protests after elections in 2009.
Sudan: Worst of the Worst
In control for almost a quarter-century, Gen. Omar Hassan Bashir is among “the worst of the worst” dictators on earth, according to Freedom House. Bashir’s Sudan is the very definition of a rogue regime—cultivating ties with North Korea, Qaddafi’s Libya and Hussein’s Iraq; supporting terror groups such as Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah and the Lord’s Resistance Army; and offering safe haven to Osama bin Laden (U.S. State Department). The barbaric Bashir has been implicated in slave trade and genocide. For his mass-murder campaign in Darfur, Bashir was indicted by the International Criminal Court. Bashir’s reach shrank when South Sudan broke away in 2011, though he has threatened to overthrow the breakaway region.
Belarus: Europe’s Last Dictator?
In power for 18 years, Alyaksandr Lukashenka is often called “Europe’s last dictator.” Ruling by executive fiat, his regime is characterized by “disregard for the basic rights of freedom of assembly, association and expression,” according to the State Department. In fact, after the 2010 election, Lukashenka jailed seven of the nine candidates who dared oppose him.
Russia: A Czar Is Born
After serving as prime minister in 1999, Vladimir Putin began his first presidential term in 2000; then returned to prime minister in 2008; and then returned to the presidency this year. As Robert Kagan observes, “Elections do not offer a choice but only a chance to ratify choices made by Putin.” Putin’s regime intimidates opponents, rewards cronies, controls the media and stage-manages elections. Ahead of the 2012 election, Putin’s Justice Ministry barred key opposition figures from participating. And even the Putin-approved opposition candidates dismissed the 2012 results as fraudulent. Putin’s Russia is making outlandish claims in the Arctic, occupying parts of Georgia, resupplying Assad, blocking UN action in Iran and using oil wealth to boost Russian military spending by 65 percent since 2010. If Czar Vladimir gets his way, he will rule until 2024.
Burma: Baby Steps
Ruled by the military since 1962, Burma may be changing for the better. This is partly a function of the military junta’s deplorable response to the 2008 tropical cyclone that claimed 150,000 lives. The military initially blocked humanitarian aid, which raised international awareness of Burma’s plight. In 2010, junta leaders allowed parliamentary elections, the first since 1990. Junta leaders also have released political prisoners. Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is leading what appears to be the beginning of a peaceful revolution. Although she holds just one seat in parliament (which she won in April 2012), she is using her new post to promote political freedom nationally. For her efforts, Suu Kyi has been called “Mother Democracy.” Given that this year’s elections impact just 48 of the 664 seats in Burma’s two legislative chambers, change will take time.
China: Business-Suit Autocrats
Beijing has transformed itself into a business-suit autocracy. In an indication of how un-democratic Beijing’s political process is, Hu Jintao’s successor, Xi Jinping, was chosen by a small committee of powerbrokers, introduced to the world, and then inexplicably kept in hiding for weeks ahead of the transition. Although Western reporters are charmed by what Reuters calls a “folksy smile,” it pays to recall that Xi has been a central part of the regime’s policies, which include a massive military buildup, an intimidation campaign throughout the Western Pacific, a barrage of cyberattacks, and the “harshest crackdown on dissent in at least a decade,” according to Clapper. In Xi’s China, the basic freedoms of speech, religion and assembly do not exist. Indeed, some 3 million people are rotting away in laogai slave-labor camps, many “guilty” of political dissent or religious activity. When Beijing barred dissident Liu Xiaobo and his family from traveling to Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, The Washington Post noticed a grim parallel: “Only once before has the peace prize been awarded without anyone to receive it—in 1936, when Adolf Hitler prevented German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky from attending.”
North Korea: The Kim Dynasty
The same family has been in power in Pyongyang since the end of World War II. At first glance, the prospect of a free North Korea seems low. After all, there’s no sign of a Pyongyang Spring on the horizon. But other factors suggest the end of the Kim Dynasty is not far off. First, Kim Jong-Il put in place a collective leadership structure to guide his untested son, Kim Jong-Eun. Including the younger Kim, his uncle and aunt, and a cadre of generals, the structure is inherently unstable. Second, as the Carnegie Endowment’s Minxin Pei observes, “No modern authoritarian dynastic regime has succeeded in passing power to the third generation.”
Cuba: The Cult of Castro
Fidel Castro transferred leadership to his brother, Raul, in 2008, which means Cuba has been ruled by the Castro family since 1959. Freedom House calls Cuba “one of the world’s most repressive countries” and reports “no political liberalization” in 2011. Economic freedom is non-existent. Freedom of speech, assembly, religion and movement are limited. And the Castro regime holds thousands of political prisoners. What comes after the Castro brothers? Fidel’s son, Fidel Castro Diaz-Balart, is only in his 60s.
Venezuela: Hugo’s the Boss
In control since 1999, Hugo Chavez has nationalized industries; expanded government control over the press, Internet, banks and NGOs; and limited legislative power. “Nearly all notable legislation enacted since January 2011 has been through presidential decree,” according to the State Department. Henrique Capriles, a regional governor, challenged the cancer-stricken Chavez in 2012. The Chavez regime carried out a campaign of intimidation ahead of the elections, using police to disrupt Capriles campaign activities and the National Electoral Council to block pro-Capriles political ads. Election results were not official as we went to press, but wresting control won’t be easy. Defense Minister Henry Rangel Silva says the army is “married” to Chavez’s political program.
Iraq: Baghdad Backslides
Iraq has the opportunity to be a beacon for the Middle East by continuing along the road to liberal democracy. Or it can revert to its old ways. The signs are not good. Pitched battles between Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish groups are flaring. Suicide bombings have returned. Human Rights Watch warns that Iraq is “slipping back into authoritarianism” (Morse). Citing an orchestrated effort to “decapitate” the Sunni-majority coalition, Lt. Col. Joel Rayburn, an Army intelligence officer specializing in Iraq, calls Prime Minister Nuri Malaki “a would-be strongman.”
Pakistan: Frenemy Regime
With the military, intelligence agency and civilian government as competing centers of power, Pakistan’s dysfunctional regime helped spawn the Taliban in Afghanistan; then, after 9/11, cooperated with the United States; then returned to its old ways, hatching plots against Afghanistan’s democratic government; then allowed bin Laden to hide in plain sight; then provided safe haven to Taliban and Haqqani leaders. “Support of terrorism is part of their national strategy,” as Adm. Mike Mullen said of Pakistan’s military-and-intelligence machinery last year. The nuclear-armed basket case has weathered three military coups and scores of political assassinations in its 64-year history.
The National Transitional Council (NTC) served as an umbrella for anti-Qaddafi groups during the 2011 civil war and led Libya until parliamentary elections in July 2012. A coalition of moderate groups, guided by NTC leader Mahmoud Jibril, bested Islamist parties in the elections, and Libya’s new National Assembly chose Mohammed Magarief as its president. Still, there are worries about the government’s ability to rein in militias and govern, as underscored by the assassination of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and his staff. Reuters reports that there could be hundreds of thousands of unregistered militiamen. “We don’t have a state,” concedes Jibril (Reuters). Indeed, militia leaders in eastern Libya are proposing their own capital in Benghazi and planning an independent legislature.
Egypt: Democratic Dangers
Democracy is not the inevitable successor to autocracy, which is why the world is watching Egypt so nervously. As the Egyptian military’s role receded in early 2012, reformers canceled each other out, allowing Islamists to flex their political muscle. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi won the presidency in June, and the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups won 65 percent of the seats in parliament. But then the military reasserted itself, dissolving parliament, circumscribing the new president’s authority and reserving for itself broad powers. Morsi then fired senior military officials and reversed the military’s orders. All of this suggests that there will be a tug-of-war between the old regime, reformers and Islamists, which will affect everything from the U.S. Navy’s movement through the Suez to the Israel-Egypt peace accords. Egypt could become like Turkey: a free and usually-responsible member of the international community. Or it could degenerate into something like Iran: a radicalized regime where the veneer of legitimate government covers a terror state. Worryingly, post-Mubarak Egypt began its life by holding Americans hostage and breaching the U.S. Embassy—just like post-Shah Iran.