At a recent party I attended we got round to discussing events in North Africa. And someone made the claim that the reason Gaddafi in Libya was able to fight back successfully against the opposition was because his regime had a lot of popular support. This comment generated quite a heated discussion, though nothing was resolved. However it did get me thinking about this idea of popular support for non democratic regimes. For it is undoubtedly true that not all non democratic regimes are the same.
My conclusion though, based on the recent tumultuous events in the Middle East is the exact opposite. I would contend that it is precisely because the Libyan regime is narrowly based and without widespread support throughout the country that Gaddafi had to fight back. By all accounts Libya is run by and for the Gaddafi clan. The key military forces that back Gaddafi are mainly mercenary forces from other parts of Africa. The speed with which senior members of the government moved to support the opposition indicates that Gaddafi’s support is quite thin. The relatively easy way in which the opposition won complete control of the eastern half of the country and parts of the west is another indication that the Gaddafi regime does not rely on a broad base of support. In such a case those who do rely on the regime for their wealth and power have only one option - to support the regime. Even if this means using violence. Otherwise they will lose all or most of their power and influence.
Something similar is clearly the case in Bahrain. There the ruling family and their wealthy supporters are all Sunnis. While the majority of the population of Bahrain is Shia. In Bahrain the Shia, though representing a majority of the population have no power or influence in their own country. A more democratic Bahrain would inevitably lead to a loss of power for the Sunni elites. They have only to look further up the Gulf to Iraq to see what happens to the Sunnis when democracy comes to a Shia majority country. It is hardly surprising that the Bahraini regime and their supporters are desperate to cling on to power, even if this means killing their fellow citizens. As in Libya, it is the unrepresentativeness of the ruling regime, which has forced it into defending its powers by the use of force.
Contrast this with what has happened in both Egypt and Tunisia. There, paradoxically, the regimes have survived to a greater or lesser extent. True that both Mubarak and Ben Ali have had to resign and give up their personal grip on power. However in both countries the moves to a new constitution are being led by members of the previous regime. This would seem to indicate to me that the regimes in both Egypt and Tunisia were in fact more broadly based that in either Libya or Bahrain. That is to say that many, many more people in Egypt and Tunisia are confident that they will continue to have access to wealth and power in any new constitutional set up. This was clearly the case with the regular army in Egypt. A very large, rich and powerful institution. They could have squashed the uprising in the blink of an eye, but chose not to. I can only suspect that the leading brass in the army reckoned that even in a new regime there would still be room for a large, rich and powerful army. A bit more democracy here, a bit less corruption here, a lot less police brutality and a more open media and the rich and powerful can continue to be rich and powerful. Only this time with even more popular support. After all how do the rich and powerful survive in our western democracies?
So my lesson from the current wave of popular uprisings in the Middle East is that they are more likely to succeed the more broad based and open the existing regime is. The narrower the regime is, whether by tribe, clan, class or religion, the more likely it is to use force to remain in power. Simply put the more the members of a regime have to lose, the more likely they are to fight to remain in power.
I will leave to others to see if this thesis fits in with other developments in the Middle East.