The Political Economy of Ending Tyranny

Will the Middle East uprisings succeed?


Longstanding Arab autocracies are collapsing like overcooked soufflés. What will happen in those countries next?

The collapse of authoritarian regimes is not all that unusual. Between 1945 and 2002, 316 authoritarian leaders across the globe fell from power through nonconstitutional means, according to a 2009 study in the American Journal of Political Science by the University of Illinois political scientist Milan Svolik. "Nonconstitutional means" include any exits that were not the result of natural death or a constitutionally mandated process, such as an election, a vote by a ruling body, or a hereditary succession.

Of the 303 despots for whom Svolik could unambiguously ascertain how they lost political power, 32 were removed by a popular uprising. Another 30 left under public pressure to democratize. Twenty were taken out by assassins, and only 16 were removed by foreign intervention. The remaining 205 were ousted by coups d'etat.

Svolik develops a model of dictatorship in which autocrats achieve power initially as the first among equals in a ruling coalition. Constant jockeying for access to resources and authority gives new dictators an incentive to reward loyalists and to weaken members of the coalition who might challenge them. About two-thirds of the time, according to Svolik's data, this process of power consolidation provokes a successful coup d'etat.

The longer a dictator rules, the more secure his power. Among tyrants who ruled for less than 10 years, 162 were removed by coups while only 31 died of natural causes while in power. By contrast, among despots who ruled for 10 years or more, only 41 were removed by coup while 45 died of natural causes while in power.

Svolik also found that the tenure of military dictators averages a bit over four years, while single-party and "personalist" dictators average about 11 years in power. Personalist dictators are despots who destroy pre-existing social and political institutions; as a result, they eliminate rival centers of power where would-be opponents might organize and plot. A case in point is Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi, who undermined the army that brought him to power. Instead he created institutions that were directly dependent on the dictator and his family for resources. The Khamis brigade, for example, is a special military unit created and run by Qaddafi's son Khamis. Similarly, the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin ruthlessly purged his regime of both real and imagined enemies, so that all who remained were directly beholden to his patronage. Stalin died in his bed. 

Coups are not the only potential problem faced by tyrants. The possibility of a popular uprising is also a threat. Michael Spagat, an economist at the Royal Holloway College at the University of London, has developed a model that basically validates Niccolo Machiavelli's advice in The Prince that "it is far better to be feared than loved."

A tyranny's subjects are moved by hate and fear. Hate drives citizens to overthrow a regime; fear deters such attempts. But the level of fear decays over time, so Spagat argues that the optimal strategy for a rational dictator is to boost fear periodically by initiating repressive cycles. The cyclical nature of this "rational repression" can mislead outside observers. "Western powers often monitor the behavior of repressive regimes, often rewarding them during periods of relative liberality," Spagat writes. "However, if these lax periods are part of a natural cycle that tends toward reversal, such treatment is inappropriate."

History is not just a series of coups and cyclical repression. Today, according to the independent freedom advocacy group Freedom House, 45 percent of the world's countries are free, up from 29 percent in 1972. When does a country successfully make the transition from dictatorship to democracy?

The MIT economist Daron Acemoglu and the political scientist James Robinson, then at Berkeley, addressed this question in an influential 2001 article for The American Economic Review. According to their model, the central problem is inequality and the redistribution of assets. The poor are politically powerless but pose a revolutionary threat to the rich. As revolutionary pressures rise, the rich often try to buy off the poor.

We've seen that strategy at work in the Arab world. In February, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia promised to distribute $36 billion to his subjects. Deposed Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak tried to stay in power by raising the salaries of government workers by 15 percent. Similar promises have been made by the rulers of Bahrain and Oman. Even Qaddafi promised to distribute $400 to each family and to raise salaries for state employees as much as 150 percent.

As Acemoglu and Robinson show, ruling elites have strong incentives to back out of the promised redistribution once the revolutionary threat recedes. But if the temporary redistribution is insufficient to stop an uprising, elites may have to make a credible commitment to future income redistribution. How? By giving the poor the right to vote. Acemoglu and Robinson argue that "in democratic societies the poor impose higher taxes on the rich than in nondemocratic societies."

Acemoglu and Robinson note that a number of countries have oscillated between periods of autocracy and democracy. In a common pattern that appears to be playing out now in Thailand, the rich temporarily extend the franchise to the poor, who then vote for radical reform, which in turn provokes the rich to support a coup. The higher the level of inequality, the more attractive revolutions are to the poor and coups are to the wealthy. "Therefore, societies with more initial inequality are more likely to switch between democracy and nondemocracy, and less likely to have a fully consolidated democracy," conclude Acemoglu and Robinson.

The authors suggest that one way to break this cycle is a combination of asset redistribution and credible constitutional limits on taxation. Redistributing assets permanently changes the level of inequality. Land reform in Taiwan and South Korea, for example, likely set the stage for consolidating democracy in those countries. Another form of asset redistribution is education, which allows the poor's human capital to increase relative to the wealth held by the rich. Meanwhile, constitutionally limited taxes remove much of the incentive that the rich have to support a coup.

It should be noted that nine of the 11 countries with the biggest gap between the rich and the poor are relatively stable high-income democracies. Higher average incomes appear to counter revolutionary tendencies.

Given the level of inequality and poverty in most Middle Eastern countries, the models suggest that the long-run prospects for consolidating democracy are dim. The popular uprisings may be hijacked by elites and essentially turned into coups. But let's hope that the models prove wrong, and that the people who are now bravely struggling to free themselves from tyranny will soon enjoy the blessings of liberty.  r