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As part of the Coro Fellows Program in Public Affairs, these fellows are engaged in a full-time, nine-month, graduate-level leadership training program that prepares individuals for public-affairs leadership.

How to build democracy

Question: Put yourself in the shoes of an autocratic Middle Eastern leader: Let peaceful protests continue and you could easily wind up out of power, like Egypt's Mubarak. Or get tough with the protests and you'll certainly lose popular and international support. What's the best strategy for holding onto power without harming the country?

The following responses come from four fellows, from two different Coro 2011 classes around the country. Trevor and Sophia are members of the Coro Pittsburgh class, and Victoria and Alex are members of the Coro San Francisco class.

Lend an ear
The response by many Middle Eastern autocrats to the wave of popular uprisings has been defiant or dismissive. In Egypt, Mubarak enraged protesters with belittling statements, like announcing that he finds "no shame in listening to my country's youth and interacting with them." In Libya, attempts to play down the significance of protests have been coupled with violent suppression. Neither regime showed a willingness to enter into conversation about reforms.

Mubarak's regime has been toppled, and the Qaddafi government condemned internationally for its use of violence. If they are to stay in power and maintain legitimacy amidst the tide of protests, Middle Eastern autocrats must walk a fine line between recognizing protesters' demands and asserting their authority.

The leadership of King Abdullah II of Jordan provides a glimpse into what this balancing act might look like. King Abdullah, facing growing discontent with his government--although not nearly as acutely as what some of his neighbors have faced--has attempted to stave off protests by listening early and often. He has paid surprise visits to poor villages and impoverished areas and has doled out assistance where it was needed. He has invited interest groups, from teachers' unions to Islamists, to discussions about government accountability. He has promised reforms to the country's rules governing public assemblies. He replaced his cabinet members, which included the appointment of a new prime minister intent on listening to public grievances. The result of these measures? Fewer protests with smaller turnouts. By appearing open to dialogue, King Abdullah defused tensions and bought himself time to address popular unrest.

For embattled middle eastern autocrats, the best strategy might be to just pull up a chair and lend an ear. - Trevor Croxson

Weed control
Control of power is a preemptive art: Spray chemicals before weeds begin to grow and it is easy to remove the few that manage to emerge. If Middle Eastern leaders want to keep their countries in line and intact, they should learn a thing or two from master gardener Hu Jintao. China has been well versed in the use of propaganda since the Cultural Revolution and has since managed to manipulate Chinese sentiments through extreme media control. According to the New York Times, when talk of the "Jasmine Revolution" began to spread, the phrase was blocked from search engines and cell phone texts could not be sent to more than one person at a time.

More than this, however, China has managed to create an image of success and unity epitomized by the Beijing Olympic Games. While this image was tainted internationally by Chinese relations with Tibet, the West was forced into complicity with the knowledge that good relations with China are necessary for the coming years. And while many Chinese were displaced by the building of the stadium (and showcased many of the country's deep inequalities), the beautiful architecture became a prideful national symbol of progress. Equity and justice and not key factors in Hu Jintao's China, but it is hard to dispute that whatever he is doing is good for the country as a whole.

If Mubarak had convinced the United States that his cause was necessary to the future of United States' interests in the Middle East, he may have had more international backing instead of quiet suggestions to step down. He could have gotten tough with the protests without using excessive physical force. The best way to hold onto power without destroying a country with political upheaval is to hush those who speak against you while covering the ears of others before they hear what is going on. I am sure other Middle Eastern leaders have learned from Mubarak's fumbles and are laying the groundwork for autocratic stability before too many of their people figure out that something is wrong and they want to change it. - Sophia Yeung

Trust me, I can share power...I swear!

It really depends on whose shoes we are talking about here. Many of the Middle Eastern countries in the protest spotlight have very different developmental circumstances, such as economic stability, resource availability and literacy rate. This would influence the country's ability to democratize as well as the government's strategy for staying in power.

With that said, if I were a leader in the Middle East, I would first need to be committed to leading by the will of the people. I would take a transparent approach in rebuilding trust between myself and my citizens. My primary objectives would be to justify to citizens that I know what is best for the state compared to the opposing parties. I would then create a platform of open dialogue with opposing leaders while maintaining control of the state. Taking steps to decrease governmental hierarchy and prioritizing the needs of marginalized peoples will be imperative for the government to build trust.

Gaining trust after decades of autocratic rule is a difficult task and some tactics I would use to maintain control during initial steps of change would be to secure support from the country's strongest institutions, such as the military. Mubarak failed to do this and thus he lost a great deal of leverage. Additionally, I would consider an approach similar to the Bahrain king, Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifa, which was to give the Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa "all the powers to fulfill the hopes and aspirations" of Bahrain's citizens. Providing new leadership to facilitate the creation of a new democratic society would exemplify my willingness to decentralize power. The real challenge to staying in power without harming the country would be proving to the people that they can trust the current government to build a democracy, with or without the people protesting in the streets. - Victoria Benson

Leader as bricklayer: Building institutions for democratic longevity
The best strategy for holding onto power for someone like Mubarak would have been to build the case to the Egyptian people that although they might have the right democratic inclinations, they don't have the right institutions yet to support democracy. They need someone experienced to unify and lead them through the process of developing those institutions. The Egyptians have shown the world they are willing and able to embrace democracy. Right now, Egypt has a population that is educated (83 percent of males are literate, and 59 percent of females) and that has resoundingly called out for democracy through technologically savvy protests.

But does Egypt have the democratic institutions to harness the energy of the recent revolution and give Egypt's democratic movement stamina? Not according to Samuel Tadros, founder and executive board member of Egyptian Union of Liberal Youth. Tadros stated that before a liberal democracy can come into being, institutions like an independent judiciary, a party system, rule of law, etc. need to be built first, as they are currently underdeveloped. Mubarak could have responded to his people's needs and committed to creating these institutions as legacies of his regime.

Secondly, handing off power to the military could very well be the deathblow to Egyptian monarchy. The military says the takeover is temporary, but what system is in place to make sure that military officials don't install a figurehead in the pocket of the military? Although Defense Secretary Robert Gates came out saying that the Egyptian military had conducted themselves admirably during the protest, Mubarak himself was an Air Force officer when he rose to power, and once he imposed a state of emergency, it took 30 years before he was ousted from office.

Rather than risking new military leaders giving into the allure of power as Mubarak did himself years ago, it may be better to allow an experienced political leader to help lead the Egyptian people through these two critical and fragile stages in developing a democracy: the building of democratic institutions, so that the dream of democracy can persist, and the handing off of power back to the people. This would allow for leaders like Mubarak to stay in power at least a while longer, and simultaneously improve the governing systems of his country. - Alex Tran

By Coro Fellows

 |  February 22, 2011; 12:36 PM ET
Category:  Crisis leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Dear Sultan or King or Your Highness | Next: Two ways to stay in power


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The notion of "nation building" as folks here in America force feed the developing world is folly. Political freedom and economic freedom go hand-in-hand. People in developing countries are at Maslow's lower rungs and are better served under a benevolent dictator who can keep the tribes in check. Power in Iraq, as well as many other developing countries, resides at the tribal level. Our meddling to institute a centralized government serves nobody well, other than the egos of the "misguided" policy makers.

Posted by: 4blazek | February 27, 2011 8:28 AM
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i would wipe out the indigenous population and place the remnants of them on reservations... then i would enslave whatever "races" required to build monuments to the great racists of my race... then i would free the slaves except abide by policies that keep them - except for a token few - in obviously subservient positions (of course the tokens would serve my agenda - which i and my media would never refer to as "racist"...)...

I would create the illusion of "equal protection" under law - except that “When the custody of children [or anything else I decide...] is the question … the best interest of the children [or some other interest of my choosing...] {shall be} the paramount fact. [Constitutional and inalienable] rights of father and mother [or whatever class of citizens i declare...] sink into insignificance before that.” Kartman v. Kartman, 163 Md. 19, 22,161 A. 269 (1932) - the names of the cases would be subject to the victims that come before my court...

in short, i would run my nation so that it appears to provide "freedom", balance of political powers, and "justice" except that only the wealthy of my race would enjoy freedom - so long as they 'served both to discriminate against ethnic minorities and to maintain advantages and benefits for the members of my race.'

I would do what "white" Americans do!

I would ensure that "black" women and girls feel better about themselves whenever they abandon loving the natural texture of thier own hair and instead straighten it to appear more "white" American - like the First Lady and her children: Sasha and Malia (all in the best interest of the children of course)


Posted by: stephendavid2002 | February 27, 2011 6:34 AM
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The best thing you could possibly do is pack up your things, leave for some nice tropical island on your private plane and live on your looted principal from your offshore bank account for the rest of your life. A smart tyrant knows when to exit stage left before the villagers storm the castle with torches and pitchforks

Posted by: chappell1 | February 26, 2011 12:20 PM
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These leaders need to listen, it will not do them any good just to ignore it and downplay the situation. They need to accept that the world may be taking a turn to a more democratic society, and instead refusing it and losing all their power and validity, they should embrace it and have a possibility of being elected into office. Is this possible? Well, I’m not quite sure. Sounds a little too good to be true. And, taking into account that these leaders are not necessarily the nicest people in the world, they might have the mind-set that we have to pull their power out from their deadlock grip. I don’t think the protesters will have a problem with that one. If leaders do not want to loose all their power, they need to actually listen to the cries of their people. See how the public feels about certain issues before dominating their authority without consent.

Posted by: meghanerkel | February 25, 2011 12:33 PM
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In response to Sophia Yeung, U.S. interests do rest with Egypt and there isn't anything that Mubarak could or would have done differently to receive a alternative response from the U.S.

Egypt is the second largest benefactor of U.S. foreign aid so perhaps he shouldn't have spent much time trying to convince the U.S. of his cause; rather, he should have garnered some support for his home base and in this case, it's his own country.

Posted by: skepticLA | February 24, 2011 5:02 PM
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The difficulty in answering this question is that autocratic regimes inherently harm their citizens, so there isn’t a way for them to “hold onto power without harming the country.” But as a strategy to avoid protester deaths or injuries while keeping power, dictators may try to offer certain concessions that appear to (but do not actually) create true democratic institutions. The leader would “step aside” to make way for elected representatives, while really stepping behind the curtain, as puppeteer.

I am thinking of Iran. This hybrid regime offers some of the trappings of a democracy—elections for political office, including the president. However, the unelected Council of Guardians must first approve all candidates and the Supreme Leader has final say on foreign and domestic policy (Freedom House ranks Iran as “Not Free”).

Is this anything Coro stands for? Democracy, equality, or justice? No. But in the shoes of an autocratic leader, Coro rules don’t apply.

Posted by: TMaxwell1 | February 23, 2011 10:55 PM
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A nation is as powerful as it's people, not it's leader(s). All of the news around protests in North Africa and other parts of the world have demonstrated that when individuals continue to dictate society without consideration of the people an uprising is inevitable.

When the masses begin to move toward change, as a leader one needs to strategically move to first listen to what the people want. Then move to creating a system where the voices of the people can be heard. After that, not stepping down but stepping aside and meeting with my fellow countrymen/women would be my task.

Considering the recent and ongoing unrest in North Africa, the only thing I would do as an autocratic leader is to LISTEN. Men and women are using media outlets to be heard because their leaders have been listening to themselves so long they have lost touch with their people, if they ever had it to begin with.

When you rule a nation only listening to yourself the results will eventually be what we see right now, total unrest for all of your people and for yourself.

Posted by: imanifarley | February 23, 2011 2:32 PM
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It would be extremely difficult to remove my Western privileged-lens as a tyrannical Middle Eastern leader, but in spirits of responding to this question I would recognize that there is no effective strategy for holding onto power without harming the country. As a result, I would be forced to relinquish my position governing the Middle Eastern nation state. Nevertheless, it would be a difficult decision accessing whether to enforce military rule with the protests, contributing to a damaged popular and global support, or to allow nonviolent protests to continue, triggering a removal of power such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

A natural instinct of an authoritarian Middle Eastern leader such as me would be to forcefully and strategically resist the transition towards a diverse, more-representative, pro-democracy movement undoing the inroads of such an autocratic nation. Yet, as a long-tenured “successful” Middle Eastern politician I would have no choice but to recognize that history has proven to contradict the belief of fellow strong Middle Eastern politicians that those without secure nation states still think that statehood will be the solution to our problems. Far East nations such as Lebanon in the 1980s given the challenges of its political institutions, the people of Algeria in their pursuit for independence in the 1990s and Palestine which continues to fight for its recognition, are bounded by a lack of state to protect them, contributing to immense suffering.

Yet, I would recognize that the people of my country have begun to believe common Western thought claiming that I am “abusing” my power and not making government accountable to the governed. The recent pro-democracy uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt would also convince me that strong leaders such as me who continue to cling to the status quo may be able to hold back the full impact of their countries’ problems for a little while but not forever. The root of my political consciousness – a fellow countryman with a shared vision for our great motherland – would lead me to step down on my own terms rather than being forced out, acknowledging to the citizens of my country that I could not continue representing people who do not want to be represented by me. I would demonstrate that there is no possible way to hold onto power without harming the country regardless of culture, religion or geographic location.

Posted by: claurence753 | February 23, 2011 2:25 PM
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The answer depends entirely on how the reader perceives what is "harming" to a country. Like EMG pointed out, many of us in the Western world believe that any authoritarian approach to government is intrinsically harmful. However, many pro-Western reforms would not have been enacted without this sort of rule by Ben Ali in Tunisia and Bourguiba before him. Similarly, the highly oppressive regime of Mubarak, and Sadat before him, created a favorable international trade environment and peace with Israel.

Rulers enacting such Western ideals with an iron first are not limited to Middle Eastern regimes - Chile's Pinochet came about and abdicated in a similar manner. What remains constant across all these is their internal incongruities. Some may call their militaristic Westernism a nuanced approach, but they ring confused and schizophrenic to me. History affirms this assessment by casting these clear contradictions into state-wide belligerencies. The best strategy for stability is a consistent and holistic philosophy of governance from the get-go.

Posted by: fbenamor | February 23, 2011 2:40 AM
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I am in agreement with EMG. My main disappointment is that none of the fellows questioned the premise presented.

"Let peaceful protests continue and you could easily wind up out of power, like Egypt's Mubarak. Or get tough with the protests and you'll certainly lose popular and international support."

When you say "get tough with the protests" I can only picture images from Lybia where several hundred protestors have been killed by military and mercenary forces. This should not be a legitimate option especially in the context of the predominantly nonviolent protests the world has just witnessed in Egypt.

At this point we should be looking to leaders like Gene Sharp who created a handbook of nonviolent methods for replacing dictatorships with democracies.

Posted by: stoicism | February 23, 2011 1:23 AM
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This is a really important question that emerging leaders (like these Coro Fellows) should be considering. After all, later in their careers they will be the ones in power, and they should be prepared to do what it takes to cling to it indefinitely. The uprisings in the Middle East are troubling because "the people" are usually wrong because they don't know how governing works. The Obama administration should be prepared to install US-friendly autocrats when "the people" democratically choose Islamists, just as we did 40 years ago.

Posted by: fakedude2 | February 22, 2011 8:05 PM
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I think that GalenWilson is corrent in that the primary issue is the economy. However, I would not go as far as to say that "people don’t care nearly as much about what form government they have until things really go bad." I contend that people do care about liberty and about representation, and they care MORE about these things when they don't get what they want.

Posted by: jessicangray | February 22, 2011 7:24 PM
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I would have to respectfully disagree with Victoria that all these countries have different circumstances. However I think she was more on the right track than anyone: it’s the economy stupid! Just this time it is the horribly lagging economy in Middle Eastern countries. President Obama and every technology company in the U.S. are begging for more engineers, yet each of these countries has an army of unemployed engineers.

The point being that people don’t care nearly as much about what form government they have until things really go bad. When huge numbers of young people can't find jobs despite having studied the most sought after set of skills possible because their countries economy is so bad, you better believe people are going to look to their leaders for answers. When they can’t vote them out of power you also better believe they’re going to try to do something about it.

Citizens of non-democratic countries aren’t going to rebel if their fellow citizens are prospering.

Bill Clinton was right again, it's the econopmy stupid!

Posted by: galenwilson | February 22, 2011 5:31 PM
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Victoria raises an interesting point in her statement that "providing new leadership to facilitate the creation of a new democratic society would exemplify my willingness to decentralize power."

The strategy of shifting power to a new democratic society, both literally and symbolically, allows for the current leader in power to sustain some of his stronghold. However, the strategy allows for a fresh perspective to come in and gain the power needed to restore a country.

A strategy such has this, is evident, here in the United States when past President's often become more powerful than when they are in office.

Interesting points Fellows!

Posted by: xuxazuzu | February 22, 2011 5:25 PM
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Holding onto power is only the first step. Whoever ends up with the reigns of power needs to build the infrastructure of a democracy that is independent of the ruling party. Without such pillars such as independent courts and avenues for dissent, we will only see uprisings and riots again.

Posted by: lsb05 | February 22, 2011 4:14 PM
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I think Victoria gives too little credit to “the people”: Could an autocratic leader really convince people that all of a sudden he wanted a democracy? Isn’t it fair to say that after so many years of autocratic rule it is all too clear that such a leader is not committed to leading by the will of the people? And to Sophia’s point about hushing the opposition, is this not what led to protest to begin with? When the opposition is as large as it is in many of these countries, this strategy seems to move toward further chaos through censorship and violence, none of which point to a leader regaining stability. Alex and Trevor’s thoughts on the proposed situation seem the most realistic to me—at least in moving step by step toward building the institutions people want to see. Persuading people that you are willing to slowly build what they want and provide the leadership necessary to do so seems more likely than convincing them that all of a sudden you embrace their demands.

Posted by: TTR1 | February 22, 2011 3:23 PM
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if you are an autocrat, you have likely already harmed the country. maybe the real question is: can you ensure a stable transition of power to whatever comes after you?

successfully checking your own power is a sign of real leadership.

Posted by: emg1011 | February 22, 2011 2:49 PM
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