Benign Autocracy In Iraq Is Recipe For

Benign Autocracy in Iraq is a Recipe for Disaster

My entry in an email discussion of the proposal made

by Ray Takeyh and Nikolas Gvosdev that

“Benign Autocracy Is Answer for Iraq” in the

LA Times recently:

Email is probably an insufficiently sophisticated instrument for

discussing these complicated matters, but let me just clarify what I said

about authoritarian states in the Middle East and terrorism. The first

thing to underline is that “terrorism” itself is only a tactic and not a

useful term of analysis. The question is, how and at what point, do

groups employing terrorism come to receive substantial (25% or more)

support from the general population.

I see al-Jihad al-Islami, al-Qaeda and other similar groups in the Sunni

world as a form of deviance. Socially deviant groups can be deviant for a

number of reasons. They might see as social goods things that general

society defines as vices. This is the case with, e.g., hard drugs like

cocaine. Or they might seek social goods of which society approves (for

instance wealth), in ways of which society disapproves (bank robbing).

Sometimes groups begin by being perceived as deviant and get mainstreamed

or come to power, as with Communism or many national liberation movements.

“Deviance” is not a static, essential characteristic. It is an

appropriate way to speak of small groups in severe tension with the wider

society at any one time. My thesis: *Where a substantial proportion of

the population feels politically blocked or disenfranchised, it can then

turn to some socially deviant political program out of desperation.*

Islamist terrorists tend to see some form of radical religious utopia as a

social good, whereas the relatively secular elites of Algeria and Egypt

reject this vision. Islamist terrorists seek to impose their utopia by

various repertoires of collective action and violence, including bombings,

shootings, attempting to undermine the state by depriving it of tourist

income (thus the violence against tourists at Luxor and Bali), and

large-scale terrorism against outside powers perceived to be propping up

the local status quo (this is what 9/11 was about).

All societies have a certain amount of deviant social and political

violence. But not all societies see over 100,000 persons killed in a

decade (Algeria), or see 20,000 to 30,000 persons jailed for essentially

thought crimes (Egypt in the ’90s), or see armed paramilitaries virtually

run the country (Afghanistan), or see spectacular attacks on civilians in

other countries (9/ll).

I conclude that some contemporary Middle Eastern societies are

characterized by much higher rates of social deviance rooted in religious

radicalism than is the case outside the region. I believe that this

situation is produced because

1) Social and political mobilization has occurred in the past 30 years in

these countries, making large segments of the population politically aware

and deeply dissatisfied with their powerlessness; and

2) “Benign autocracy” on the Algerian, Egyptian, Saudi and other models is

unable to accommodate the entry of these populations into the political

arena, thus blocking them, humiliating them, and inspiring them with


In such a situation, deviant political cultists who preach a utopia that

can be attained by violence get a hearing from people who would have

otherwise dismissed them.

Benign autocracy had a good run in Turkey until 1950, but imagine what the

literacy, urbanization, industrialization and political networking rates

were like there in the 1930s. Likewise Egypt in the 1950s and 1960s and

Algeria 1962-1989 could be managed in that way. But things change.

[Social mobilization refers to processes such as urbanization, industrialization,

increased literacy, access to mass media, access to electronic communications,

etc. Social mobilization does not necessarily, as Karl Deutsch wrongly believed,

produce political mobilization. Political mobilization involves collective action

through drawing on group resources to attain political goals. When a country's

population is both socially and politically mobilized, autocracy becomes unstable).

The counter-examples, of [democratic] Turkey and Lebanon

in the 1970s, [where there was substantial political violence

despite "democratic" governments] are not actually

counter-examples. They were failures of democratic inclusiveness The

military in Turkey attempted to exclude the Turkish Left, and even

sometimes slightly left of center parties, from the political process,

which produced the political violence of the 1970s. Likewise, the

Lebanese political system excluded the Palestinians, creating a state

within a state; and it insisted on over-counting the Maronite Christians,

de facto excluding the growing Shiite plurality from political power. To

be successful in containing political violence, democratic systems must be

broadly inclusive. Some small groups will always feel left out, but when

you get to the point where 40% of a socially and politically mobilized

population feels disenfranchised, you are asking for trouble.

Although it is true that capitalist democracies can also produce small

terrorist groups, we have not seen in the past 40 years 100,000 Germans or

French or Italians or Japanese or Americans killed in fighting between

security forces and such groups; we have not seen 30,000 persons

incarcerated for thought crimes; we have not seen take-overs of entire

countries by Baader-Meinhof. The differences in scale are enormous here.

I believe this is because, in politically and socially mobilized

societies, parliamentary governance typically allows constituents to feel

they can have an impact in areas that matter to them. There are always

small groups who do not feel that way, of course, but if they are very

small they can be contained.

Autocracy of various sorts, whether “benign” or not, is incompatible with

the level of political and social mobilization now characteristic of most

societies in the Middle East, and for the US to push it is foolish in the


In Iraq, the US has raised expectations, just as the Algerian military did

in 1989. Now imposing a dictator would be analogous to the 1991

cancellation of the election results in that country. A similar civil war

could well ensue. If you think the Mahdi Army, the Badr Corps, the

al-Da`wa paramilitary, the Peshmerga, the tribal forces, etc., are going

to meekly acquiesce in an American-imposed “soft” dictatorship, you don’t

have much political imagination.