Assad follows the Arab Tyrant Manual

During the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Arabs joked that Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak were following the same playbook -- which came to be known as the Arab Tyrant Manual. NPR described it as a three-step process, including "strengthening the security service," "promise political reform," and "buy off unrest."

But there's actually a lot more to the manual than that, and its application varies from place to place depending on circumstances -- though the overall failure of these tyrants to "get it" is remarkably consistent.

In March, at the height of the revolt in Libya, a few Twitter users, led by Iyad ElBaghdadi(@iyad_elbaghdadi) and Amira al-Husseini (@JustAmira), crowdsourced the rules of this manual and compiled them using the #ArabTyrantManual hashtag. A few of my favorites:

@iyad_elbaghdadi: Say that the protests started as a pure youth movement but were "hijacked" by a foreign agenda

@L_Auvergnate: Pretend you're open for dialogue and will do the necessary while killing protesters

@iyad_elbaghdadi: Say that you "got the message" and "will act on it soon". Don't mention what "soon" means.

@EG_Freedom: Shut down communications and kill businesses even tho protesters will publish videos anyway when the inet comes back up.

@studentIslam: You never wanted to be a dictator. Your service to the people proves that.

Compare to the Syrian state news agency's summary of Assad's speech today. Some choice excerpts:

Foreign conspiracies: "President al-Assad asserted that Syria, throughout all of its history has been facing conspiracies against it for several reasons, some of which are linked to Syria's important geographic and political status and others are linked to its political stances committed to its principles and interests.

Dialogue: "A committee on national dialogue was formed for the sake of launching a national dialogue which includes all social, intellectual and political segments in Syria in an institutional approach, the president added."

Vague promises of reform: "'The urgent demands of people have been implemented before the beginning of the dialogue...we lifted Emergency Law and abolished State Security Court; we issued an organizing law for the right to peaceful demonstration. A committee was formed to set the draft bill for the new election law as another committee was formed to set legislations and the necessary mechanisms to combat corruption,' said President al-Assad."

Failure to shut down communications: "‘What do we say about these political stances? What do we say about the media pressure and the advanced phones that we're finding in Syria in the hands of saboteurs? What do we say about the falsification that we all witnessed?' President al-Assad added."

Service to the people: "President al-Assad said ‘I met people from all the spectrums of the Syrian society, demonstrators and non-demonstrators and the truth is that I consider these meeting as the most important job I've ever had as a person in charge despite the frustration and pain in the general atmosphere yet I can say that the benefit was amazing. They showed great love and amity toward me I have never felt before.'"

That said, Assad is admittedly in a bit of a pickle here. Even if he did want to take serious steps to reform, in line with the demands of Turkey and the West, a few factors might be holding him back. One is that there are a lot of other people in Syria with a vested interest in the status quo, including but by no means limited to members of his own family. His brother, Maher, controls the most elite units of the military, and his brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, controls the intelligence services. A bevy of cousins, notably Rami Makhlouf, control the economy. Members of Bashar's Alawite sect dominate the commanding heights of the security services. All of these people stand to lose if things change, and Assad likely feels he needs to protect the interests of this wider circle -- lest some of them decide to move against him.

Then there is Assad's patron, Iran, which has reportedly supplied help putting down the uprising and has little interest in seeing a process of political reform take root in Syria. And what about the Arab Gulf monarchies? A few of them have made official statements of support to the Syrian regime, and even though they have stayed most silent, their interest is in seeing Assad weakened but not overthrown altogether. They'd like to see him brought low so that he comes begging for cash, and they can peel him away from Iran. That seems unlikely -- why would he trust them? -- but that sort of thing has never stopped Arab regimes from pursuing a given strategy.

So he's stuck with the manual.


What can Obama learn from Genghis Khan?

As president of Mongolia, Tsakhia Elbegdorj, is the heir to what was once an empire covering almost a quarter of the Earth's landmass. In other words, he's got some thoughts on the topic of global hegemony:

“It is tough, but Mongolia was the biggest power in the world, and we had the same responsibility,” said Elbegdorj, who is to meet with President Obama at the White House on Thursday to pitch his country as a stable, pro-American democracy deserving of more attention.

Sandwiched between a rising, authoritarian China and an often pugnacious and, in these parts, still very powerful Russia, Mongolia is the only nation in the vast expanse of territory conquered by Genghis Khan in the 13th century that holds regular elections and lets power pass peacefully between rival parties.

The United States, like Mongolia in its heyday, “has a responsibility to help those who are trying to follow in its steps,” Elbegdorj said in an interview in a felt-lined tent outside his official residence in the Mongolian capital.

Genghis Khan’s warriors killed lots of people, to be sure, but according to the president, a Soviet-trained former military journalist who helped lead Mongolia’s democratic revolution in 1990, it was done in a good cause.

“Do you think we just went to places and killed?” Elbegdorj said. “No.”

Mongolia, he said, used its muscle to keep trade along the Silk Road flowing and to enforce a written law. And “when there was a killer, or in today’s expression, a terrorist nation,” he said, “we were God’s will to make them peaceful. .?.?. When there was a poor nation, we helped them.”

Today, too, Elbegdorj said, “sometimes you have to pay attention to your friends.”

But there are cautionary lessons as well:

Serdaram Damdin, a professor of Mongolian history in Ulaanbaatar, said the United States, too, needs to avoid pulling back and becoming paralyzed by domestic quarrels. Otherwise, he said, Pax Americana will go the way of Genghis Khan’s Pax Mongolica, which, consumed by infighting after centuries of supremacy, shriveled to insignificance.

“Genghis Khan waged war to bring peace. America is doing the same thing now,” Damdin said. “If there is no involvement by America, the world would be back where it was in the Middle Ages.”

Elbegdorj wrote a piece for FP back in April, suggesting some lessons revolutionary countries in the Middle East might take from Mongolia's more recent history. Elbegdorj is coming to town to discuss several commercial ventures, including coal-mining rights and aircraft sales. It will also be interesting to see whether anything comes of reports from earlier this year that Mongolia was considering opening a nuclear-waste storage facility for its East Asian neighbors.