Beyond Tunisia, Decisive State Violence Likely Against ‘Islamist Threat’

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

When a regime’s survival is at stake, will it shoot? Tunisian police did – dozens were killed – but that didn’t quite work. It is easy to imagine the Egyptian regime being more ruthless, with mass arrests, torture, and, perhaps more importantly, an unwillingness to concede anything to their opponents. But it is difficult to sustain such a posture indefinitely.

What Tunisia, and most popular revolts, suggest is that is that if protestors have the numbers – and a commitment to stay until their demands are met – regimes will find themselves in an precarious situation.

“No state,” observes Charles Kurzman, “can repress all of the people all of the time.”

When all else has failed, the decision to shoot may temporarily push back protestors, but it is a risky course. The use of lethal violence on unarmed civilians can provide the spark for an embattled opposition, as was the case with Iran’s “Black Friday” in which around a hundred Iranians were killed on the way to their revolution.

Such violence threatens to strip regimes of their last shreds of legitimacy. It also creates sympathy for opposition groups and their cause, spurring financial, moral, and political support from the international community. More importantly, regime violence, particularly the use of live ammunition on unarmed citizens, is a surefire way to provoke divisions within the regime coalition. Sometimes, security forces will refuse to obey orders.

In the case of Tunisia, the army was simply not willing to oversee a bloodbath to protect President Ben Ali. As the Filipino opposition figure Francisco Nemenzo wrote, “It is one thing to shoot peasants in some God-forsaken village and another to massacre middle-class dissenters while the whole world is watching.”

How cohesive, then, is the state’s coercive apparatus? Many Arab regimes know they can probably get away with a lot. This is why Tunisian model will prove difficult to translate. Tunisia, in the end, was expendable. Egypt and Jordan – Arab pillars of the pro-American orbit – are less so. They also have the benefit of having oppositions that are not so easy to sympathize with. If there emerges a mass protest movement in either country, Islamists will almost certainly play a prominent role.

Two days after Ben Ali’s ouster, Jordanians held a large sit-in outside parliament. Muslim Brotherhood leader Hammam Said (right) spoke to the gathered crowds. “We have,” he said, “been suffering in Jordan the same way Tunisians have been suffering.” Presumably, the U.S. will not take very kindly to the prospect of losing the friendly, reliable regimes of Mubarak and Abdullah to the likes of Said, a Hamas supporter and staunch social conservative.

The Tunisian uprising was buoyed by both its spontaneity and leaderless nature. Without identifiable figures, the regime found it difficult to demonize the protestors. Sometimes, you really do need an enemy. Elsewhere in the region, enemies are – luckily for the incumbent governments – plentiful.

The “Islamist threat,” however manufactured, will reinforce regime cohesion in the critical months ahead. It is easier to repress when you believe your opposition is an ideological and existential threat. It is also easier when you know the U.S. and Europe happen to share your distaste.