Domino theory

The description of recent Arab uprisings as a domino effect to oust autocratic leaders is not entirely accurate. History demonstrates that in many cases, revolts will adversely result in the institution of regimes more tyrannical than the previous.

micky domino effect gaza  (photo credit: )
micky domino effect gaza
(photo credit: )
First Tunisia. Now Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. As recent pledges of reform by King Abdullah and Bashar al-Assad make plain, leaders in the Middle East are not just concerned, they’re panicking.
Today’s revolts are not a total surprise, mind you. Ever since the Iranian Revolution, there has been a widespread belief that the same energies that shook off the Shah lay latent throughout the Arab world as well. The Arab regimes themselves played up to this potential doomsday scenario. When pressured by the West for reforms, engaging in détente with Israel, or siding against Saddam Hussein, these most autocratic of regimes inevitably brushed off these demands by pointing to the “Arab Street” - the Sword of Damocles, they claimed, hung above their heads.
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But breathe deep Bashar. Not every human-rights-abusing regime is equally at risk. Even though Egypt will not be the last regime to face massive protest, not every Middle Eastern dictator is a domino about to fall. Some regimes will weather this storm.
It is critical to keep in mind that even if the throngs are amassing in the streets and calling for a ruler’s ouster, that does not mean the jig is up. Recall that Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen are not the only regimes who have faced mass revolts: only 18 months ago, the Iranian regime held off protestors no less determined than those in Cairo today. In 1989, Chinese protests built up over the course of seven long weeks, and for a moment, the future of the regime looked in jeopardy.
The key point to remember is that when push comes to shove, the difference between a dictator who lives to repress another day and one that packs his bags is in whether the regime can call on its soldiers to open fire into the raging crowds. The only way to know that is by determining whether low and mid-ranking soldiers - the guys who inevitably do the actual shooting - have interests parallel to those of their dictator.
Despite decades of Egyptian efforts to separate the military from the rest of society (for example, by creating garrison cities) most soldiers still identify with their countrymen, not least of all because it is their relatives and friends who are now out on the streets. 
And why shouldn’t their loyalties lie with the people rather than with the regime? The low-rung soldiers are treated worse than dirt. Even if officer-pay and benefits are relatively good, this will probably remain the case no matter which new government comes to power. After all, a wobbly, new, post-revolutionary regime would not risk angering the military by cutting pay.
Not so in Syria. Alawites who dominate the military know very well that if the Assad regime falls, their place of economic and social privilege will disappear with it. For a group that was historically held in very low regard by the Sunni majority, few Alawites are ready to throw in the towel on their dictator just yet.
Likewise, Jordan’s Bedouin - a minority overrepresented in the military and bureaucracy - know where a democracy will leave them, as do Bahrain’s Sunnis. Such a fear consolidated Sunni support for Saddam, even after his spectacular debacle in Kuwait, motivating them to massacre their Shi’ite and Kurdish countrymen as uprisings threatened to consume Iraq.
In Iran, it is important to note that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei sent in the Revolutionary Guards, and not the regular military, to crush the demonstrations. Like in Egypt, the army would probably have ended up hugging protestors. [Despite the Egyptian military’s increased involvement during the last few days -demonstrated by the tanks sent into Tahrir Square - the army still remains relatively passive.] The Guards, on the other hand, effectively rule the country and are major beneficiaries of the country’s bonyads (revolutionary foundations), which hold a monopoly over imports, exports, and major industry. The point again is that the Revolutionary Guards obeyed the orders to crack skulls, in large part, because they were defending their own very privileged position, not just Khamenei’s.
When the tide of history is upon us, it is easy to believe that it will wash away the world as we know it, and nothing will remain the same. With protests erupting around the Middle East, many now see the entire region on the cusp of transformation.
History, however, is usually not so tidy. After the dominoes have fallen, we are always surprised to see how many remain standing.
The writer is the former Deputy Director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center (GLORIA) in Herzliya.