Job Security For Arab Leaders: A 3-Step Process Shaken by the crisis in Egypt, Arab leaders elsewhere are either tightening internal security or promising political change and offering economic help to citizens. In many places, they're combining all these approaches.
NPR logo Job Security For Arab Leaders: A 3-Step Process

Job Security For Arab Leaders: A 3-Step Process

Jordan's King Abdullah II (left) listens to now-Prime Minister Maaruf Bakhit during the inauguration of a new army program in the town of Zarqa, near the capital Amman, Nov. 5, 2007. Awad Awad/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Awad Awad/AFP/Getty Images

Jordan's King Abdullah II (left) listens to now-Prime Minister Maaruf Bakhit during the inauguration of a new army program in the town of Zarqa, near the capital Amman, Nov. 5, 2007.

Awad Awad/AFP/Getty Images

These are serious times in Egypt and the Middle East. Pro-government supporters and opposition protesters are battling in Egypt's main square, while leaders around the Arab world assess whether similar demonstrations might take place in their own countries.

But amid the difficulties, it's worth bearing in mind an old joke.

It goes: When Hosni Mubarak first became president, he came to a fork in the road. He asked his driver which way his predecessors had gone. Sadat had turned right, while Nasser turned left. Mubarak said, "Signal left, but turn right."

This is the strategy that many Arab leaders are pursuing in the wake of upheaval in Egypt and Tunisia, experts are saying.

Winners And Losers

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Arab Leaders
All are nervous following ouster of members of the club
Balancing ideals and interests will remain difficult
Nervous about losing "cold peace" allies
Never were fans of Mubarak
Oil Industry
Prices are up, but only out of concern about shipments

"The goal is to signal a political opening, while in fact pushing a tightening," says Jon B. Alterman, director and senior fellow of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The potential collapse of Mubarak's regime is deeply unsettling to leaders throughout the Arab world, Alterman says. They believed that Egypt was incapable of rapid change. Now, they wonder which country will be struck next by revolutionary fever.

To inoculate their states against such contagion, they are pursuing a variety of strategies — cracking down pre-emptively on dissidents, or offering economic help to their citizenry. Mostly, Arab leaders are doing a combination of both those things.

"There's a certain formula," says Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. "There may even be like a playbook that they pass around between different leaders."

Here are some of the common steps they might pursue, based on that playbook:

Step 1: Strengthen The Security Service

Arab security ministers meet en masse with some regularity. They are now "burning the midnight oil," Alterman suggests, trying to come up with strategies to avoid letting popular discontent morph into a mass movement.

"You basically elevate people who have been in charge of internal order and security," Katulis says.

Last week, President Mubarak appointed Omar Suleiman as his vice president. Suleiman had guided Egypt's security services for nearly two decades. Mubarak also picked as his new prime minister Ahmed Shafik, a former air force commander.

It's the same strategy King Abdullah II of Jordan pursued Tuesday by anointing Marouf Bakhit as the new prime minister. Bakhit, a former general, has also served as Jordan's national security adviser. He previously served two years as prime minister, with his first appointment coming just after the 2005 terrorist bombings of three hotels in Amman.

Aside from personnel changes, many regimes in Africa and the Middle East are doubtless taking quieter steps to tighten security, such as increasing surveillance of dissidents.

Step 2: Promise Political Reforms

In recent days, leaders such as King Abdullah II and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have promised greater openness and access within the political process. Meanwhile, Mubarak and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh have said they won't seek re-election.

Put On A Happy Face

Many Arab leaders are offering up some mix of promises of political reform and economic help, while making an effort to bolster their own security apparatus.

But while the current fashion is to acknowledge the legitimacy of public criticism, a bit of old-fashioned, pro-regime propaganda may not hurt.

That seems to be the idea in Morocco, which is turning to Facebook. Social media may be under threat in other countries because of their force as an organizing tool, but Morocco also believes they can be used to burnish its own image.

"A 'Love March' is picking up steam on Facebook for next weekend to show support for the king," according to an internal National Democratic Institute memo. Moroccans are also being encouraged to replace their profile pictures with images of King Mohammed VI as a show of support.

Of course, government-imposed idolatry doesn't always work. Just ask Tunisia's former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Tunisia was filled with public images of him until he fled the country last month.

How sincere they'll be remains to be seen.

Jordan has been a place that in the past has opened up the electoral process at times as a kind of release valve when agitation increases, as after the collapse of the old communist bloc in Eastern Europe in 1989.

Ultimately, however, the question of the king's authority is never broached and the country continually falls short of any movement toward constitutional monarchy.

Democracy advocates are particularly disappointed by Abdullah's pick of Bakhit. The pick of the person does not suggest that the current rhetoric will translate into real reforms, they say.

Leslie Campbell, the National Democratic Institute's senior associate and regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, says that Bakhit is "the worst possible guy" to push for political change.

"The reaction in Jordan clearly was, 'Let's say reform and appoint a government that will tamp it down,' " Campbell says. "This is a guy who in 2007 called people who were trying to register as domestic election monitors 'traitors' and oversaw a very poor election."

Step 3: Buy Off Unrest

Regimes that can afford to do so are answering complaints from citizens with promises of a better standard of living.

Changes At A Glance

Politics throughout the Arab world are incredibly fluid, but many changes have already occurred since protests began in recent weeks.

After shaking up the Cabinet and appointing a vice president for the first time, President Hosni Mubarak announced that he will step down once his term ends in September.

King Abdullah II fired the Cabinet and installed a new prime minister, while pledging reforms.

Parliament approved a plan to provide each citizen with 1,000 dinars, or about $3,500, per month for the next 14 months.

Since President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled Jan. 14, the country has struggled to put together an interim government with popular support.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh said he will step down when his term ends in 2013. Civil service and military salaries have been increased, along with social services and tuition assistance.

This is most strikingly the case in Kuwait; the oil-rich emirate that last week promised stipends of $3,500 a month to each citizen, along with free staple foods.

Not every country is able to offer such largesse, but many are trying. Last month, Jordan announced a $230 million package to create jobs and cut commodity prices.

In Yemen, civil service and military salaries were increased last week by about $25 per month. That's not a lot, but it was welcomed as a recognition of hardship and the cost of living. Perhaps more significantly, on Monday Saleh ordered the government to waive tuition fees for university students for the rest of the school year and offer increased social services to 500,000 poor families.

A Lasting Shift?

Share-the-wealth strategies, large and small, point to something that could potentially signal a lasting shift. The Arab world has largely transitioned in recent decades from socialist economies to ones that recognize the so-called Washington Consensus that free market policies work best.

"There was a slow trend in Arab countries in doing away with subsidies across the board and trying to create better-crafted safety nets," says Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Ottaway says that Arab states are not going to return to socialism or nationalization of industries but may once again promise that they can provide basic goods and help control their prices.

"Certainly many governments that feel threatened are offering subsidies," she says. "One of the few statements the Egyptian government has made to its people is that it's stepping up the production of bread, which is incredibly cheap and subsidized."