## Thursday, February 24, 2011

### The puzzle

All of us are now curiously thinking about the abrupt phase transition that seems to sometimes occur in the endgame of an authoritarian regime. The traditional script was: The people rise up to rebel and the strongman murders them.

When the USSR collapsed, we thought it was special: it was a defunct regime that had just lost the will to live. But for the rest, the basic rulebook stood: the people get mowed down. And sure enough, that happened in Tiananmen Square.

But now, there are an increasing number of success stories with velvet revolutions', and one has to think more carefully about what goes in an authoritarian regime.

### Conflicts beneath the surface

What appears like a monolithic regime from the outside can actually often reflect a diverse array of interests tugging in different directions. In this beautiful article by Laurence Wright on Saudi Arabia, he says:
I had begun to look at Saudi society as a collection of opposing forces: the liberals against the religious conservatives, the royal family versus democratic reformers, the unemployed against the expats, the old against the young, men against women.
On that same thread, Why do protests bring down regimes? A follow up by Graeme Robertson says:

While the news media focus on "the dictator", almost all authoritarian regimes are really coalitions involving a range of players with different resources, including incumbent politicians but also other elites like businessmen, bureaucrats, leaders of mass organizations like labor unions and political parties, and, of course, specialists in coercion like the military or the security forces. These elites are pivotal in deciding the fate of the regime and as long as they continue to ally themselves with the incumbent leadership, the regime is likely to remain stable. By contrast, when these elites split and some defect and decide to throw in their lot with the opposition, then the incumbents are in danger.
So where do protests come in? The problem is that in authoritarian regimes there are few sources of reliable information that can help these pivotal elites decide whom to back. Restrictions on media freedom and civil and political rights limit the amount and quality of information that is available on both the incumbents and the opposition. Moreover, the powerful incentives to pay lip service to incumbent rulers make it hard to know what to make of what information there is.
I have also read others write similarly about China (but sadly, I do not have the reference): That in the absence of freedom of speech, the regime actually has no idea about where the problems lie, and is hence hypersensitive about criticism, and about solving the problems that it thinks do matter.

### The behaviour of a jittery regime

Democracy matters in two ways. First, the regime has legitimacy. It is not worrying about a sudden upheaval that will destroy the regime. And, freedom of speech carries a steady flow of information to the regime. The UPA leadership does live in a bubble, but even they know that 8% inflation is a serious problem.

When a regime lacks legitimacy, and does not know what is going on, it is constantly fearful. It does not know what is going wrong and it can go off into extremes in trying to stave off some problems that it believes are first order. One area where this shows up is inflexible prices. To an external observer, it may be obvious that allowing price flexibility is better, but the regime is terrified about what will happen, so the price stays fixed.

### Three examples

Egypt
In a blog post titled Garam Masala: Bread And The Life Of Egypt, Vikram Doctor writes:
I first realised how different Egypt was when I saw the bread in the street in Cairo. It was piled on low charpoy-like tables, thick rounds of freshlybaked bread, slightly scorched from the oven, a bit like tandoori rotis, but heavier.... Someone would replenish them from the bakery close by, and collect the money that people left, but nothing seemed to stop them just taking it away... the other reason why no one took the bread free was that it was so ridiculously cheap that they might as well just leave the few coins needed (in fact, buying bread seemed to be pretty much all that the piastre coins were used for). I calculated that, at that time (over 12 years back), the cost of a round of bread converted to something like three paise : something I could not imagine anything costing in any large Indian city. But this was the point: the price was unreal because a massive bread subsidy was one of the basic ways the Mubarak regime stayed in place.
Iran
From The regime tightens its belt and its first, in the Economist: