Only a few dictators are blessed with a security apparatus powerful enough to suppress any and all challenges to their rule. The wretched remainder have to turn to Machiavelli’s Il Principe — a handy companion for political realists — for answers to the question of how to forestall their otherwise inevitable overthrow. But does Machiavelli’s masterpiece supply the foils for the new perils that insubordinate youths pose to the Arabian emir of the early twenty-first century?
This concise guide is based on lessons from one of the most cunning masters of the art of divide and rule: Yemen’s former president ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih. With four of his fellow Arab strongmen in exile, under house arrest, deceased or enmeshed in bloody civil war, Salih received blanket immunity for the abuses of his 33-year rule in a controversial power transfer deal that terminated Yemen’s 2011 uprising.
Salih has dedicated his retirement to fending off the encroachment of democracy in Yemen, derailing security sector reforms and obstructing the National Dialogue Conference, a forum for discussing the future system of governance, promoting national reconciliation and preparing the ground for a new constitution.
The following 13 principles are a humble attempt at providing current or aspiring Arab despots with a blueprint for long and prosperous rule in a region threatened by the idea that authority derives from popular will:
1. Keep rule personalized and patriarchal. Do not rely on charisma; it is only a temporary phenomenon (see al-Qaddafi, Muammar). Whatever you do, never allow formal bureaucratic institutions to take hold. (Hint: Make sure the institutional setup is dysfunctional from the outset and rotate public servants frequently.)
2. Forge an informal power sharing agreement with a small circle of powerful elites. Dole out shares of your rentier income to them. Do not become greedy. If you distribute your loot only among your close family, others will rebel against you or decline to defend you when angry citizens rise up (see Ben Ali, Zine El Abidine).
3. Include political allies and enemies alike in a vast patronage system. Only trust the corrupt and corruptible. You may use anti-corruption institutions to destroy them at will.
4. Do not win presidential elections with a 99.9 percent majority. Your people will not believe you. Pay lip service to democracy, negotiate a 73.85 percent or a 67.42 percent majority, and put opposition leaders on your payroll.
5. Ensure that your military does not defect (see Mubarak, Husni). Fill key military posts with trusted family members. Appoint loyal members of your tribe as high-level commanders. If any one of them grows too powerful, orchestrate a helicopter crash or send his units to war without reinforcements and supply the other side with arms. If those measures fail, involve the air force of a neighboring monarchy in fighting a domestic insurgency and have them accidentally bomb the headquarters of your rival.
6. Become a poster child for the “war on terror.” Turn a blind eye to the goings-on at Guantánamo Bay and claim that US drone strikes are maneuvers conducted by your air force. In return, you will receive carte blanche to crush any domestic opponent in the name of counter-terrorism and hundreds of millions in military aid will come your way. Pray that US diplomats do not mention this deal in their cables back to Washington.
7. Resort to military force only when politically expedient. Incite your enemies and allies against each other. Pit foreign powers against Shi‘i insurgents, Shi‘i insurgents against the military, the military against Sunni extremists, Sunni extremists against local tribes, and local tribes against secessionists, or vice versa. Make sure not to lose the commanding heights (see al-Asad, Bashar). Obtain fatwas (legal opinions) from religious scholars that attest to the rectitude of these operations.
8. Silently instigate a direct conflict with recalcitrant non-violent political opponents. If you drive them over the edge, your foes will take up arms and you can deploy your military to defend the nation against the threat they pose. (Hint: Land confiscation is a useful tool here.)
9. Never fully defeat your enemies. Allow them to rebuild their strength. You may be able to use them later as a club or a bargaining chip with another opponent.
10. Scapegoat Israel and the United States as the root of all evils. For speeches likely to be translated for an international audience, use al-Qaeda and/or Iran instead. (Hint: Remember that the idea of a joint Zionist-al-Qaeda-Iranian conspiracy against your glorious regime will seem absurd only to a few experts.)
11. If your capital is located within 700 miles of Riyadh, stay on the good side of Saudi Arabia.
12. Beware of peaceful protesters with Facebook and Twitter accounts. Do not massacre them (in the presence of journalists or human rights groups or near a place with an Internet connection). If you do, the UN, EU and US will write concerned letters to you (a minor irritation) and the incident will lend a veneer of legitimacy to a coup by opposition elites.
13. Launder your money wisely. Spread your assets among the capitalization of local monopoly firms, deposits in Cayman Islands banks, property investments in Beirut (best to bring suitcases full of cash) and gold in your palace.