US President Donald Trump’s public embrace of autocrats and his virtual silence on their repressive behavior appears to have made them less constrained than they were in the past. This shift in US foreign policy has important implications for how the new wave of protests will play out.
As 2019 draws to a close, analysts who predicted a new wave of anti-regime protest in the Middle East early in the year proved remarkably prescient. Mass street protests have taken place in Algeria, Sudan, Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon. Anti-government protests also erupted in other parts of the world—in Ethiopia, Guinea, Chile, Colombia and Hong Kong to name a few—making 2019, as one journalist noted, the “year of the street protester.” This new wave of protest in the Middle East is the first to reach the scale of the 2011 Arab uprisings: it forced out Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Yet 2019 is not 2011 redux. The context for these protests is different, and both regime opponents and regimes themselves have adapted their strategies since 2011.
Protesters have clearly learned from the failures of the 2011 uprisings. While toppling four autocratic leaders in 2011 seemed to herald a new era for the region, today’s protesters recognize that leadership change is only a first step. Their 2019 goals are explicitly broader as they seek to completely change their respective political systems. In Algeria, for example, Bouteflika’s departure did not dampen popular demands for dismantling what Algerians call “le pouvoir”: the army chiefs, business elites and politicians from the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) party that have dominated politics since independence. Rallies in Sudan in early November 2019 centered on the lingering influence of the former president’s ruling political party. In Iraq and Lebanon, protests have challenged the ruling sectarian power-sharing arrangements—Lebanese protestors chanting “all of them means all of them” have stressed that the entire political system has to change.
Across the region, protesters share a deep skepticism of promises made by existing leaders. They seek solutions to widespread corruption and persistent economic problems, such as high unemployment. Aging leaders are no longer the targets; regime opponents want deep changes to existing political structures. Yet protesters are not the only actors who have learned from prior experience—authoritarian regimes also drew lessons from the outcomes of the 2011 protests. When renewed popular protest erupts, it can be tempting to over-emphasize the diffusion of laudable demands for justice and change, while downplaying the way authoritarian tactics also diffuse across countries.
A notable development since 2011 is that the region’s authoritarian rulers have increasingly relied on harsh repression to maintain their power—whether in direct response to protest, or as part of a broad crackdown on free speech and dissent aimed at deterring challenges from below. In Morocco, for example, after the 2011 protests subsided, the regime quietly began arresting activists and independent journalists. In response to the 2016 protests in the Rif region, which began after a fishmonger was crushed inside a garbage truck while trying to recover fish confiscated by the police, the Moroccan regime cracked down and arrested protest leaders. During the recent protests in Algeria, police deployed tear gas, shut down the Internet and arrested journalists. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir declared a state of emergency last year in response to the growing protest movement, authorizing security forces to suppress demonstrations. Iraq has responded with lethal violence to protests, killing over 250 by the end of October 2019.
Further, arms sales to the region have increased, and states like Egypt, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia have used arms against civilians at home and abroad. Across the region, civil society organizations, human rights defenders and press freedoms have come under attack.
What explains this uptick in repression? The roots of repressive authoritarianism could be entirely domestic, as leaders respond to local conditions using tried-and-true tactics out of the autocrat’s playbook. But the ubiquity of repressive tactics across different cases in recent years suggests that there may be regional or even global conditions that favor their usage. One of these conditions is ongoing instability in the region. Regional leaders have long justified their rule by pointing to their ability to deliver stability. With the onset of the destructive civil war in Syria, the violent fragmenting of the Libyan state and the 2013 coup in Egypt, the claim that only authoritarian regimes can provide order no longer rings quite as hollow as it did in early 2011. Syria, in particular, serves as a cautionary tale, providing rulers with a pretext for suppressing demonstrations, repressing free speech and denouncing opponents as agents of foreign countries.
This shift in US foreign policy has important implications for how the new wave of protests will play out.
Yet, regional instability is not the only change that has occurred between 2011 and 2019. The United States has also changed its stance toward authoritarian leaders—particularly toward allies such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt—since the 2016 election of President Donald Trump. In contrast to past administrations and presidents, Trump has publicly embraced and praised repressive regimes rather than penalize them or expressed condemnation. This change raises questions about whether the foreign policy of the global superpower has affected autocratic behavior in the contemporary Middle East. Trump’s public embrace of autocrats and his virtual silence on repressive behavior, appears to have made autocrats, particularly those allied to the United States, less constrained than they were in the past. This shift in US foreign policy has important implications for how the new wave of protests will play out.
Consequences of Trump’s Embrace
Prior to 2016, US presidents consistently supported democracy and human rights in the Middle East in their rhetoric, even as their willingness to act on those goals varied. President Barack Obama, unlike his predecessor President George W. Bush, did not prioritize democracy promotion in the region, but like past presidents, he denounced human rights abuses and professed support for civil society organizations.
Since 2016, however, there has been a major shift in presidential rhetoric. Trump has been far more likely to laud tough autocrats than any recent president—he appears to admire autocratic tendencies and he has praised some like Russia’s Putin and Egypt’s Sisi for their leadership style. The president’s remarks rarely criticize autocrats who abuse human rights, and he devotes relatively few of his public remarks to condemning the use of repression abroad. The rhetorical shift by the United States from stressing a commitment to freedom and rights in the world to indifference toward strong-man tactics, has three potential consequences for cycles of protest and repression in autocratic states.
First, it is possible that this rhetorical shift is largely inconsequential. In this view, presidential condemnations of human rights abuses have always been relatively costless signals that, unless backed by a clear commitment that the United States will act to enforce tolerance toward peaceful demonstrators, are ineffective at shaping political behavior. Realist scholars of international relations, for instance, see power and interests as the primary drivers of behavior, not rhetorical commitments. If presidential statements, such as Obama’s “red line” speech that failed to deter Bashar al-Assad from using chemical weapons in April 2013, carry little weight with Middle East dictators, a shift in rhetoric will make little difference to cycles of protest and repression.
Indeed, purely rhetorical statements condemning authoritarian actions can provoke accusations of hypocrisy. Proponents of human rights have often pointed to the tendency of presidents to call out abuses when carried out by US rivals while giving a pass to US allies. Trump may be less likely to face such accusations given his tendency to prioritize explicitly US interests over protecting vulnerable citizens in other countries.
A second possibility is that this shift in rhetoric may actually decrease repression because it may deter protest in the first place and thus reduce opportunities for regimes to repress their citizens. In a new study of the Syrian uprising, Matthew Cebul argues that Syrian protesters in 2011 were emboldened by the rhetorical support they received from the Obama administration. Syrian protesters’ expectations that the United States would support them, based on diplomatic statements and US actions in Libya and Egypt, increased protesters’ willingness to withstand severe repression and persist in anti-regime mobilization. Had Syrian activists known that help was not forthcoming, they might not have persisted. The lesson of Cebul’s work is that rhetoric supporting human rights can be dangerous to citizens who are protesting if it is not accompanied by a real commitment to those citizens. In this view, Trump’s lack of expressed support for anti-authoritarian forces in the region offers clarity on what the United States will and will not do—it avoids raising false hopes.
The third possibility, however, is that Trump’s rhetoric actually emboldens autocrats, particularly in states allied to the United States, by removing a constraint on their behavior. Diplomatic statements alone cannot fully deter repressive tactics—such tactics have long been employed throughout the Middle East. But before repressing nonviolent protests, arresting political opponents or suppressing free speech, US allies had to ask themselves whether those actions were worth the price of international condemnation. They might not have expected to face punishment if they persisted in repression, but under prior administrations they could expect to incur diplomatic costs and pressure.
Autocratic rulers care about their reputations abroad, not only because they depend on international support, but because they know that condemnation can encourage domestic opposition groups to keep fighting for change. Rulers might still opt for repression even when they expect a stern US response, but the likelihood of such a response might make them think twice and consider other potential courses of action that would not anger an important ally. Trump’s turn away from even rhetorical condemnation of regional allies means that rulers have less to fear from an administration that expresses little opposition to their use of brutal tactics. The shift in rhetoric is most consequential for journalists, NGOs and activists who are engaged in confrontations with repressive governments.
In fact, recent behavior by US allies supports the view that they are now less constrained in their use of repression than they were in the past. The Saudi assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, for example, illustrates this lifting of constraints. After the assassination, Trump contradicted US intelligence reports on Saudi Arabia’s responsibility, stating, “[I]t could very well be that the [Saudi] Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event—maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” To be clear, this assassination might still have occurred under prior administrations, but it is worth asking whether it would have been carried out so blatantly and whether prior administrations would have exonerated the killing publicly. The Saudi prince has reason to be less worried about the US response than ever before.
In Morocco, the arrest of journalist Hajar Raissouni on charges of abortion was part of a recent, larger crackdown on independent journalists. The Moroccan state has repressed journalists in the past, but the high visibility of these arrests suggests that there is less concern about the international ramifications of restricting free speech. The same could be said for the al-Sisi regime in Egypt—prior administrations might have curtailed the worst abuses of the regime by adding a potential cost to the leadership’s calculus as it considered the utility of repression. Bahrain, too, has resorted to repression more frequently since Trump’s election. Unlike Obama, Trump has been reluctant to tie arms sales to Bahrain to its human rights record.
While Trump’s rhetorical embrace of regional authoritarians may encourage repression among US allies, it may be either inconsequential or beneficial to regime opponents in non-allied states. In places like Algeria, where protesters were unlikely to anticipate US support under any administration, the rhetorical shift may be inconsequential. In Syria, it is difficult to imagine that Bashar al-Assad would have acted differently if Trump had been president at the time—with regime survival at stake, the use of repression was overdetermined.
The Limits of Repression
Although the current environment may embolden autocrats, the recent uptick in repression has not succeeded in stifling calls for change. Remarkably, repression in places like Iraq, Algeria and Sudan has not stopped protests from growing, even when it appears that no one is coming to aid these movements. Repression no longer appears to be as effective as it was immediately after the 2011 uprisings.
Recent academic studies help explain why repression can backfire. Elizabeth Nugent has demonstrated that widespread repression increases solidarity and unity among opposition groups. Protesters are also capable of learning from repression and adopting tactics to counter police action or reduce the visibility of their actions. While repression may work in the short term, over the long term it can be counter-productive—for example, the repression of activists in Morocco motivated their friends and family members to join protests even years after the repression had occurred.
An environment that encourages repression may thus not work to autocrats’ advantage. The growth of protest in 2019 despite the use of repression suggests that regional leaders need to take calls for reform seriously. The Trump administration’s unconditional support for its regional allies is similarly short-sighted. Long-term regime stability, which is crucial if the United States is to have reliable regional allies, should not be built on repression, but rather on confronting the root causes of popular protests such as corruption, underemployment and the monopolization of state resources by the region’s increasingly repressive elite.
 Marc Lynch, “Is the next Arab uprising happening in plain sight?” Washington Post, February 26, 2019.
 Jackson Diehl, “From Hong Kong to Chile, 2019 is the year of the street protester. But why?” Washington Post, October 27, 2019.
 See the forum in: “Transnational Diffusion and Cooperation in the Middle East,” POMEPS Studies 21 (August 24, 2016).
 Adria Lawrence, “Moroccans Vote Friday, but Neither Main Party Will Really Win,” Washington Post, October 6, 2016.
 “Algerian Police Fire Teargas as Tens of Thousands Protest against President,” Guardian, March 1, 2019.
 Hiba Morgan, “Sudan’s al-Bashir Cracks Down on Protests,” Al Jazeera, February 27, 2019.
 Pesha Magid, “As Iraq Protests Enter Month Two, on the Streets People Vow to Remain Peaceful,” The National, November 3, 2019.
 Michele Dunne, Support for Human Rights in the Arab World: A Shifting and Inconsistent Picture. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (December 28, 2018).
 See Amnesty International, “Middle East and North Africa – Review in 2018.”
 Barbara Slavin, “Obama’s Middle East Democracy Problem,” Foreign Policy, March 7, 2010; Charles W. Dunne, “Democracy Promotion: Obama’s Mixed Record,” Middle East Institute, November 19, 2014.
 For examples, see Jeff Mason and Roberta Rampton, “Trump Praises Egypt’s Sisi Despite Concerns about Human Rights, Russian Arms,” Reuters, April 9, 2019; Chris Cillizza and Brenna Williams, “15 times Donald Trump Praised Authoritarian Rulers,” CNN, July 2, 2019.
 Matthew Cebul, Repression and Rebellion in the Shadow of Foreign Intervention (Ph.D. Diss., Yale University, 2019).
 White house release, “Statement from President Donald J. Trump on Standing with Saudi Arabia,” November 20, 2018.
 See “Morocco Pardons Journalist Hajar Raissouni Jailed on Abortion Charges,” BBC News, October 17, 2019.
 See Doug Bandow, “Trump is Enabling Brutal Repression in Bahrain,” American Conservative, February 28, 2018.
 Elizabeth Nugent, “The Psychology of Repression and Polarization in Authoritarian Regimes,” August 11, 2017. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3090050 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3090050
 See Mona el-Ghobashy, “The Praxis of the Egyptian Revolution,” Middle East Report, 41/258 (Spring 2011).
 Adria K. Lawrence, “Repression and Activism among the Arab Spring’s First Movers: Evidence from Morocco’s February 20th Movement.” British Journal of Political Science 47/3 (2018), pp. 699-718.
 See Bassel F. Salloukh, “Here’s What the Protests in Lebanon and Iraq are Really About,” Washington Post, October 19, 2019, on the wisdom of addressing protester grievances in Iraq and Lebanon.