Violence only works if it is overwhelming. Up to a critical point, civilian losses embolden protestors who will rally against the injustices they see in the loss of their comrades. If the losses are massive, and pass that point, protestors are likely to realise that the state means business and is here to stay. This was the case in 1991; as soon as Saddam Hussein was allowed to use helicopter gunships, he did. The magnitude of destruction was stratospheric and anybody seen as being remotely sympathetic to the uprising was punished. Even palm trees were destroyed (10m in Basra alone), and the Marshes were drained, ostensibly to stop rebel fighters from seeking refuge there, but undoubtedly also to punish the people seen by the state as being complicit in the uprising by destroying their livelihoods.
The need for a patronised inner coterie: Iraq taught us that magnitude of destruction has to be immense. Muammar Qaddafi’s rhetoric suggests he understands this and is willing to follow through. This will depend on the willingness of the army to follow his directives. Saddam did not have the army, but he did have a series of concentric circles of supporters loyal to him because of the patronage he extended them (special-forces units and tribes). He had tied their interests to his survival so successfully that they could not risk defecting. In the same way that Mr Qaddafi has turned to foreigh mercenaries, He could also rely on his own foreign legion, the Mojahid-e-Khalq organisation whose divisions were used to fight both against the Kurds and the Shia down south (Mariam Rajavi, one of the groups leaders, famously said “take the Kurds under your tanks and save your bullets for the Islamic Guard”).
The need for a scapegoat. Iraqis in 1991, even the Shia, did not trust Iran. According to Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi academic in his book, Cruelty and Silence, agents from the Iraqi state began to post pictures of Iran’s leader, Ayatollah Ali Khomeini across the south. This allowed Saddam to frame the uprising as one orchestrated by Iran, not disgruntled Iraqis with real grievance against the regime. This idea gained traction and was key to maintaining support among the ‘”White Provinces”, the mainly Sunni areas to the north and west of the country that feared that an Iranian-style regime would replace Saddam, and that the new system would be inherently hostile to their community. These provinces remained loyal and formed the mainstay of Saddam’s support base throughout the uprising.
Supporters of the monarchy in Bahrain are painting the unrest as a Shia uprising to try to retain support of the country’s Sunni community (despite leading Sunni opposition MPs, including Munira Fakhro of Wa’ad, coming out in support of the protest movements). Similar tactics, but with an ethnic dimension, have been used in Jordan; King Abdullah sacked the Palestinian-born prime minister and replaced him with a Jordanian replacement. Part of the reason for the move is likely to play on the Palestinian/Jordanian rift within society and to shore up his Jordanian support base who are uneasy about Palestinian representation in the government.
The will to maintain power vs. the desire to pander to international public opinion: Libya went through years of sanctions and was an international pariah for decades. Mr Qaddafi would probably like to nurture friendly ties with Europe and the wider international community, but he will not do this at the expense of his own survival. Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s former president, crumbled under international pressure. This was part of the reason he could not use overwhelming force to maintain his grip (the apparent defection of the army played a part too). Mr Qaddafi, like Saddam Hussein, probably cares less about external pressure because the damage has been done. He may feel he can go it alone, as he has in the past.
Originally published in the Economist blog.