Lester Pearson, a former Canadian prime minister, once described politics as the "skilled use of blunt instruments." And two of those instruments, for all politicians, are the carrot of positive incentives and the stick of coercion.
Even the madman of Libya, Muammar Qaddafi, understands this (in his own twisted way). Today's Washington Post reports that he announced that his government will pay $400 to each family, basically bribing them to stay loyal. He also promised state employees up to 150 percent raises. Will it work? Umm . . . that's doubtful (to put it mildly).
Interestingly, though, Qaddafi continues a pattern that we've seen across the Arab world:
- The day before a "Day of Rage" scheduled for February 14, Bahrain's King Hamad promised to pay every citizen of Bahrain $2650 as a "sign of appreciation."
- During the last gasps of the Mubarak regime, his government announced that it would give state employees a 15 percent raise.
- King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia jumped on the bandwagon this week, mandating a 15 percent raise for Saudi state employees--and billions of interest-free loans to help young Saudis get married, start a business, or build a house.
Based on the reaction of Bahrainis, I think the carrot approach will actually backfire. Young people might well feel insulted by such blatant attempts to buy their loyalty. They are sick of this kind of politics of purchased loyalty. It obviously failed in Egypt.
And it's too late in Libya. There is already an armed revolt that is taking control of much of the rest of the country, isolating Qaddafi's control to the capital city of Tripoli. He's already slaughtered his own people; why would they be motivated by cash?
All eyes are on Saudi now. Even members of the royal family admit that political change is necessary. Can that happen peacefully or will there be conflict? Will the tried-and-tested politics of the rentier-oil-welfare state work? Will young people allow their loyalty to be purchased?
Or will they assert their dignity?
After the last few weeks of surprises, I'm betting on the latter. Watch Saudi Arabia in the next few weeks.