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The Middle East's Kings of Cowardice

Why are the Gulf's leaders so afraid of a few jokes?

Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef rocketed to global celebrity last month after being charged for insulting President Mohamed Morsy. The escalation against Youssef was rooted in the intense polarization of local Egyptian politics and the prickly, insecure nature of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government.

The move badly backfired on the Egyptian government: It inspired widespread global contempt for Morsy, global fame and celebrity for Youssef, a minor diplomatic crisis, and much-feared mockery by Jon Stewart. Youssef was even selected as one of TIME magazine's 100 most influential people in the world in the wake of the incident. But while Youssef's prosecution drew massive media attention, a wave of increasingly disproportionate crackdowns for "insulting" leaders across the Gulf might actually be more significant.

For an area that most people still believe remains unaffected by the Arab uprisings, the Gulf has been awfully tough on public critics of late. Kuwait plunged into days of intense protests and political turmoil this week after leading opposition figure Musallam al-Barrak was sentenced to five years in prison for publicly challenging the emir to avoid autocratic rule. The attempt to arrest Barrak -- which itself turned into something of a farce when he eluded the police for days -- was only the latest in an escalating campaign of Kuwaiti repression.

Arab leaders have never been known for their sense of humor, but this is ridiculous. In troubled Bahrain, the cabinet this week backed strict new laws punishing defamation of the monarchy and its symbols. Qatar sentenced poet Mohammed al-Ajami to life in prison late last year for "insulting the emir," later reducing the sentence to 15 years. Saudi Arabia imprisoned leading human rights activists Mohammed Fahd al-Qahtani and Abdullah al-Hamed in part for their alleged insults to the leadership, while the Saudi grand mufti recently denounced Twitter as a "gathering place for every clown and corrupter." Last year, Oman arrested dozens of activists for insulting the sultan, pardoning most of them last month.

Why are Gulf monarchs suddenly so sensitive? Why can't they just brush the dirt off their shoulders? Here's one reason: In their response to the Arab uprisings, these rulers have invested heavily in the notion that monarchy enjoys a unique legitimacy compared to other types of regimes. The reasons given for this supposedly unique stability vary: Some point to established consultative institutions, some to the historical foundations of the system, some to the ability of monarchs to stay above the political fray, some to religious legitimacy. But at the core of the idea of monarchical exception is the claim to a widely accepted legitimacy that blunts demands for political change.

It is difficult to reconcile such claims to unique popular devotion with escalating, direct public criticism of the personalities and institutions of the monarchy. The mockery and exposure of Saudi royal family shenanigans on Twitter peels away the veil of deference. Parliamentary interrogation of Kuwaiti ministers from the royal family, like the direct criticism of the emir on Twitter and at rallies, establishes a precedent of popular challenge to the ruling family that could take other, more threatening forms.

Mocking an Arab leader used to be a dangerous game, and the suffocating dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s put a high premium on squelching any hint of public disrespect. University of Chicago political scientist Lisa Wedeen's influential book on Hafez al-Assad's Syria, Ambiguities of Domination, revolves around the significance of enforced public obeisance: For Wedeen, the public protestations of love for Assad -- declaring him the country's greatest dentist, for instance -- were palpably absurd on their face, and represented a key face of a deep authoritarianism. Something as minor as not hanging the portrait of Jordan's King Hussein in a taxicab could be seen as an act of defiance, while hanging it signaled to every passenger an acceptance -- however grudging -- of the status quo.

Under the old rules of Arab regimes, it wasn't just that dissidents who dared to mock would be punished horribly, tortured and vilified -- though they generally would. It's that the overwhelming majority of people became habituated to accepting this stifling public order, whether out of fear of pervasive regime informants, concern for their own safety, or genuine internalization of the prevailing norms. The policing of public culture lay at the heart of the perception that these regimes possessed an overwhelming, unalterable power.

But that culture of public conformity has utterly disappeared. The current wave of lawsuits is a desperate, rear-guard action with zero chance of actually purging the new public sphere of dissent. This new culture has been forged by new media -- from al-Jazeera to independent newspapers to broadly used social media -- and by a new generation of Arab citizens with new expectations and competencies. It was easy to see well before the uprisings of January 2011, but was obviously galvanized by the regional wave of uprisings and public contention.

This new public sphere matters in fundamental ways -- regardless of whether particular regimes rise or fall. It might not on its own bring about revolutions or democracy, but it has completely normalized a public culture of mockery and disrespect. Egyptians simply don't worry about posting jokes about Morsy to their Facebook pages or carrying crude caricatures of the president while marching in Tahrir Square. Syrians who once feared even a hint of public criticism now happily describe him as a "duck" and post jokes about the presidential penis. Arab leaders are just going to have to get used to being ridiculed, teased, mocked, and exposed -- just like every politician in the Western world has long since come to expect.

But that's hard for monarchies, which depend so heavily upon a manufactured sense of majesty. The wave of arrests and harsh sentences demonstrates not just royals' need to protect their fragile egos -- it's a clear sign of their diminishing power and legitimacy. It's telling that the overwhelming majority of cases of "insulting the emir" in Kuwait have been filed since 2006. Genuinely powerful and respected figures are confident in their prestige and comfortable ignoring the rocks thrown at the throne (think Jay-Z). When they need to respond with the full, heavy-handed force of vestigial autocracy, it is the surest sign that they are losing.

In other words, the crackdown across the Gulf suggests that its regimes are probably not nearly as stable as they'd like everyone to believe. If the monarchs of the region were truly stable and legitimate, they would brush aside these insults. Nothing telegraphs weakness and insecurity quite like lawsuits and arrests over perceived disrespect.

Egypt gets all the headlines -- and of course Bassem Youssef should win the right to make fun of Morsy's hat. But Egypt's drama shouldn't distract attention from the significance of the mounting battle in the Gulf over the right to directly criticize one's leaders -- humorously or not. Rulers who imprison poets or bloggers over "insults" should always be mocked both at home and in the international realm. If they want to be respected, they should earn it through democratic inclusion, open engagement, transparency, and accountability.

KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images

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