Dictators in the Middle East are advised by Western politicians that they should introduce democratic reforms if they want to stay in office. This might work for the most moderate of rulers, such as in Jordan. It worked in Spain and Portugal, but only after the death or incapacitation of the dictator made a smooth transition possible. For other dictators, there is no way to split the difference between a dictatorship and a democracy. No brutal dictator can navigate the fine line between meaningful reform and remaining in office. True reform requires transferring or sharing power with others. Once your democratic partners have some degree of power, they will make sure that you will be out of office. Pinochet tried to protect himself by parliamentary immunity and spent the final years of his life fighting off criminal charges. The “power sharing arrangements” in Iran and Zimbabwe have been shams in which the democratically elected partner (Khatami and Tsvangirai) is rendered powerless by the Mullahs or Mugabe.
Any brutal dictator who allows a meaningful reform is, in effect, committing political suicide. There was no chance for a Mubarak to continue in office in a “reformed” Egypt. Under the best of circumstances, he could have been a transitory figure head. At the worst, he would have been put before a firing squad like Ceausescu. Mubarak had no way of winning once the democratic genie was let out of the bottle. It was in his interest to keep the genie firmly locked in the bottle.
The current reform advice to dictators reminds me of earlier advice to Soviet rulers to allow meaningful reform of their political-economic system. The aging Soviet leaders after Stalin were not particularly bright, but they understood one basic fact: Real reform meant the end of the system as they knew it. It was not until Gorbachev – the first Soviet leader too young to be part of Stalin’s coterie – that the USSR was led by a communist party leader who did not understand that real reform would destroy the pillars of the entire system, which it did.
I presume that brutal dictators throughout the Mid East -- Kaddafi, Assad, the Iranian mullahs -- understand better than Gorbachev that meaningful reform means the end of their careers. Our pleas for them to become “democrats” will go unheeded. From their perspective, this is very bad advice.