Do not despair yet about dictators

The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy, by William Dobson, Doubleday

When the generals who have been running Egypt since the toppling of Hosni Mubarak by the revolutionaries of Tahrir Square dissolve an Islamist-dominated, elected parliament and grab its powers, but (at the time of writing) consider allowing the election of an Islamist as president, is this dictatorship? When Hugo Chávez, the loudmouthed Bolivarian populist who has come to dominate Venezuela, calls his citizens to the polls 13 times in 11 years, only to keep constricting the space for independent action, is he a dictator?

The answer is not obvious. Dictators in the 21st Century tend to be smarter than their peers of the tyrant-infested 20th Century. Not so long ago things were simpler. As magazine covers passim attest, many a dictator looked obligingly like a bogeyman or a gargoyle. Think Ayatollah Khomeini’s inquisitorial scowl and Colonel Gaddafi’s comic opera uniforms, or imagine General Noriega, the fallen Panama strongman, of whom his opponents used to remark that the only way to libel him was to publish his picture.

The modern breed of dictator, William Dobson argues in this persuasive book, knows his regime can only survive in today’s intertwined and globalised world of instant communications if it is “carefully built, polished and reinforced”. Dobson, foreign affairs editor at Slate, the online magazine, has invested time and insight, from China to Venezuela, and Egypt to Russia, trying to capture the shape-changing nature of modern authoritarianism, and the resourcefulness and wit of its opponents.

His essential thesis is that the dictatorship is evolving, and its practitioners “understand it is better to appear to win a contested election than to openly steal it”. Once you game the system as, say, Chávez and Vladimir Putin have done, then you can turn elections and the trappings of democracy into part of the autocratic arsenal. Adamantine inflexibility is out. The trick is to judge when to open the pressure valves of the system. “21st Century authoritarians crave the type of legitimacy only the law can provide”, Dobson writes, but that also enables their opponents to exploit what he calls the “subtle vulnerabilities” of the system, in ways he compellingly illustrates by interviewing a remarkable gallery of battle-hardened activists.

Dobson captures empathetically the skill and insight of modern neo-despots – in much the way their more successful opponents do. Typically, a Chávez, and even (for a long time) a Mubarak, understands the need eventually to take the risk of greater political competition. The trick is judging how to drip-feed it into the system.

Mubarak, who, Dobson writes in a typically arresting phrase was “the third longest ruler in Egypt’s six-thousand-year history”, stayed too long and lost the knack, like many of his tyrant peers in the Arab world. In Russia, by contrast, the éminence grise of the Kremlin, Gleb Pavlovsky, tells the author pragmatically: “We’ll just have to make a choice in what we are going to risk and when we are going to risk it”.

The successful modern strongman is intensely relaxed about what you believe, so long as you stay out of the political way. Yet many of the techniques these regimes employ – from patronage to replicating civic and political organisations with hollow loyalist clones – are hardly new. Such methods kept the Institutional Revolutionary Party – which looks set for a remarkable comeback in Mexico’s elections this weekend – in power throughout most of the last century. What is new though is the wildfire spread of systematically non-violent insurgency. This owes a great deal to the strategic thinking of Gene Sharp, an American academic whose how-to-topple-your-tyrant manual, From Dictatorship to Democracy, is the bible of activists from Belgrade to Rangoon.

Sharp, an unassuming man in his 80s, is the Lenin of the new Gandhi-ism, whose inventive recipes for revolution helped the Serbs bring down Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. These young Serbs then fanned out to train activists from some 50 countries – helping seed the Arab Spring. Sharp’s central insight – that a ruler cannot rule if his people will not obey – is no less revolutionary for being obvious, and Dobson explores its practical applications with verve and context.

Although his book is about the resilience of authoritarianism, Dobson grew more optimistic about the fight for freedom the more he met the “battle-scarred activists who approached their work with intelligence, care and skill. “Rare is the book on dictatorship that can end on an uplifting note that its narrative carefully substantiates.

The writer is international affairs editor

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