What, Me a Dictator? By WILLIAM J. DOBSON (WSJ)

June 10th, 2012 Print Print Email Email

Forget clumsy commissars and caudillos. Savvy strongmen now invoke democracy and intimidate quietly. (more…)

Forget clumsy commissars and caudillos. Savvy strongmen now invoke democracy and intimidate quietly.

In March 2011, a few weeks after the crowds had left Tahrir Square, I sat down with Sherif Mickawi, a former Egyptian air-force engineer turned political activist. He was one of the young leaders who had helped rally the people to overthrow President Hosni Mubarak. But despite the democratic revolution’s success, Mr. Mickawi was worried.

“They understand the game now,” he said, wringing his hands. “When a big storm comes, you need to lean with it. When the storm leaves, you can stand up again. They don’t mean to lose what they have.”

We like to believe that today’s authoritarian regimes are dinosaurs—clumsy, stupid, lumbering beasts, reminiscent of the Soviet Union in its final days or a South American banana republic. To be sure, a handful of retrograde, old-school dictatorships have managed to limp into the 21st century. They are the North Koreas, Turkmenistans and Equatorial Guineas of the world. But they represent dictatorship’s past. They make little effort to appear as anything other than what they are. They are still capable of great crimes, as the gruesome scenes from Bashar al-Assad’s Syria remind us, but no one aspires to emulate them.

Today’s smarter dictators, by contrast, understand that in a globalized world, the more brutal forms of intimidation—mass arrests, firing squads, violent crackdowns—are best replaced with more subtle forms of coercion.

Rather than arrest members of human-rights groups, Russia’s Vladimir Putin deploys tax collectors or health inspectors to shut down dissident groups. In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez ensures that laws are written broadly and then uses them like a scalpel to target groups that he deems a threat. Rather than shutter all media, modern-day despots make exceptions for small outlets—usually newspapers—that allow for a limited public discussion. (After all, the regime needs someone to investigate corruption.)

Unlike Middle Eastern strongmen, the bosses of the Chinese Communist Party enforce a limit of two terms for their top leaders and regularly invoke democracy in their speeches. Soviet leaders routinely staged elections and announced that they had won an improbable 99% of the vote.

Ethiopia’s Zenawi announced he had won 99.6% of the vote.


Today, the Kremlin’s operatives typically stop stuffing ballot boxes when they reach 70%. Modern dictators understand that it is better to appear to win a contested election than to steal it openly.

Mr. Putin learned about dictatorship by watching one fail. As a young KGB officer stationed in Dresden in the late 1980s, he saw East Germany’s harsh totalitarian state collapse around him. He was shocked, he later recalled, by how “totally invasive” the German Democratic Republic had been.

So Mr. Putin has worked in the seams of Russia’s political system, centralizing power through channels that could at least appear to be democratic. Once he had used election laws to reduce the parliament to a rubber-stamp body, he created a new organization made up of legal, media and civil society experts to give him the feedback a legislature might—just without the power to vote.

“Putinism comes just for your political rights but does not touch your personal freedom,” the opposition leader Boris Nemtsov told me. “You can travel, you can emigrate if you want, you can read the Internet. Communists blocked personal freedom plus political freedom. That’s why communism looks much more stupid than Putinism.”

Venezuela’s Mr. Chávez has opted for a different approach. He courts chaos. The linchpin of his authoritarianism has always been, somewhat paradoxically, elections. No matter when you visit Venezuela, it is election season. While government services collapse and crime skyrockets, Mr. Chávez has kept an iron grip on the institution that organizes elections, draws up electoral maps and sets the rules. His electoral engineers are the world’s best at gerrymandering. In the last legislative election, Mr. Chávez’s party lost the popular vote in some cities and states but still won 70% of the seats.

Fear is a potent weapon, too. In 2005, Mr. Chávez’s supporters created the “Maisanta”—a digital database that includes the names, addresses, voter-ID numbers and voting histories of millions of Venezuelans. Copied onto compact discs, this information was distributed to Chávez partisans across the country. It can be consulted when someone applies for a job, seeks medical care or files a tax return. Pirated copies are everywhere. I bought mine for about $1.50.

For savvy dictators, China is the most tantalizing example. In 1989, at the time of the Tiananmen Square protests, no one could have predicted that the Chinese Communist Party would be vastly stronger 20 years later. Its success is owed largely to how the regime responded to the twin shocks of the protests and the Soviet empire’s demise. Instead of turning inward, Beijing launched a meticulous study of communism’s failings and altered its own formula for maintaining power. Teams of researchers went to Russia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia to conduct a postmortem on those regimes. The party struck a new compact with the Chinese people: As long as you do not threaten our monopoly on power, we will let you go about your business and maybe even prosper.

The challenge today isn’t having the guns to mow down people in the streets. It’s keeping them from learning how to march.

The regime has even borrowed some reform ideas—term limits, local elections, public hearings, participatory budgeting—from Western democracies. “We don’t waste our time with what is capitalism or what is socialism,” one party adviser told me. “If today is better than yesterday, then I like the policy.”

In Egypt, the fears of Mr. Mickawi, the political activist, have proved to be justified. The military, long one of the chief beneficiaries of the Mubarak regime, is not eager to reform. Rather than dissolve branches of the old security apparatus, the generals have just renamed them. And rather than work with the nonviolent groups that led the revolution, the generals have accused them of receiving foreign military training.

Though more than 10,000 Egyptian civilians have been tried in military courts since Mr. Mubarak’s fall, only two police officers have gone to prison for the killing of nearly 1,000 protesters. Today, Ahmed Shafiq, a former air-force commander (like Mr. Mubarak himself), is one of the two candidates in the runoff election to be Egypt’s next president.

Modern authoritarianism is more durable than the fate of a single dictator, but it has its vulnerabilities, too. The democratic sheen on even the most sophisticated authoritarian regimes wears thin over time, as both Mr. Putin and Mr. Chávez are learning. Even if the Egyptian military attempts to preserve a refurbished version of the old regime, the Egyptian people will never forget what it meant to assemble in Tahrir Square and vote for the first time. They are no longer mere spectators to their country’s politics.

I asked one Chinese official if there was anything that the party saw in Tunis, Cairo or Benghazi that could be a cause for alarm. Yes, he replied. The party had survived its Tiananmen moment, but few think that it can survive another. “If they let that many people go to a public square again,” he said, “they will have already lost.”

For modern-day dictators, the challenge isn’t having enough guns to mow down their people in the streets. It’s finding a way to keep them from ever learning how to march.

—Mr. Dobson is the politics and foreign affairs editor of Slate. This essay is adapted from his new book, “The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy,” published by Doubleday.

  1. Sammy
    | #1

    In my opinion, it is embarrassing to surreptitiously insert a comment in an article that was authored and published by others without permit; even if it was done while grudgingly acknowledging the comment is not part of the article.

  2. ananymous
    | #2

    I do not believe the so called Ethiopian prime minister is a dictator but a pure evil that is born to be slave for others at any cost.

  3. Aba Guda
    | #3

    Sammy-Dummy, there is nothing embarassing. As it all true in all its meaning and content , it should have been highlighted in Golden Letters. You quacking because your murderous baboon is touched. BTW, why are you, mr. filthy Weyane Cadre. Aigaforum is your place.

  4. ጉረኞች
    | #4

    Actually if someone inserts the midget dictator’s name Meles Zenawi in each one of the dictators mentioned in the article, the article could be used as facts to demonstrate the coercion used in Ethiopia. Don’t have much heartburn about having the author’s permit, I’m sure he would rather much appreciate it when his claim is corroborated bu such facts.

  5. How about leaders of Italy and Greece?
    | #5

    Guys you need to broaden your scope and also be fair to all. You forget crisis in your backyard and pointing your finger towards China and Russia.

    Why are U turning blind eyes to what happened in Italy and Greece?
    Leaders of both countries were overthrown by leaders in Brussels.
    Are you saying these leaders were overthrown by ballot box?

    Stop talking about china

  6. How about leaders of Italy and Greece?
    | #6

    China or Russia are irrelevant to African problems. History and economic relations shows that is the case.

    1. Who were the supporter of dictators in Egypt, Yemen and Tunisia other than democratic countries?

    2. Neither China nor Russia ever colonized Africa. So as African, why bother to talk about two countries?
    3. China or Russia as countries did not benefited from colonialism?

    4. Resources of Africa are still illegally taken out of African to democratic countries.

    5. Arms sells: Main suppliers of arms to the regions are not China or Russia.

    So, why bother about china or Russia?

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