The Magazine

Power in Play

How to get it, keep it, and take it away.

Oct 1, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 03 • By DANIEL LEE
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There’s been an Orange Revolution in Ukraine, a Rose Revolution in Georgia, and a Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia that helped launch last year’s Arab Spring. Is democracy sweeping the globe at last? Well—not yet, according to our author, a former editor at Foreign Policy who has been doing some globe-sweeping of his own (93,000 miles, give or take) over several years spent reporting for this volume.

Hugo Chávez and prop, 2012

Hugo Chávez and prop, 2012

NEWSCOM

“Today’s dictators and authoritarians are far more sophisticated, savvy, and nimble than they once were,” writes William J. Dobson. “[T]he smartest among them neither hardened their regimes into police states nor closed themselves off from the world; instead, they learned and adapted.”

Dobson has interviewed scores of protesters, security experts, opposition political candidates, elite power brokers, and a former Egyptian police officer who, from his computer in the United States, guided protesters occupying Tahrir Square. He sipped tea with a fellow who wants only to improve his shanty, barely clinging to the steep hillsides of Hugo Chávez’s Caracas. As a result, the reader gets a wide-ranging overview of political strife as we live it now, from Syrian Internet video to Chinese Internet shutdowns, from street battles in Tunis to street theater in Cairo.

There’s no argument here that truncheons and tear gas have been retired; merely that modern authoritarians now understand that Internet clips of street mêlées can lead to NATO airstrikes on their compounds. In Venezuela, Chávez allows elections, but strips winning opposition candidates of power, funds, and even office space. Vladimir Putin’s government in Moscow is so sharply attuned to the power of youth movements that it started its own, called Nashi. And Dobson describes a street-cleaning truck sent to spray and scrub a certain Chinese intersection for hours, discouraging a planned demonstration with the threat of a vigorous wash and rinse.

“Twenty-first-century authoritarians crave the type of legitimacy that only the law can provide,” he says. Consequently, Russian officials target politically active nongovernmental organizations with a sort of bureaucratic bluff: inspections, document audits, and evaluation of groups’ actions in the light of “Russian ‘interests.’ ” If an NGO focuses on civil liberties, it may find itself “targeted for tax audits, building code violations, or the use of pirated software.” But that can cut both ways: Officials may try to finesse the rule of law in order to sustain the illusion of legitimacy, writes Dobson, “but by acting as if these legal fictions are genuine, [activists] can stymie a regime’s efforts to run roughshod over its citizenry.”

In fact, Dobson spends as much time here talking about resistance movements’ learning curves as those of dictators. He describes protest seminars hosted by members of the Serbian youth movement that helped oust Slobodan Milosevic, partly by way of creative tactics like releasing turkeys in the street sporting on their heads the flower favored by Milosevic’s wife. The regime’s dignity suffered, along with its credibility. And police officers forced into a turkey rodeo in front of a laughing populace may not be quick to defend the regime at crunch time. Do enough of this, and people may well decide that the regime can and perhaps should be pestered, punished, even overthrown, by the simple expedient of withholding their cooperation at critical moments.

That can mean a lot of back-and-forth: Demonstrators coordinate via Facebook, say, and the regime reacts by shutting down the Internet; dictators intimidate or control media outlets, and protesters respond with graffiti, general strikes, and passive resistance. But like pathogens mutating their way around new antibiotics, it does seem that what doesn’t kill dictators tends to make them stronger—at least in Dobson’s new era of smarter, faster, leaner autocrats. Or perhaps not.

Critical moments can result from the very same adaptations and tactics the regimes have come to depend upon to defang the opposition. In 2005, Hosni Mubarak decided to allow a presidential election that included an actual opponent instead of the usual yes-or-no on Mubarak himself. Of course, he won, and the other candidate ended up in prison; but “in allowing even a sham contest, the regime had made another vital concession in its bid to remain in power,” writes Dobson.

So where does that leave the “sophisticated, savvy, and nimble” dictators of Dobson’s thesis? Are they solidifying their power, or undermining it?

Perhaps both:

There is some academic debate whether a false political opening like Egypt’s can at some point become less a survival strategy and more a permanent condition, a limbo between autocracy and genuine democracy. It’s an unsettled question.

The Chinese government faces widespread contempt and unrest because of local government officials, despite
economic reforms and a booming economy. In Egypt, the fall of Mubarak and rise of the Muslim Brotherhood has led to more, not less, uncertainty and violence. In Syria, the battle continues. In Iran, ominous silence as the centrifuges come up to speed.

Daniel Lee is a writer in Indiana.