Playing chess with Mike Tyson
I might wish that were the name of William Dobson‘s book about how dictators are adjusting to contemporary pro-democracy rebellions, as the original text of this post said, but really it’s Dictatorship 2.0. I haven’t read it but intend to do so, as there was a lively discussion of it yesterday at the Carnegie Endowment with Karim Sadjadpour chairing, Dobson presenting, Otpor‘s Srdja Popovic and Marc Lynch commenting.
It is hard to be an old style dictator today, Dobson avers. Really only North Korea is left, as Burma has begun to adjust. The plug can’t be pulled on communications, which means dictators need to get savvy and use more subtle forms of repression: targeted tax inspections, contested but unfree and unfair elections (preferably with the opposition fragmented), control over television and the courts, big handouts to the populace. Dictatorships today do not aim for ideological monopolies but rather to prevent and disrupt mobilization.
Oppositions have to adjust as well. Srdja outlined the basics: they need unity, planning and nonviolent discipline. They must be indigenous. Internationals can help, mainly through education and help with communications. Protesters need to avoid confronting dictatorial regimes where they are strong and attack them where they are weak. You don’t challenge Mike Tyson to box; better to play chess with him. This means avoiding military action in Syria, for example, and focusing on the regime’s economic weakness. The contest is between opposition enthusiasm and the fear the regime seeks to impose. Humor and “dispersive” tactics that do not require mass assembly in the streets (work and traffic slowdowns, boycotts, graffiti, cartoons) are increasingly important in reducing fear.
Marc emphasized the sequence of events in the Arab awakening: Ben Ali’s flight from Tunisia made people elsewhere realize what was possible, Mubarak’s overthrow in Egypt made it seem inevitable, Libya and Yemen were far more difficult, a reversal that has continued in Syria, where the regime has substantial support from Alawites and Christians afraid of what will happen to them if the revolution succeeds. The tipping point comes when perception of a regime changes from its being merely bad to being immoral.
So who is next? Saudi Arabia and Jordan are in peril, Marc suggested. Bahrain is living on borrowed time. Srdja suggested Iran, which is moving backwards towards an old style dictatorship after the defeat of its Green Movement, can only be challenged successfully if the protesters learn from their mistakes. They need better leadership and a focus on the state’s inability to deliver services. China, Dobson said, has been good at pre-empting large protests. Burma may not be adjusting quickly enough to avoid an upheaval.
I didn’t hear mention of Russia, Cuba, Algeria, and lots of other places that might be candidates, but no one was trying to be comprehensive. Wherever they may be, dictatorships will adjust to what they see happening elsewhere and try to protect their monopoly on power from those who challenge it. Their opponents will also need to adjust. It is thus in both war and peace.