Thursday, February 17, 2011

Reasons dictatorships can fall

Moisés Naím provides an unusually decent summary of a complex subject, ¿Cómo muere una dictadura? (How does a dictatorship die?) El País 13.02.2011.

He points out that some dictatorships are more dictatorial than others. Some rule with an iron hand, others rule with some pretence at democratic legitimacy.

All dictatorships depend on the support of the military. If the military stops supporting the regime and specifically refuses to fire on their fellow citizens to defend the regime: "Cuando se niegan a hacerlo, nace la libertad." (When they refuse to do that, liberty is born.)

One factor much discussed in the Egyptian case is the emergence of new information/communications technologies. Jay Rosen discusses this idea in The "Twitter Can't Topple Dictators" Article Press Think 02/13/2011. He tweeted a day earlier, "I found it! The generic "Twitter doesn't topple dictators" article. It has everything. All debunking cliches in one place." One of the articles to which he refers at Press Think is People, Not Things, Are The Tools Of Revolution by Devin Coldewey TechCrunch 02/11/2011. Rosen calls "Twitter doesn't topple dictators" a "genre that is starting to get a swelled head about itself." He describes several problems of the genre of such articles with special reference to Coldewey's, including:

By ranting about the absuridty [sic] of maximalist claims, the author takes a pass on the really hard and really interesting question: how does the Internet affect the balance of forces in a contest between the state and people fed up with the state?
He summarizes his beef with this particular popular but superficial commentary, "Twitter brings down governments is not a serious idea about the Internet and social change. Refuting it is not a serious activity. It just feels good ... for a moment."

Moisés Naím makes a different point about information. He mentions that new information technologies are clearly "a new headache for autocrats." But what he emphasizes is the spread of information among the population about corruption in their government - corruption is a chronic problem of dictatorships - and information about alternatives forms of rule being practiced in other countries. Just as an odd break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in 1972 wound up being a massively revealing scandal in the United States, new information can shift the conception of a public toward a ruling dictatorship.

Naím notes that dictatorships can have difficulty managing change, at least after the initial period of changes they want to impose when taking power. This isn't always true. He uses China as a country with a dictatorial government that nevertheless has been very good at adjusting to economic changes in the world.

Dictatorships can get old and decrepit, just like individual dictators. Despite the massive domestic intelligence operations the East German regime was famous for running, that regime fell along with other former Warsaw Pact governments in eastern Europe in what Joschka Fischer calls revolution by implosion.

Internal fights between groups that are part of the dictatorship or its key supporters can wind up fatally wounding the government itself. Given the comic-book way in which democracy and dictatorship is so commonly discussed in the American media, especially TV, it's easy to forget that even dictatorships have to have some kind of constituency among the population and have to pay attention in some way or another to actual public opinion. And they can really screw it up.

Sometimes a dictatorship commits a fatal error or series of them that sets of a chain of events it can't control. He uses a very appropriate example, that of the Argentine military dictatorship of 1976-83, whose public support largely evaporated in the wake of their loss in the 1982 war with England over the Malvinas/Falklands Islands. It was really a fatal error for their nasty regime.

Naím also mentions "contagion" as a factor. This is part of what terrified American policymakers during the Cold War in the form of the infamous Domino Theory, the fear that revolutions would spread from one country to the next. Ché Guevara's concept of creating "two, three, many Vietnams" in the form of national liberation wars against the US and European powers assumed that "contagion" would play a role in that process. In practice, both hopes and fears of revolution being contagious are rarely fulfilled. In the case of Tunisia and Egypt, though, contagion clearly played some role.

Jay Rosen ends his article cited above with "a plea for mystery. Factors are not causes. It is a mystery why uprisings occur when they do. The grievances are usually old ones, and yet for a very long time the population suffered them rather than overturn the system."

I'm not quite so pessimistic. At least in retrospect, reasons for the outbreak of a revolution can be described and understood. But the mystery of the timing is always worth keeping in mind.

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