Amid the Arab Spring uprisings, the global war between freedom and repression is often perceived as a battle that pits tech-savvy, globalized democrats against out-of-touch, dim-witted dictatorships. In his acclaimed new book The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy, William Dobson, Slate politics and foreign affairs editor, takes readers behind the scenes in both camps, and explores how authoritarian regimes are increasingly employing twenty-first century techniques to protect the twentieth century status quo.

Srdja Popovic, founder and leader of the Serbian student movement that brought down the Milosovic regime, discussed how “people power” can prevail, and George Washington University professor Marc Lynch discussed these dynamics in the context of today’s Middle East. Carnegie’s Karim Sadjadpour moderated.

The Rise and Fall of Dictatorships

  • The Difficulty of Being a Dictator: Dobson explained that there has never been a more difficult time in history to be a dictator. Previously, the Soviet Union had sponsored a number of dictators as part of their Cold War strategy, but the fall of the Soviet Union ended that support. Furthermore, technological advancements have made it difficult for oppressive regimes to cover up violations and misdeeds, he added.

  • The Rise of Modern Dictatorships: As a result, modern dictatorships have become much savvier in their oppression and do not use solely-physical aggressive tactics, Dobson said. They recognize that they need to be wary not only of armed popular resistance, but also of widespread popular protests.

  • Threats Facing Dictators: The centralization of power is the foundation of any dictatorship, Dobson said. A successful dictator maintains direct control over most aspects of the government. However, dictators also must be wary of economic conditions that would make their country ripe for unrest. An educated and unemployed youth poses a threat to an oppressive regime. A successful dictator, Dobson concluded, would encourage its educated members to pursue opportunities abroad so that they are not a direct internal threat to the stability of the regime.

  • Responding to Uprisings: Dictators have a limited number of ways they can respond to popular uprisings, Popovic said. They can directly confront the uprising, which can have significant costs both domestically and internationally, they can engage in some form of accommodation, which is often cosmetic at best, or they can agree to convert their government away from a dictatorship.

Non-Violent Resistance

  • Non-Violent Strategies: Popovic noted that non-violent resistance will only work if the opposition is unified, disciplined, and is following a set plan. Furthermore, he said, revolutions cannot be exported: they must be indigenous.

  • Forms of Resistance: Marches and popular protests are not the only forms of popular resistance, Popovic added. Humor and other low-risk tactics can also be used to undermine the power of an oppressive regime.

  • A Domino Effect: Once popular protests in one country have succeeded in uprooting their regime, other protesters in neighboring countries begin to believe that they can do the same, Lynch said. Change becomes a realistic end-goal, he added.

  • Dynamics of Enthusiasm and Fear: Oppressive regimes depend on fear, Popovic said. But once a society is more enthusiastic than it is fearful, once it believes change can take place, an uprising has a real chance of success.

  • Unsuccessful Movement in Iran: While the Arab Awakening brought the successful overthrow of a number of oppressive regimes, Iran’s Green Movement did not see similar success. Popovic suggested that the Green Movement’s chief problem was a lack of vision; the movement was divided on whether it supported a secular or theocratic state. As a result of their lack of unity and planning, the regime was able to learn fast and respond to them quickly, he added. 

  • Militarized Situations: With the case of Syria, the best way to bring down a militarized dictatorship is through non-violence, not guerilla fighting, Popovic asserted. He argued that the international community made a mistake by intervening militarily in Libya, because that action set a false precedent for Syria. Violence should be the last resort, he emphasized. It was consumer boycotts that broke the back of the regime in South Africa and Popovic argued that the economy is the real weakness of the regime in Syria as well. Lynch expressed some disagreement, noting there may come a point where it is too late for non-violence to be successful.

Dictatorships in the Middle East

  • Tactics of Authoritarian Rule: Authoritarian rulers in the region have used a number of tactics to maintain their hold on power, Lynch said. He listed some of the most successful tactics, including:

    • Maintaining control over the state-run media and the country’s judiciary

    • Allowing elections, while passing electoral legislation that would all but guarantee fragmented parliaments

    • Allowing Islamists to win in elections in order to scare liberals, both domestically and abroad

    • Keeping any violence out of sight and out of the media

    • Preventing scions of the regime from engaging in embarrassing behavior

    • Making good use of any oil wealth

  • Unstable Dictatorships in the Region: Lynch said that Saudi Arabia’s authoritarianism is unstable due to an impending leadership crisis, a media-saturated population, and unsustainable budget promises. Bahrain, Syria, and Jordan are also regimes that face a significant threat, he added.