Dictatorship for Dummies, Tunisia edition

By William J. Dobson
Friday, January 21, 2011; 7:00 PM

The world cheered as it watched Tunisians, who had long suffered under the stultifying weight of dictatorship, rid themselves of their tormentor. When protestors amassed in the Tunisian capital, something incredible happened: The autocracy that President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali had carefully cultivated for 23 years was no longer safe for its autocrat. Like any criminal, Ben Ali fled the scene of the crime, flying to Saudi Arabia for what he hopes will be a new life in exile. (It was better than the alternative.)

But there is a different audience also glued to its television sets, watching events in Tunisia unfold: the world's other dictators. When a despot falls, the rest of the club takes notice. On Christmas Day in 1989, the Romanian people quickly dispatched President Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife hours after the brutal communist regime crumbled. Zaire's strongman, President Mobutu Sese Seko, is said to have been horrified when he saw the image of his Romanian friend's corpse on CNN. And the Chinese leadership beefed up security, lest anyone in Beijing draw inspiration from Bucharest.

In 2005, after the democratic movements in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, Vladimir Putin and Hu Jintao huddled on the sidelines of a summit to discuss the danger of "color revolutions." And each year, without a hitch, Arab interior ministers - experts in the dark arts of "domestic security"- meet to compare notes. Ben Ali, a former interior minister himself, regularly played host for the conference. Indeed, the last meeting was in Tunis.

So, what has Tunisia taught the dictators' club?

Be repressive, but don't overdo it.

One of the student leaders who helped topple Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic in 2000 recently told me, "The best dictators actually compromise all the time." It's true. When Russian pensioners blockade the roads in protest, the Kremlin accommodates. The Egyptian regime tolerates rallies against President Hosni Mubarak. Strikers in China get paid more often then they get prosecuted. In contrast, Ben Ali filled his prisons and had an informant on every corner. The costs outweighed the benefits, as he antagonized the population over issues he could have conceded. Smart dictators don't give up power that might curtail their ability to survive - but everything else is negotiable.

Don't try to be Singapore.

Yes, it would be nice if you could wake up as an Asian Tiger economy. But it's not likely. Ben Ali delivered 5 percent economic growth, great infrastructure, a college education for many and a 74-year life expectancy. Yet how did Tunisians repay him? If the regime's only legitimacy comes from its economic performance, then the moment prosperity slips, the entire system is vulnerable. Tunisia may have posted good numbers for the region, but Asian authoritarians never let their economies become dependent on European vacationers, as Tunisia did. It is far safer to have islands of bureaucratic dysfunction and keep expectations low. Because if you aim to be Singapore and come up short, the costs are high, especially if your only other talent is repression.

Give young people passports.

If you can't get everyone a job, encourage emigration. It is the best way to get rid of educated young people who will only cause you headaches when they realize they can't find work or must live with their parents. Hugo Chavez and Mubarak grasp this point: Venezuelans and Egyptians are leaving their native lands in droves. And the bonus? When your best and brightest make it in the United States, Europe or the Persian Gulf, they'll send hefty remittances to family back home.

Let the opposition exist - just don't let it win.

Ben Ali obliterated the political opposition. In hindsight, that was a mistake. A well-run political opposition is a dictator's best friend. You can create fake parties, you can harass legitimate parties, you can bribe them into fighting each other. The key is that they exist and that the system is sufficiently rigged so they can never stand in your way. Critics will say this is window dressing; they're wrong. Opposition parties, if properly managed, will siphon off some of the public's resentment. In Tunisia, people had no choice but to go to the streets.

Give them newspapers.

In Tunisia, there were two things you could count on: Every day the sun rose, and every day Ben Ali was front-page news. Media censorship is to be expected in such regimes, but there is no value in blanket coverage. Control television news and most radio, but let your critics and a few investigative reporters have some independent newspapers with small circulations. These will be outlets where people can blow off steam, and the regime will have a couple sources of information that it can trust, too.

Never negotiate with an angry mob.

When Ben Ali appeared on television and tried to save his skin by offering last-minute reforms and promising to step down at the end of his term, he inadvertently sealed his fate. Any Tunisian who had been on the fence now knew that the president was finished. In its waning hours, a regime faces a choice - retreat or lash out. Unfortunately, for those hardened regimes bent on survival, the lesson of Ben Ali's final hours is probably to bet on more tanks and less talk.

The people actually matter.

This is a terrifying concept for a dictatorship, but the ouster of Ben Ali cannot be pinned on anyone other than Tunisians themselves. No one is alleging that the United States, France or some other foreign power was behind it. In fact, autocratic Tunisia was a reliable Western ally, and the United States didn't criticize Ben Ali until he was packing his bags. Arab regimes can't blame Islamists; Ben Ali had long since rounded them up or chased them overseas. No political opposition mobilized the people, because it was practically nonexistent. The regime failed on bread-and-butter issues - unemployment, the economy, corruption - and this, paired with the indignities of the regime's repression, was enough to start a revolution.

Tunisia offers lessons for the rest of us, too. Chief among them should be this: We left Tunisians to rid themselves of their dictator. Now that they have, let's not ignore them again. Tunisians must do most of the work, but they shouldn't have to work alone.


William J. Dobson, a former managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine and senior editor for Asia at Newsweek International, is writing a book about the challenges to democracy.

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