For the past year and a half, I have been traveling to many of the world’s least-free places for a book project. When I would arrive in this or that authoritarian capital, I would always meet with the people tasked with explaining the regime to the outside world. Sometimes these dictatorial mouthpieces were businesspeople with cozy relationships with those in the upper reaches of the ruling party. Sometimes they were government officials on the payroll. But after you have visited enough of these places enough times, certain patterns begin to emerge. You begin to see consistencies in the way that authoritarian leaders and the people who serve them rationalize their rule, consistencies that defy culture, history, wealth, and power. Call it the dictator’s doublespeak.
One of the most common bromides goes something like this: You see, our history is a long one. We have, over many centuries, developed a national character that prides stability and continuity above all else. Our people are docile in their very nature because they understand that the risks of a sudden rupture from this tradition would be too dangerous, too costly for everyone. And so, we are on a path of reform, and gradually over time, the people will continue to see their living standards improve — but through the care and protection of our stability.
Only a few months ago, this was still the song the regime and its cronies were singing in Cairo. When I met last year with Ali Eddin Hilal, the media secretary of Hosni Mubarak’s ruling party, he told me, “An old poem about reform in Egypt says that it is gradual and it comes from the top. You always have an element of continuity in the political culture.” And later, in the same conversation: “Egyptians, William, are very moderate by nature. I don’t want to go into any collective political psychology, but you need it from time to time. [Egyptians] enjoy their life. In the evenings, they listen, talk on the phone for three or four hours, talk to their aunt, smoke a pipe. It’s a peasant culture.”
I wonder how “moderate” his compatriots seem to him now.
But the Egyptian people’s actions ripple far beyond Egypt. This was brought home to me in Beijing in late February. I was meeting with a Communist Party official, only 11 days after Mubarak had been ousted. Almost reflexively, he began to recite the reasons why the events in the Middle East and North Africa did not apply to China. Then, he said, “And you have to understand that Chinese culture is an ancient culture. . .” He stopped himself in mid-sentence, because he knew what I was thinking. “You don’t think Egyptian culture is ancient?” I doubt he will use that line again.
What was achieved last month in Tahrir Square was the beginning of a real revolution. It remains to be seen whether the Egyptian people will be able to build on it. But one thing is sure: Dictators, at the very least, will have to tell different lies.