Sunday, 6 March 2011


I've been thinking a lot about dictatorships lately, as we all have with the protests sweeping the Middle East.  First came the good news stories - the rapid and relatively bloodless falls of dictators in Tunisia and Egypt.  Then the not so good news - the grim determination of the Gadaffi regime in Libya to hold on no matter what the cost to the nation as a whole.  Meanwhile other conflicts await resolution - in Yemen, Bahrain, Iran and Morocco just to name a few.

I don't know a whole lot about Middle Eastern politics or culture, only a few things I've read and an attentive following of Western media.  But a few things seem clear to me.

First of all, our media is very focused on the figureheads of these regimes, like Mubarak and Gadaffi.  There is no doubt that these are (or were) genuinely powerful men, but no-one can rule a country on their own.  A dictatorship is not a rule by one man or woman.  Rather, it is rule by a segment of society which has the power and resources to force others to comply.  This means, first and foremost, the military, and most dictators are either army officers or politicians with significant military connections. 

This is simple, but the next bit is not so.  Someone has to pay the soldiers.  This means that a dictator has to have a certain level of cooperation from economically powerful people or corporations, both in the country and outside it.  Cooperation within the country can be "arranged" - if owners refuse cooperation their assets can be taken by force, unless they've been quick enough to get themselves and their wealth out of the country.  But you also need support from elsewhere.  If you have oil, someone has to be willing to buy it. 

The Mubarak regime had the military onside, of course, but had no oil so was in an economically weak position.  It's economy was propped up, fascinatingly enough, because it played the game of alliances well, keeping friends in the Arab world but also being willing to succour Israel and serve US interests and so be seen as a valuable ally which powerful countries did not want to destabilise.  In the end, Mubarak lost the support of the military and was deposed - but right now this leaves the army itself in even firmer control.  Is there a viable path from there to democracy?

Gadaffi is much cleverer (or perhaps just more powerful) than Mubarak in this respect.  He supported the creation of a second army, including mercenaries and orphans who did not have divided loyalties, to keep the original national army in check.  We see the fruits of this now.  The official Libyan army wants to overthrow Gadaffi, but the "special forces" remain loyal to him.  It seems a lot of people will be shot before this is resolved, and Gadaffi has made sure the troops on his side have the best guns.

Of course Libya also has lots of oil and many countries want it.  This is a huge part of the reason why in recent years various Western countries have been willing to do conscience-free deals with the Gadaffi regime, letting it back into international forums, releasing the Lockerbie bomber and in the case of Silvio Burlusconi calling Gadaffi a "true friend of Italy" in exchange for a huge amount of oil. 

The third thing dictatorships have to be able to do is suppress alternative sources of power.  This includes controlling the news media, outlawing rival political parties, co-opting or disempowering traditional authority figures like tribal or religious leaders, and demonising unsympathetic foreign countries so that information coming from them will be distrusted.  Some of these steps are easier to take than others.  Political parties can be easily outlawed, but they can reappear in other guises.  Both the German Nazis and the African National Congress reappeared as soccer teams when they were outlawed.  Mass media can be controlled but it's much harder to control small presses or the Internet.  And no dictator should ever underestimate the ability of even quite minimally educated people to see through propaganda.  Did Gadaffi really think ordinary Libyans believed it when they saw recent footage of him addressing cheering supporters?

This third aspect of dictatorship is what makes the next steps so difficult for these countries.  It's one thing to get rid of Mubarak, or even Gadaffi.  But who will take their place?  After years of brutal suppression, from where will the alternative leadership emerge?  It is highly likely that most Egyptians do not support the aims of the Muslim Brotherhood, which include the imposition of Sharia law, but no-one else is a well organised.  The forces of liberal democracy have been systematically weakened.  Can they organise quickly enough to form a workable government?  Can they find people who know enough about governing to make a decent go of it?  Or will the military, used to having its way,  take a look at the result, declare another "emergency" and install the next Mubarak?

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