Sunday, 6 March 2011
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 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?