The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy
by William J. Dobson
(New York: Doubleday, 2012), 341 pp.

Reviewed by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Ph.D. Candidate at the Catholic University of America

In the past two years, groups dedicated to the overthrow of longstanding authoritarian regimes, particularly in the Middle East, have experienced startling success that regional analysts simply did not foresee. The toppling of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak, and Muammar Qaddafi, and the further imperilment of Bashar al Assad’s regime in Syria, are testament to how citizens opposed to these governments’ bloody rule have learned to organize effectively. They are empowered by social media technology, and have learned how to utilize the power of mass media to discredit the regimes they oppose. But, as William Dobson demonstrates in his valuable new book, the activists are not the only ones who possess a learning curve: so too do the dictators they are fighting.

The nature of authoritarian governance is changing in the twenty-first century precisely because mass media and social media ensure that fewer bad deeds stay secret. “If you order a violent crackdown-even on a Himalayan mountain pass,” Dobson observes, “you now know it will likely be captured on an iPhone and broadcast around the world” (3). This dynamic makes tyranny more difficult; to maintain their power, contemporary authoritarian regimes cannot be the spitting image of the twentieth century dictators who could control the flow of information to their citizens. Though such acts as mass arrests or violent crackdowns are not unheard of today (and indeed, have been prominently employed), the new authoritarians generally use subtler coercive methods. “Rather than forcibly arrest members of a human rights group, today’s most effective despots deploy tax collectors or health inspectors to shut down dissident groups,” Dobson writes. “Laws are written broadly, then used like a scalpel to target the groups the government deems a threat” (5).

Consonant with employing subtler forms of coercion is the manner in which the new authoritarians take on a false democratic appearance (although the appearance of democracy is not particularly new for authoritarian governments, and in fact was a familiar part of the playbooks of the dictators of yesteryear). The new authoritarians often boast constitutions that provide for separation of powers between branches of government, and today’s dictators give speeches peppered “with references to liberty, justice, and the rule of law” (5).

Dobson’s book is the product of travel and research in a number of countries that he categorizes as authoritarian-including China, Egypt, Malaysia, Russia, and Venezuela-in an effort to discern the “innovations, techniques, or methods” that the regimes employed to maintain their power (10). Dobson also spoke at length with activists who stand on the front lines in the struggle to bring down today’s dictators. (One weakness of Dobson’s book, it should be said, is that it fails to define the concepts authoritarianism and dictatorship. This would be a more serious problem were this intended as an academic study, but even for the popular press, clarity of concepts is important.)

One particularly effective regime-and one likely to prove stubbornly resilient-is the Russian government under former KGB officer Vladimir Putin. The evidence of that state’s recentralization is overwhelming. The government now controls about 93% of media outlets within Russia, and has been brazenly willing to manipulate news coverage. Even creating space for the political opposition has been used to further the regime’s power. This opposition, Dobson notes, is referred to as “the systemic opposition” because they “ostensibly play the role of regime critics while never pushing their criticism beyond the boundaries set by the Kremlin” (18).

Russia has also been an innovator in the cooptation of civil society. One such innovation is the government-operated NGO (GONGO), which can legitimate the regime by presenting “alternative” findings that compete with outside NGOs critical of Russian policies. Dobson singles out the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights, which interestingly did not start out as a GONGO, but eventually came to put a premium on serving the regime’s interests. Recently, Human Rights Watch (HRW) was about to release a report on Ingushetia written by HRW’s Moscow deputy director Tanya Lokshina, that detailed “the abductions, executions, acts of torture, and forced disappearances that had occurred there” (28). But the head of the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights also traveled to Ingushetia, met with officials, and announced a press event prior to HRW’s release. Lokshina noted that the message of this press event was that “Human Rights Watch was lying about everything.” She continued: “How do you figure out who to trust? He’s been there, he’s done it, he’s got the T-shirt. That is a very particular, sophisticated feature of this authoritarian regime” (28).

A further issue is the killing and intimidation of journalists and political activists. Nineteen Russian journalists have been killed since 2000, and Lokshina told Dobson that “attacks and beatings have become almost routine” (29). Many killings have gone unsolved-with the regime the obvious suspect, but maintaining a degree of deniability.

Overall, Putin has done a remarkable job of putting himself in a position where he can maintain his power indefinitely. Boris Nemtsov, the leader of the political movement Solidarity (not a part of the systemic opposition) provided an incisive analysis of how Putin has deprived Russians of political freedoms while avoiding the kind of mass opposition engendered by Communism:

“What’s the difference between communism and Putinism?” he says. “This is very important. Putinism looks smarter, because Putinism comes just for your political rights but does not touch your personal freedom. You can travel, you can emigrate if you want, you can read the Internet. What is strictly forbidden is to use TV. Television is under control because TV is the most powerful resource for ideology and the propaganda machine. Communists blocked personal freedom plus political freedom. That’s why communism looks much more stupid than Putinism.” (19)

Middle East specialists will be particularly interested in Dobson’s observations about Egypt. He interviewed regime officials and activists both before and after the revolution, and provides a fascinating look at what both sides were thinking in the months leading up to Tahrir Square becoming a searing image known throughout the world.

Similar to Putin, Mubarak attempted to co-opt dissent and the emergence of civil society-though he found far less success. Ali Eddin Hilal, who served as the ruling National Democratic Party’s media secretary and spokesman, explained that the strategy was “instead of becoming a target of a change, you become a partner, in fact, a leader of the change” (196). This strategy is reflected in the experience of human rights activist Hossam Bahgat, who in 2010 visited Geneva to document Egypt’s gross violations during the UN Human Rights Council’s annual review of member states’ records. Egypt’s government used to attack and vilify those who criticized it, but by then Bahgat met with a different treatment. The Egyptian ambassador invited Bahgat to his residence, where Bahgat “was surprised to hear promises that they would work together on the follow-up to the human-rights review” (198). Such expressions of interest and partnership were seen as a more effective way to quell dissent, and ultimately maintain control.

Mubarak’s regime likewise attempted to concede political space “in order to maintain it” (196). It granted greater speech rights-even allowing public protest in an effort to showcase the liberties now afforded to Egyptians. Ahmed Ezz, a now-jailed billionaire crony of Gamal Mubarak, told Dobson in late 2010, “Why are people not rebelling? Why are they not coming out in millions when political freedoms are being discussed by the opposition? Why? Because Egyptians feel free. The freedom that they want is there. The freedom of expression, the freedom to join parties, the freedom to bring Ahmed Ezz, who people perceive to be someone with some influence, and grill him and send him to hell if need be… Egyptians feel free” (205). The government dabbled in but did not master this art, and the freedoms the regime afforded its citizens played a role in its demise-by, for example, allowing mass protests to become far more common than they had once been.

Some of the regimes Dobson explores seem to have adapted well to authoritarian rule in the twenty-first century, maintaining subtle yet frightening coercive mechanisms. But on the other hand, Egypt demonstrates how anti-regime activists, empowered by new technologies, may be able to topple some governments that once appeared immovable. It is thus difficult to say whether the authoritarians or their foes will have the upper hand.

Two final points are worth making, points that Dobson does not touch upon but that are relevant to evaluating the ongoing struggle between authoritarian rule and the push for political freedom. First, in writing about anti-regime activists’ learning curve, Dobson emphasizes that they have become more effective organizers. Organizing can be used for good or for ill: though the activists with whom Dobson interacts seem well-intentioned, Tunisia’s salafis and Somalia’s al Shabaab are activists and organizers of a different stripe. On a milder but still malign note, social media organizing techniques were put to powerful use in the riots that rocked Britain for four days in August 2011. An important article in Wired lucidly explained the role of BlackBerry Messenger in stoking that unrest, and the advantages that hyper-networked rioters enjoyed over the beleaguered police trying to stop them. Breakthroughs in organizing techniques may seem at first blush to tilt in favor of liberal democrats, but the reality is murkier.

Second, might today’s activists become tomorrow’s authoritarians? Though many activists possess democratic aspirations, not all factions that oppose oppressive regimes are liberal; nor would all of them represent clear improvements. One can recall the high expectations of outside observers when Iran’s shah was overthrown-only to have him replaced by a murderous theocracy. If today’s revolutionaries become tomorrow’s autocrats, their experiences will help them further advance along the dictator’s learning curve as they attempt to ensure continued power even in the face of the revolutionary playbook that was once their own.