The Wilson Quarterly

"Do these people in Egypt really understand what freedom means?” a well-meaning friend asked Hamed Abdel-Samad after he returned home to Germany from Cairo’s Tahrir Square earlier this year. “Probably not,” the young political scientist, who had witnessed thugs and policemen beating protesters, replied sarcastically. “It would be great if you could come to Egypt with me to teach them your experience with freedom, how you fought for it, how you risked your life, how you came to appreciate it.” Abdel-Samad, who was born in Egypt, said in a radio interview earlier this year that we—by whom he means Westerners—are spoiled by peace, saturated with freedom, and take our inherited liberties for granted. “Right now,” he said, “I can’t see an expression of freedom anywhere that is fresher than in the Arab world.”

William J. Dobson vividly portrays this struggle against authoritarian rule in The Dictator’s Learning Curve, a collection of short, evocative dispatches from the Arab countries and Egypt, but also Russia, China, Venezuela, and, in less depth and detail, Malaysia. Dobson’s main argument is that the nature of dictatorship has changed. Today’s dictators and authoritarian regimes, he writes, are “far more sophisticated, savvy, and nimble” than those of the past. In contrast to 20th-century totalitarian rulers, modern dictators understand the importance of keeping up appearances: It can be essential to appear to be a democracy, especially if the goal is to avoid becoming one. They’ve also learned that using and abusing a warped version of legal process can be an effective tool of control, and a subtler one than blatant repression and violence.

Dobson, an editor at Slate, is at his best when he is telling stories—often instances in which “the dictator’s learning curve” was put to viciously effective use. Hugo Chávez’s innovative methods of keeping Venezuela’s opposition down offer a frightening example. One summer day in 2010, Dobson was waiting on the front steps of a government building in Caracas for an appointment with a Chavista congressman. As he waited, street vendors kept walking up to him trying to sell what he believed were pirated DVDs of Hollywood films, as is customary on many a street corner in Moscow, Beijing, and New York. But when he looked more closely, he realized he was being offered copies of the Maisanta for $1.50.

The Maisanta (the name is a reference to a 19th-century rebel leader) is a digital database that contains detailed information on Venezuela’s registered voters, including name, address, voter identification number, and whether the identified person receives government support or has abstained from voting in past elections. Most important, the database reveals whether someone voted for a controversial 2004 recall referendum that challenged Chávez’s grip on power. This trove of information about the country’s 12 million voters conveniently fits on one compact disc. In normal democracies, such information would be closely protected, but Chávez’s government had either actively released it or neglected to keep it secure. As Dobson observes, “In a society ruled by patronage politics, being identified as an enemy of the state can have serious consequences.” One woman told Dobson that when her fiancé needed urgent medical treatment and went to the emergency room, the admissions staffer ran his voter ID card through the computer and told him he had to go elsewhere. He had cast a ballot for Chávez’s recall in the referendum. Academics, of course, could also work with the database, and some ran household surveys that they matched against the Maisanta information. The statistics showed that the income of Chávez’s opponents dropped by five percent after the roster was published. Once the information was publicly available, the government did not even actively need to use the data against its opponents; Venezuelans knew whom not to hire, grant a permit, or give medical treatment.

Dobson’s riveting account of a Russian “accidental activist,” Yevgenia Chirikova, offers an example of how those who resist authoritarian regimes may prevail using the same modern methods. A decade ago, Chirikova and her family moved to Khimki, a leafy suburb an hour northwest of Moscow. The town’s Soviet-style residential buildings were unremarkable, but were surrounded by an attractive woodland, the Khimki Forest, a rare Russian natural reserve that enjoyed public protection.

One day, on a walk in the woods with her two young daughters, Chirikova saw trees marked with red paint and small cuts in the trunks. Back home, she learned from a quick Internet search that the region’s governor, Boris Gromov, had slated the forest for demolition in order to make space for a motorway from Moscow to St. Petersburg. Chirikova wrote a letter to the governor, naively thinking she had uncovered a plain error. Slowly she realized the corruption around the project (well-connected real estate developers had peddled soon-to-be prime property ahead of the motorway’s announcement), and began rallying neighbors and activists to pressure the local authorities to abandon the plan. Thugs threatened her neighbors and rounded up sleeping activists who had camped out to protect the trees, the authorities attempted to take away her daughters, and a local journalist was beaten nearly to death for covering the story. Chirikova managed to enlist Europe’s Green parties and environmental organizations in her cause, and the European Union subsequently cut funding for the project, buying time for the Khimki Forest.

Despite Dobson’s eye for detail in such accounts, this book is an imprecise hybrid: part journalistic storytelling, part political analysis. At one point Dobson relates a conversation he had with then–Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s former public relations adviser, Ali Eddin Hilal. The man admitted—and this was well before the 2011 revolution—that the regime’s fake political opening could not go on indefinitely. “His response,” Dobson writes, “reminded me of Alexis de Tocqueville’s admonition that ‘the most dangerous moment for a corrupt regime is when it attempts to reform itself.’ ” Dobson doesn’t elaborate. But it is not enough merely to remind readers of Tocqueville’s admonition. Nor is it enough to say that modern dictators are different from their 20th-century forebears without exploring the nuances of that comparison. Didn’t Hitler, practicing gestures with a mirror, or Stalin, with his altered pictures, also appreciate the significance of appearance? Is Chávez really more sophisticated than Mao? Dobson leaves these questions untouched.

Two-thousand eleven was a historic year. A wave of revolutions swept the Arab world, although their outcomes still hang in the balance. Some of the world’s oldest and most formidable authoritarian regimes fell, in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. Syria likely will be next. Other non-democratic governments in the region survived, such as those in Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates. Why did some fall while others did not? This question is foremost on the minds of authoritarian leaders in countries including China, Russia, and Venezuela. “Dictators,” as Dobson likes to call them, are scared pale by the possibility of sudden popular revolt.

So what explains the difference? Those regimes that have so far weathered the storm of the Arab Spring are monarchies, not republics. This is no coincidence. Any political ruler, even the most brutal tyrant, requires a degree of tacit legitimacy. Monarchies can fall back on a symbolic legitimacy, especially in conservative societies, that is fed by a deep-rooted belief in dynastic, hereditary rule—hence the quasi-monarchic tendencies in several republics (see Muammar al-Qaddafi’s attempt to install his son Saif al Islam in power, Mubarak’s attempt to pass his rule on to his own blood, or Bashar al-Assad’s continuation of his father’s brutal reign). But such analysis is mostly absent from Dobson’s fast-paced storytelling.

This is not to say that The Dictator’s Learning Curve falls flat. Many of the stories of bold activists and the various creative attempts of governments to keep them down or out are compelling. Dobson’s coverage of Venezuela’s internal political struggles is particularly fascinating. He had spectacular access to well-placed sources in this oil-rich country, including political prisoners. His account of the fate of María Afiuni is bone chilling: Formerly a judge in the Thirty-First Control Court in Caracas, Afiuni made a decision that displeased the regime, and was put behind bars indefinitely—in the same jail with criminals she had convicted.

The book’s travel reports are uneven. Dobson’s treatments of Venezuela and Russia are excellent, while his dispatches from Egypt are too focused on Hosni Mubarak and his son Gamal; they appear to have been written before the January 2011 revolution, and thus at times feel outdated. Dobson’s Thomas Friedman-like style of reporting may explain the variations in quality: The chief criterion for various anecdotes’ inclusion in the book seems to be whether Dobson was able to add “he told me” or “she told a friend of mine.” Fortunately, this me-first attitude recedes somewhat as the book progresses and Dobson turns his attention to the people who have come to understand what freedom means.

Thomas Rid is a reader in war studies at King’s College London and was a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in 2009. He has coedited Understanding Counterinsurgency (2010) and coauthored War 2.0 (2009), and is the author of War and Media Operations (2007). He is currently at work on a book about deterrence.

Reviewed: The Dictator's Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy by William J. Dobson, Doubleday, 341 pp. 

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