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The Powers that Be

August 5, 2012

Thomas Rid in The Wilson Quarterly:

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 natureof 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. (…)

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. [More]

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