Dic­ta­tor­ship for Dum­mies, Tu­nisia edi­tion

Wil­liam J. Dob­son ex­plains what the world’s bad guys can learn from Ben Ali

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - wj­dob­son2012@gmail.com Wil­liam J. Dob­son, a for­mer man­ag­ing edi­tor of For­eign Pol­icy mag­a­zine and se­nior edi­tor for Asia at Newsweek In­ter­na­tional, is writ­ing a book about the chal­lenges to democ­racy.

The world cheered as it watched Tu­nisians, who had long suf­fered un­der the stul­ti­fy­ing weight of dic­ta­tor­ship, rid them­selves of their tor­men­tor. When pro­tes­tors amassed in the Tu­nisian cap­i­tal, some­thing in­cred­i­ble hap­pened: The au­toc­racy that Pres­i­dent Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali had care­fully cul­ti­vated for 23 years was no longer safe for its au­to­crat. Like any crim­i­nal, Ben Ali fled the scene of the crime, fly­ing to Saudi Ara­bia for what he hopes will be a new life in ex­ile. (It was bet­ter than the al­ter­na­tive.) ¶ But there is a dif­fer­ent au­di­ence also glued to its tele­vi­sion sets, watch­ing events in Tu­nisia un­fold: the world’s other dic­ta­tors. When a despot falls, the rest of the club takes no­tice. On Christ­mas Day in 1989, the Ro­ma­nian peo­ple quickly dis­patched Pres­i­dent Ni­co­lae Ceausescu and his wife hours af­ter the bru­tal com­mu­nist regime crum­bled. Zaire’s strong­man, Pres­i­dent Mobutu Sese Seko, is said to have been hor­ri­fied when he saw the im­age of his Ro­ma­nian friend’s corpse on CNN. And the Chi­nese lead­er­ship beefed up se­cu­rity, lest any­one in Bei­jing draw in­spi­ra­tion from Bucharest. ¶ In 2005, af­ter the demo­cratic move­ments in Ge­or­gia, Ukraine and Kyr­gyzs­tan, Vladimir Putin and Hu Jin­tao hud­dled on the side­lines of a sum­mit to dis­cuss the dan­ger of “color rev­o­lu­tions.” And each year, with­out a hitch, Arab in­te­rior min­is­ters— ex­perts in the dark arts of “do­mes­tic se­cu­rity”— meet to com­pare notes. Ben Ali, a for­mer in­te­rior min­is­ter him­self, reg­u­larly played host for the con­fer­ence. In­deed, the last meet­ing was in Tu­nis. ¶ So, what has Tu­nisia taught the dic­ta­tors’ club?

Be re­pres­sive, but don’t overdo it.

One of the stu­dent lead­ers who helped top­ple Ser­bia’s Slo­bo­dan Milo­se­vic in 2000 re­cently told me, “ The best dic­ta­tors ac­tu­ally com­pro­mise all the time.” It’s true. When Rus­sian pen­sion­ers block­ade the roads in protest, the Krem­lin ac­com­mo­dates. The Egyp­tian regime tol­er­ates ral­lies against Pres­i­dent Hosni Mubarak. Strik­ers in China get paid more of­ten then they get pros­e­cuted. In con­trast, Ben Ali filled his pris­ons and had an in­for­mant on ev­ery corner. The costs out­weighed the ben­e­fits, as he an­tag­o­nized the pop­u­la­tion over is­sues he could have con­ceded. Smart dic­ta­tors don’t give up power that might cur­tail their abil­ity to sur­vive — but ev­ery­thing else is ne­go­tiable.

Don’t try to be Singapore.

Yes, it would be nice if you could wake up as an Asian Tiger econ­omy. But it’s not likely. Ben Ali de­liv­ered 5 per­cent eco­nomic growth, great in­fra­struc­ture, a col­lege ed­u­ca­tion for many and a 74-year life ex­pectancy. Yet how did Tu­nisians re­pay him? If the regime’s only le­git­i­macy comes from its eco­nomic per­for­mance, then the moment pros­per­ity slips, the en­tire sys­tem is vul­ner­a­ble. Tu­nisia may have posted good num­bers for the re­gion, but Asian au­thor­i­tar­i­ans never let their economies be­come de­pen­dent on Euro­pean va­ca­tion­ers, as Tu­nisia did. It is far safer to have is­lands of bureau­cratic dys­func­tion and keep ex­pec­ta­tions low. Be­cause if you aim to be Singapore and come up short, the costs are high, es­pe­cially if your only other tal­ent is re­pres­sion.

Give young peo­ple pass­ports.

If you can’t get ev­ery­one a job, en­cour­age em­i­gra­tion. It is the best way to get rid of ed­u­cated young peo­ple who will only cause you headaches when they re­al­ize they can’t find work or must live with their par­ents. Hugo Chavez and Mubarak grasp this point: Venezue­lans and Egyp­tians are leav­ing their na­tive lands in droves. And the bonus? When your best and bright­est make it in the United States, Europe or the Per­sian Gulf, they’ll send hefty re­mit­tances to fam­ily back home.

Let the op­po­si­tion ex­ist — just don’t let it win.

Ben Ali oblit­er­ated the po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion. In hind­sight, that was a mis­take. A well-run po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion is a dic­ta­tor’s best friend. You can cre­ate fake par­ties, you can ha­rass le­git­i­mate par­ties, you can bribe them into fight­ing each other. The key is that they ex­ist and that the sys­tem is suf­fi­ciently rigged so they can never stand in your way. Crit­ics will say this is win­dow dress­ing; they’re wrong. Op­po­si­tion par­ties, if prop­erly man­aged, will siphon off some of the pub­lic’s re­sent­ment. In Tu­nisia, peo­ple had no choice but to go to the streets.

Give them news­pa­pers.

In Tu­nisia, there were two things you could count on: Ev­ery day the sun rose, and ev­ery day Ben Ali was front-page news. Me­dia cen­sor­ship is to be ex­pected in such regimes, but there is no value in blan­ket cov­er­age. Con­trol tele­vi­sion news and most ra­dio, but let your crit­ics and a few in­ves­tiga­tive re­porters have some in­de­pen­dent news­pa­pers with small cir­cu­la­tions. These will be out­lets where peo­ple can blow off steam, and the regime will have a cou­ple sources of in­for­ma­tion that it can trust, too.

Never ne­go­ti­ate with an an­gry mob.

When Ben Ali ap­peared on tele­vi­sion and tried to save his skin by of­fer­ing last-minute re­forms and promis­ing to step down at the end of his term, he in­ad­ver­tently sealed his fate. Any Tu­nisian who had been on the fence now knew that the pres­i­dent was fin­ished. In its wan­ing hours, a regime faces a choice — re­treat or lash out. Un­for­tu­nately, for those hard­ened regimes bent on sur­vival, the les­son of Ben Ali’s fi­nal hours is prob­a­bly to bet on more tanks and less talk.

The peo­ple ac­tu­ally mat­ter.

This is a ter­ri­fy­ing con­cept for a dic­ta­tor­ship, but the ouster of Ben Ali can­not be pinned on any­one other than Tu­nisians them­selves. No one is al­leg­ing that the United States, France or some other for­eign power was be­hind it. In fact, au­to­cratic Tu­nisia was a re­li­able Western ally, and the United States didn’t crit­i­cize Ben Ali un­til he was pack­ing his bags. Arab regimes can’t blame Is­lamists; Ben Ali had long since rounded them up or chased them over­seas. No po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion mo­bi­lized the peo­ple, be­cause it was prac­ti­cally nonex­is­tent. The regime failed on bread-and-but­ter is­sues — un­em­ploy­ment, the econ­omy, cor­rup­tion — and this, paired with the in­dig­ni­ties of the regime’s re­pres­sion, was enough to start a revo­lu­tion.

Tu­nisia of­fers lessons for the rest of us, too. Chief among them should be this: We left Tu­nisians to rid them­selves of their dic­ta­tor. Now that they have, let’s not ig­nore them again. Tu­nisians must do most of the work, but they shouldn’t have to work alone.

Are they tak­ing notes?

Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali

Hosni Mubarak

Mah­moud Ah­madine­jad

Fidel Cas­tro

Robert Mu­gabe

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