Sunday, February 5, 2012

The how-to guide to toppling tyrants

by Alec Russell

Financial Times

February 5, 2012

George B. N. Ayittey, an expert in the nature and flaws of tyranny, explains why undermining dictators is a science that requires time and thought.

When do dictatorships reach their tipping point? What is it about veteran autocrats that they delude themselves about the stability of their regime even as their last citadel is about to be stormed? Is it right to conclude, to paraphrase Tolstoy, that all unhappy (for that read, troubled) dictatorships are unhappy in their own way ... ? Or are there enduring lessons about the nature of their rule that will enlighten us about the prospects of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad?

Amid the stirring events of the past year, as one Arab despot after another has fallen by the wayside, a spellbound watching world has been avidly posing such questions. Vast businesses and critical alliances depend on the answers. Also, of course, for those not enduring it, tyranny – and its toppling – is compelling spectator sport. Herodotus was merely the first known chronicler to latch on to autocratic myopia as a source of great copy.

Who of adult age in 1989 did not watch and then watch again the grainy footage showing the bewilderment on the face of Nicolae Ceausescu as he stood on the balcony of Romania’s Central Committee building on a freezing December day? As so many times before, he had had factory workers bussed in to acclaim him. Yet as he gazed out, chants of “Timisoara” (pronounced Teemeeeshwara), the small town where his forces had massacred scores of protesters, rippled through the air.

That was the fairytale model for the ousting of Hosni Mubarak, just a year ago. Then, of course, there was the more violent variant on the theme: the downfall of Muammer Gaddafi, ranting to the last about his imminent comeback. To those fortunate enough to live in freedom it is easy to think that the moral is clear: all dictators grow complacent and will ultimately fall. Sic semper tyrannis!