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Book reviews

on global economy
and geopolitical
readings
ESADEgeo, under the supervision of Professor Javier Solana
and Professor Javier Santiso.
 

The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside 
the Battle for Democracy 
Dobson, William J. (2012). Doubleday. 
 
“Today,  the  world’s  dictators  can  surrender  any  hope  of  keeping 
their worst deeds secret. The costs of tyranny have never been this 
high.” 
 
“Today’s  dictators  and  authoritarians  are  far  more  sophisticated, 
savvy and nimble than they once were.” 
 
“Today’s dictators understand that in a globalized world the more 
brutal  forms  of  intimidation  are  best  replaced  with  more  subtle 
forms of coercion.” 
 
“Modern  dictators  understand  it  is  better  to  appear  to  win  a 
contested election than to openly steal it.” 

Summary 
This book is the most up‐to‐date approach to modern authoritarian regimes. The new 
breed  of  dictatorships  —  William  J.  Dobson  singles  out  China,  Russia,  Venezuela, 
Malaysia,  Egypt  —  borrow  democratic  forms  but  remain  wolves  in  sheep’s  clothing. 
Their  leaders  resort  to  the  propaganda  and  repression  (censorship,  arrests,  trials 
without  charges,  and  torture)  typical  of  authoritarian  regimes.  However,  they  have 
also  learnt  from  the  mistakes  of  earlier  dictatorships  and  realise  that  keeping  up 
appearances  is  a  survival  skill.  Murky  elections,  rigging  the  opposition,  apparent 
tolerance  of  dissidents  while  drowning  out  their  messages,  laws  favouring  the 
governing  party,  false  accusations  and  arrests  are  all  grist  to  the  mill  in  the 
sophisticated strategies now pursued by the world’s 21st‐century totalitarian states.  

Even  so,  dissidents  are  hard  to  silence.  The  author  interviewed  many  of  them  — 
politicians, young people, and experts  — determined to bring about change,  unmask 
tyranny and turn their countries into true democracies. Although they hail from many 
nations,  they  have  shared  viewpoints,  thanks  to  today’s  globalised  world.  The  Arab 
Spring  was  a  clear  turning  point  and  the  whole  world  looked  on  in  wonder  and 
admiration  as  the  Egyptian  people’s  carefully‐crafted  revolution  won  the  day.  Here, 
one  should  note  that  successful  revolutions  are  the  fruit  of  preparation,  not 
spontaneity. Tyrannies must first be undermined before they can be toppled. 

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The Author
William J. Dobson is the Political and Foreign Affairs Editor of Slate magazine and was
Chief Editor of Foreign Policy between 2004 and 2008. Before that, he was Senior
Editor for Asia of Newsweek International and Foreign Affairs. His articles have also
been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street
Journal. During the Arab Spring, Dobson sent daily stories from Cairo, writing on the
new authoritarian regimes for lead articles in The Washington Post. The Dictator’s
Learning Curve is a compilation of his exhaustive analysis on the subject.

Key Ideas and Opinion


William J. Dobson has travelled the length and breadth of Venezuela, China, Malaysia,
Russia and Egypt. In Egypt, he had a ring-side seat at the uprising that overthrew Hosni
Mubarak. Dobson offers an all-embracing view of the new totalitarian regimes, which
despite their cultural and historical differences, share some patterns and strategies in
their mimicry of democratic forms to legitimise oppression. Dictatorships have learnt
how to pass themselves off as democracies. It is revealing that in 2010, the number of
the world’s democracies shrank to its lowest since 1995: there is a real risk that the so-
called ‘Fourth Wave of Democratisation’ will break on the reef of new-style
dictatorships. Such regimes know that there is little to stop political crimes flashing
across the world’s TV screens, which is why it is more important than ever to keep up
appearances. All dictatorships try to centralise power but Hugo Chávez, Vladimir Putin,
China’s Communist Party, and Malaysia’s UMNO tread carefully in pursuing this aim.

However, they are not the only ones who have honed their skills. The reader gets a
broad overview of both the lead-up to the Arab revolts and their aftermath, told by
dissidents in each of the countries involved. These people fought for democracy by
outwitting tyranny with clever tactics that exploited their enemy’s weaknesses and
drew on new technologies. Dobson notes that authoritarian regimes try to halt
revolution by offering sops to public opinion. Yet he also notes that the opposition is
better organised than ever and has learnt that it is better to wear down the enemy
first before risking a pitched battle. As Dobson shows, this strategy makes it much
harder for authoritarian governments to hang on to power.

The Tsar: Vladimir Putin


Dobson begins his review of those leading 21st-century dictatorships with Vladimir
Putin — the man who rules Russia with a rod of iron. As a young man, Putin worked at
KGB headquarters in Dresden and witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Empire first-
hand. He saw Moscow’s mistakes in its petty meddling in citizens’ private lives.

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Following the advent of democracy, Russia’s economy nose-dived. Putin was convinced
the only way out of the mire was to restore the communist model while giving it a new
gloss, avoiding the failed measures he observed from Dresden. e chose silent
coercion instead o high-pro ile repression ven so, the goal was the same — all
power to the nited ussia arty , Yedínaya Rossíya], a modern
variation of “All ower to The Soviets”

Putin centralised power in three stages. First, he attacked the oligarchs who had
become rich in post-Soviet Russia. Then he changed the rules so that he could appoint
and dismiss regional governors as he saw fit. Third, he took over the media — the
government now owns no less than 93% of the country’s newspapers and broadcasting
stations. Fourth, he set up sham opposition parties. Putin never loses sight of those
who he manipulates — a mistake the USSR paid for dearly. Government-sponsored
NGOs, GONGOs, are another ruse. These are used to legitimise Putin’s policies and
soak up international donations.

Russia is also one o the world’s most dangerous countries or journalists and
activists in the human rights field. They are systematically murdered while the state
makes sure their killers go unpunished. Corruption is rife (Russia came 143rd out of 182
countries in the 2011 International Transparency ranking) and vote-rigging in Russia is
as old as the hills. This corrupt system explains the swapping of powers between Putin
and Medvedev — a way to change the law and lengthen Putin’s term of office. As
Dobson notes, the proverbial hits the fan when election-rigging becomes plain to the
masses. That is when opposition voices make themselves heard — as the violent
demonstrations after the Duma elections in 2011 show.

Enemies of the State


The author sketches leading opponents of these regimes for readers, placing each in
context. One of these dissidents is Pu Zhiqiang, a Chinese lawyer advocating freedom
of the press and free speech. Zhiqiang notes how dictators resort to the law and trials
to silence opponents. The regime uses the supposed impartiality of the courts to cloak
its nefarious activities. However, this is a two-edged sword and regime opponents
can turn it against the government. Zhiqiang tries hard to speak to those in the Secret
Police, get to know them and inspire them to broaden their thoughts. He argues that
the party is bereft of both legitimacy and ideology, making it that much harder to
maintain the regime.

Yevgenia Chirikova is another case in point. She went from being a mother of two
children to being one of the environmental activists most feared and threatened by
the Kremlin. Her battle to save the Khimki forest has turned into a battle against
corruption. Yevgenia exploits the weaknesses of modern authoritarian regimes,
resorting to the same legal system the government uses to de-legitimise its opponents.

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All these regimes are based on keeping the population politically apathetic. Regimes
tremble when citizens wake from their slumber.

The Commandant: Hugo Chávez


Hugo Chávez is another authoritarian leader who exemplified supremely the abuse of
laws to centralise power and sideline political opponents. Chávez swept to power with
his ‘Bolivarian Revolution’. He won broad support for his vision of a brighter future for
Venezuela and an end to corrupt democratic governments which had caused the
population to lose faith in its politicians. Chávez gave the country’s poor and under-
represented masses a political voice. After winning the elections by a wide margin, he
perpetuated his dual strategy of rallying the poor that backed him vehemently while
attacking his well-heeled opponents daily through his television show.

Chávez used a string of referendums to change the Venezuelan constitution so that


he could stay in office for life. He also dissolved the Senate, maintaining just one
house of parliament (in which his party had a crushing majority). Most people see
elections as a key democratic principle but so too are the separation of powers and the
primacy of the constitution. Chávez has turned elections into his weapon of choice for
renewing his government’s claims to legitimacy He calls elections time and time
again to keep the country at fever pitch. This distracts citizens from bigger issues, such
as rising violence (more people die in Caracas than in Baghdad and Kabul put
together). At the polls, his followers are rewarded and his enemies punished. Voters
are pressured to vote for the government. Elections in Venezuela may be free but they
are far from fair, with opposition parties being barred from receiving public funds. As
Dobson notes, each election in Venezuela is another nail in democracy’s co in

Almost all of the country’s media was under Chávez’s control. This helped him stay in
power and gave him a platform from which to hurl threats and insults at his opponents
in the national broadcasting corporation. Internet was his next target: he had already
nationalised the country’s sole provider.

The Opposition
The opposition pins its hopes on Henrique Capriles. His task, as in other authoritarian
regimes, is a tough one. He suffers constant threats and the regime does its utmost to
stifle his voice. Capriles’ strategy has been to forge links with Venezuelans in every
corner of the country. As governor o the state o Miranda, he su ered the regime’s
wrath at first hand, following a government election victory. He has learned that it is
critical to maintain unity within the opposition and to offer solutions, rather than
simply launch constant criticisms of the demonstrably inefficient policies instated by
Chávez. Leopoldo López, Governor of Chacao, was one of the politicians Chávez tried

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to scratch from the electoral lists. The attempt failed when López successfully
appealed to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

Ayman Nour in Egypt and Anwar Ibrahim in Malaysia are more extreme cases. These
dissidents were imprisoned, tortured and kept in solitary confinement for championing
democracy. They are examples of the capital importance of patience: everyone knows
the battle will be a long one and that he who yields first is lost.

Young People
Young people are key in fighting authoritarian regimes and were the driving force
behind the Arab Spring. Ahmer Maher is one of the young, pro-democracy leaders
behind the Egyptian revolution. Students saw themselves as political outsiders with
unblemished reputations. They felt they were fighting for principles, not reward,
which earned them the respect and trust of the broader population. That is why they
are one of the biggest threats to authoritarian regimes.

The flame lit by the students kindled a revolution. In Venezuela, the flashpoint was
Chávez’s closure of Radio Caracas Televisión — thousands of young people took to the
streets to protest against the move. Chávez responded by calling yet another
referendum, this time to gain emergency powers to censor the media. The students
opted not to attack Chávez and instead to focus on the positive aspects of their
campaign. This wrong-footed Chávez, who ended up responding to his opponents’
messages instead of putting across his own. In short, the dissidents had gained the
initiative, the first step to success for youth movements.

The Kremlin stole a march on its opponents by creating its own youth movements —
such as Nashi — to defend Putin’s policies. A similar movement is The Young Guard,
which constantly harries journalists and dissidents.

Young Egyptians show just what well-organised youth can do. Highly-qualified
youngsters took to the streets to protest against a government incapable of offering
jobs and hope in a nose-diving economy. For the first time, an Arab dictator was
deposed by the people. Their use of the internet was key and forced the regime to
publicly threaten them and thereby lose legitimacy. The movement was not a
spontaneous flare: rather, it was the product of painstaking organisation. Each small
victory was weighed up as Egyptian youth bided its time, waiting for the right moment
to strike. This came with the revolution in Tunisia. Years of trial and error finally bore
fruit in February 2011.

Dobson stresses the way these groups drew inspiration rom Gene Sharp’s book From
Dictatorship to Democracy. He interviewed Sharp for his own work. In his book, a Bible
for the young dissidents, Sharp sets out the steps that all revolutions must take if
they are to overthrow tyranny. The need to organise first and non-violence are core

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principles. Many of the tools and strategies used in Egypt were also derived from this
volume, including techniques that kept the regime guessing and that helped the
opposition determine where and when to fight.

The Pharaoh: Hosni Mubarak


Mubarak ranked as Egypt’s third longest-lasting ruler in the country’s 6000-year
history. After almost 30 years in the saddle, he was overthrown in a revolution
unparalleled in the Arab world. In the beginning, Mubarak was a weak leader poorly-
versed in politics. However, he introduced reforms and — like Chávez — passed
himself off as ‘a new broom’, bringing change and hope. Many totalitarian regimes use
this ploy to gain time, build up a system of political oppression, and to centralise
power. Mubarak’s regime was also based on fear. Apart from threatening those who
challenged him, Mubarak always played on the idea that he was the only person who
could stop Egypt sliding into the violence found in much of The Middle East.

However, even a dictator needs to find ways of legitimising his position. According to
the experts, the last few years of the regime were marked by some transparency. This
was an attempt to make it more resilient in times of change. There was the
appearance of freedom without its substance — for example, the government allowed
anti-government demonstrations but its repression of dissidents went on unabated. It
paid lip-service to freedom of speech but rigged elections and tortured
demonstrators. It seemed 2011 would mark a turning point, but the army’s shooting
of pro-democracy demonstrators in Tahrir Square on the 9th of March shattered
illusions and showed just how much power Egypt’s armed forces still wielded. The past
few years have taught Egyptians many lessons and people are unwilling to give up
what they have fought so hard for.

The Chinese Technocrats


China’s rapid economic growth and the political hegemony exercised by the
Communist Party make the country a beacon of hope for modern authoritarian
regimes. However, the Party shows signs of insecurity and continues to crush anything
and anyone threatening its leadership. While the Chinese feel freer than ever before,
there is still no freedom to gather and political decision-making takes place behind
closed doors. China’s government is just as brutal today as it was at the time o the
Tiananmen Square massacre. The only difference is that it is now more discrete and
calculating in how it metes out punishment: appearances matter. The revolts in Egypt
have made China’s leaders edgy. The notion that such a revolution could never occur
in China’s millennia-old culture lost force as ‘The Land of The Pharaohs’ succumbed to
popular unrest. After events in Egypt, some argued the need for a ‘Jasmine Revolution’
in China. The Communist Party responded with the most brutal repression of dissent
since Tiananmen.

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Today’s China is ruled by technocrats, not revolutionaries like Mao or Den Xiaoping.
The new breed are apparatchiks — grey bureaucrats who shun risk and whose rise
through the ranks is the prize for unwavering loyalty to the party. Government
censorship of the Internet is another step to ward off revolution. Corruption is part
and parcel of authoritarian regimes and China’s vast bureaucracy is corruption writ
large. The system’s legitimacy is based on keeping up appearances – a crisis of any kind
undermines this. The party survived one ‘Tiananmen’ but ew believe it could survive
another.

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