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21st Century Dictators Take Cues From Activists to Hold on to Power


It's never been harder to be a dictator, says at least one analyst. Faced with rapid demographic growth, massive increases in unemployment for college graduates, and changes in the information environment, modern authoritarian regimes are increasingly coming under challenge. But in response, they are using 21st-century techniques themselves, to wield their power and maintain the status quo.

In the battle between repression and freedom in the 21st century, opposition movements are increasingly turning to modern technology and non-violent methods.

So while a dictator’s goal in the past was to keep guns out of the hands of the people - says Slate magazine's William Dobson - the aim now is to prevent them from being able to march. “Why do I really care what you think? I just care that you don’t participate," he said. "You need to not participate.”

Dobson, the author of The Dictator's Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy, spoke at a recent Washington conference on dictators and authoritarianism.

Also on the panel was Srdja Popovic, founder and leader of the Serbian student movement that brought down former Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic in 2000.

Popovic says there are similarities between the protests he led in Serbia and those in Russia that started late last year after the country’s disputed parliamentary elections.

"They are mainly led by student and middle-class people. They are very much into enthusiasm and humor, and they are using the very creative and humorous tactics all around the place," Popovic stated. "And you would be amazed how the different groups, not only from the Arab world but also from places like Russia, are fast learning from each other, which is the achievement of the new technology.”

But modern authoritarian regimes are also learning from the activists. As Marc Lynch of George Washington University points out, they have employed some of the same tools - the Internet, social media and SMS communications - to undermine opposition movements.

"That constant back and forth, back and forth, is to me, one of the characteristic features of that whole decade of the 2000s - how activists were learning and how regimes were learning from each other," said Lynch. "And from the experiences across different countries.”

Lynch says regimes such as in Egypt, for example, were able to figure out ways to absorb opposition blows and readapt. "So if you look at Egypt right now, yes, the new media allows activists to organize and to communicate and to spread their message in innovative ways, but then the military regime uses state television to spread sectarian incitement, to delegitimize and defame the protesters, and to spread rampant fear of chaos and disorder, which then helps to turn people against the revolution,” he explained.

And Lynch says the situation in Syria shows that authoritarian regimes do have bases of support, where a significant number of people feel deeply threatened about the possibility of change. It is situations such as these, he says, where non-violent methods are essential.
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