Some Advice to Evil Dictators
by Steven Eden
Things look pretty bleak for monarchs, presidents, and mullahs from Casablanca to Tehran these days. Crowds in the street, hesitant soldiers, frightened policemen, breathless commentators, shaky governments...it's enough to make any strongman cry. Revolution is in the air and sparks drifting from country to country are setting folks ablaze, which given the dry climate can't be good.
One option would be to go with the flow and declare yourself a closet libertarian -- who knew -- but if you're intent on maintaining the privileges of yourself and your cronies, there are grounds for hope. All is not lost for the forces of oppression.
Think back to 1848. Restive populations in Europe groaned beneath the weight of antiquated regimes. Ideas about democracy, liberty, free trade, and the like percolated in every non-aristocratic breast. A local insurrection in Sicily, of all places, set off a chain reaction of uprisings that sent princes, kings, and prime ministers packing. There was some feeble resistance from the old order, but most of the armies had soon retreated to their barracks and the forces of change were triumphant almost everywhere. Ripples were even felt in the United Kingdom and Imperial Russia on the edges of the continent.
Fast forward to 1850. Order, for the most part, is restored. There have been changes, yes, but practically everywhere the aristocracy has reasserted its power and will remain there for almost another three generations. Even the latest French Republic is on its last legs and will soon disappear. How did that happen? Below some tips for crushing reform:
1. Drown People Power in Blood. Inelegant, yes, but an old favorite that still can be effective. There has been a lot of blather lately about non-violent resistance, but frankly the numbers of successful cases that can be brought forward to support its supposed utility are very small. It should also be noted that it has only worked against regimes that are either unwilling, unable, or constrained from using force against the populace. Otherwise the kill-ratio for armed forces versus peaceful protesters has been consistently excellent (cf Syria, China, Saddam's Iraq). The thing is you need an army that is —to murder indiscriminately for the regime, either through personal loyalty or more likely because if you go down they go down. If you haven't cultivated one ahead of time, you're not going to be able to employ them now. Even if you do have a handy band of thugs to do your bidding, the relief is short-term and almost never a long-term solution. But if you just need a short breathing space to solidify your support or transfer money to a Caribbean bank account, violence can be a very efficient means of tamping down protest. One note of caution: don't be half-hearted. Killing a handful of innocents is far worse than killing several thousand. It makes you look fearful, weak, and indecisive.
2. Buy Time. In the old Ottoman Empire, every time a threatening crowd besieged the sultan's palace, he would throw a vizier's head out the window. This would satisfy the mob and things pretty rapidly got back to normal. If you're not going to fight back, the only things you can do are delay and hope the revolution runs out of steam, which it will unless some unifying figure arises. There are only so many Mandelas, Kings, and Ghandis out there, however, so chances are buying time is an excellent tactic. Below, some time-tested means for stretching out an uprising:
A. Sacrifice some henchmen. Dismiss your puppet government, call for elections, or execute a few security chiefs. Hopefully you have set up ahead of time some heinous strawmen that you can blame for all your problems. Your henchmen won't like it, but they're professionals and will understand it's only business.
B. Set up some talking shops. Put the revolutionaries in charge. Let them form a government or an advisory council, or cede them some forms of local power. Just make sure all factions are represented. Before you know it they will stop attacking you and will be tearing each other to bits. Even better, the people in the streets, thinking a real victory has been won, will go home. An especially effective technique is to let the rebels write a new constitution. This will occupy all their time and energy, and will exacerbate the numerous conflicts among the various parties.
C. Abase yourself. OK, this is tough. You wouldn't be an evil dictator if you didn't have an extraordinarily high opinion of yourself, and you might think this will just make you an object of contempt. On the contrary, crowds love to see the mighty fallen, and you were popular at one time after you deposed the king or drove out the colonial power or whatever. And I am not asking you to go on Oprah, just to make speeches acknowledging certain excesses and expressing delight in the spirit and wisdom of your people; wearing some form of revolutionary apparel or waving their standard from your palace balcony; having your children join the crowds (not the eldest son, just in case) and the like. Resign whatever fake offices you held. Retreat from public life and wait.
3. The Come-back. So you have diverted the energy and hostility of the crowds from yourself and turned it inwards. Now comes the long road to a return to power. Be advised: you are unlikely to have as firm a grasp on power as you had before. But it beats hanging from your heels like a Mussolini pií±ata or enforced retirement in Uganda.
A. International support. Quietly seek the aid of international partners, such as like-minded dictators or others who will hold their nose and support you. You are lucky that you live in the region that you do, as there are many out there who fear the descent of oil-producing countries into chaos. Don't be afraid to paint some pretty vivid pictures of what might happen after you are gone. You probably won't get foreign military intervention or even public acknowledgement, but a quiet word from the French, Chinese, or Americans can do wonders.
B. Hold on to the Army. Hopefully you've recruited the army from a minority, or from your tribe, or from some portion of society ostracized by the rest. Hopefully you have at least a kernel that will remain both semi-competent and loyal. If not, be extremely cautious about the demands you make on them. Every army is different and will require unique handling, but however you do it remember that it will be impossible to maintain any semblance of power without their support. Don't be discouraged if they abandon you early on; they will come around if you follow the paragraphs below and remain the country's best hope for stability and order, which they crave above all else. Do not rely on the secret police -- they are neither well enough armed or numerous enough to deal with a roused population, and they wouldn't be in the secret police if they weren't sniveling, self-serving bastards anyway.
C. Scare-monger. In 1848 the European nobility were able to point out what had happened after the last revolution: Napoleon and two decades of major war. They also had a minority party that scared the bejeesus out of the bourgeoisie. The specter of communism helped bring significant portions of the disaffected back in line. You can do the same. Some current favorites: the Americans will take advantage of the chaos, the Islamists will emerge, terrorists will arise, and remember the Shah. You may be able to craft others according to your local circumstances. The bottom line is to induce second thoughts after the excitement of street action has died away.
D. Make targeted concessions. The revolutionaries are going to be divided. It might be tribal, or rural versus urban, or east versus west, or indigenous versus immigrant, or Shia versus Sunni, or some other flavor of controversy. Especially in a region where politics is still seen as a zero-sum game, you should be able to buy off or weaken enthusiasm for the revolution among one sector or another. Frankly, you should have done this before things got so bad, but let's not cry over spilled goat's milk. Anyway, you don't even need to get credit for this, so long as a significant portion of the populace is now satisfied that they have reaped the fruits of the revolution. They will, in all likelihood, begin to resent the revolutionary powers for continuing to agitate for gains that do not concern them, and will begin to drift back into your camp. In 1848, land reform satisfied the peasantry in many areas and divided them from the liberal (urban) windbags who insisted on keeping the pot boiling.
E. Become an Honest Broker. You don't actually have to become honest, just appear to be so. Put yourself forward as a friend of the revolution and reform. Offer to adjudicate disputes, enforce the dicta of the revolutionary council/parliament/government, and do your best to maintain order. Believe me, 90% of revolutions are run by loons, eggheads, and/or boneheads. You will have plenty of chances to help. With any luck, you will be called upon to suppress violent protests against the revolution. Crush them mercilessly. This will win you friends and discredit the revolution.
If you follow this advice, it is likely that the populace will rapidly tire of the disorder and chaos of change, and begin to yearn for the old days (personified by you). Especially if you have paved the way with a few targeted concessions (painful, I know, but critical) and made some improvements to your image as a friend of the people, it shouldn't be too hard to seize upon some pretext and squash the revolution. Make sure you've made watch lists of all those involved, though. They'll be back.
Steven Eden is a retired Armor officer and planner with a long-term interest in the Middle East and a graduate degree in European History.