The Dictator Protection Plan

By Barry, John; Dickey, Christopher | Newsweek, February 28, 2011 | Go to article overview

The Dictator Protection Plan


Barry, John, Dickey, Christopher, Newsweek


Byline: John Barry and Christopher Dickey

Praetorian guards, family retainers, and torture: how despots stay in power.

A ritual of sorts tends to mark the fall of a dictator. His torture chambers are opened, and the electrical cables and bloodstains testify to his crimes. Under the worst tyrants, like Iraq's Saddam Hussein, there are photographs, too. His torturers were meticulous record keepers, taking pictures up to and including the subject's gruesome death. As light shines into those fetid cells, emotional cleansing begins. Responsibilities are understood and must be assumed.

The torture chambers have not been opened yet in Tunisia or Egypt. The dictators are gone, but not their Praetorian guards, who are now in charge. The military, the secret police, the legions of spies and informers, interrogators and torturers remain. Faced with mass uprisings that all their ferocious coercion had failed to predict, the Praetorians opted to oust the leaders they'd served and to save themselves. Their promises of freedom, thus far, are no more than hypothetical.

As the Obama administration nevertheless rushes to embrace the Middle East's rising democrats, there's one daunting obstacle: America's long record of secret and not-so-secret connivance with dictators across the region. After all, Hosni Mubarak's riot cops left Tahrir Square littered with spent tear-gas canisters labeled made in u.s.a. The United States is hardly the only culprit: Britain, France, Italy, Russia, and China have all put their weight behind Arab dictatorships. But as pro-democracy uprisings sweep one Arab capital after another--and Tehran as well--it's vital to understand "the mechanics of violence," as Iraqi intellectual Kanan Makiya calls it in his book The Republic of Fear. That's what has kept the region's kings, emirs, presidents for life, and mullahs in power for so long, and it's what may preserve many of them still, at least for a while.

Just about every Arab country is ruled by a family whose paramount goal is to stay in power. With the curious and very particular exception of ultrasectarian Lebanon, there's no history of leaders stepping down voluntarily, nor has there ever been. In the 1950s and '60s, a coup d'etat was the most common way to change a government: 55 were attempted between March 1949 and December 1980, and roughly half succeeded. The new tyrants took lessons from their own successful conspiracies, keeping their subjects isolated not only from the outside world, but also from each other. Saddam went so far as to ban privately owned typewriters and copiers (even ancient mimeograph machines), lest they help his enemies circulate tracts against him. Never mind Facebook and Twitter--under his regime, Xeroxing was subversive.

But the real key to regime survival has been what RAND Corporation analyst James Quinlivan calls "coup-proofing." In an influential 1999 study, Quinlivan itemized the basic safeguards for dictatorships. First: consolidate an inner core bound to the regime by "family, ethnic, and religious loyalties"--in essence, a mafia, with goodfellas in various guises protecting the big guy's back (and their own; if he goes down, so do they). Second: create a parallel military devoted to regime protection, like Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps, which does the Supreme Leader's bidding while the remnants of the shah's Army stand by. Third: maintain multiple secret police, security, and espionage services that spend much of their time keeping each other in check.

And the regular army still has to be bought off. One technique is to keep military officers busy and professionally satisfied through "the fostering of expertness," as Quinlivan calls it: "Send them off to foreign military academies." But that carries its own risks--you never know what foreign ideas they might pick up when the secret police aren't listening. (This is why Egypt's officer corps is under strict orders not to fraternize during its frequent joint exercises with the United States.

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