Over the years teaching about authoritarianism I developed a series of one-liners that summarized specific aspects of that form of rule. With regards to the circumstances of its demise, I coined the phrase “when the dictator starts wearing capes, he is soon to fall.” The point being that once the head honcho started dressing like Liberace or Elvis in their late phases they had lost touch with reality and, worse yet, had no honest feedback loops within their inner circle to correct them of their delusions. It was a play on the “emperor has no clothes” line and students much enjoyed it. And if we think of Idi Amin, Gaddafi, Somoza, the Shah and assorted other despots, sure enough their final days were literally cloaked in an over-the-top fashion sense that only Lady Gaga would think reasonable and appropriate.
I now have another such observation: the dictator’s end approaches in direct relation to the ferocity of his rhetoric. The more the dictator talks violently tough in the face of mounting popular unrest, the quicker will be his end. I say this after hearing Syrian president Bashar al-Assad talk about using an “iron fist” to “crush” foreign-backed “terrorists” after six months of popular rebellion. I will leave the overuse and abuse of the word “terrorism” for another day, but what strikes me is how Arab dictators under siege ratchet up the violence in their rhetoric even as the walls crumble around them. Who can forget Saddam and his spokesmen talking about American blood running in the streets even as US tanks encircled Baghdad? Or Gaddafi and his sons railing about what they would do to the “cockroaches” and “rats” slowly closing the noose around them? Even Mubarak was using words like “crushing” and “merciless” to describe his response to the Tahrir Square demonstrators, at least until the Egyptian military told him to shut up because he was the problem, not the solution.
The point is simple: once a (here Arab) dictator starts shouting about the nasty ways he will deal to his enemies in a situation of popular unrest, he is finished. This is because such rhetoric suggests a divorce from reality and a lack of proper, realistic council on the part of the tyrant’s advisors (who with few die-hard exceptions will jump ship once the opposition has seized the upper hand in the armed struggle).
It may have something to do with Arab political culture or notions of masculinity, but this type of response is exactly the reverse of what would give their moribund regimes some room for maneuver, if not a longer life span. Once demonstrators spill in to the streets and are not intimidated by police and para-military repression, and before their numbers grow to the point that a full military response is needed, the safest course of action for tyrants is to promise reform and accommodation of dissident demands. If nothing else this can be used as a divide and conquer strategy to weed out moderates and militants within the opposition, thereby allowing better targeting of the hard-core resistance while seeking to co-opt those less inclined to assume the physical risks involved in an escalating fight. It provides the dictator and his coterie an opportunity to listen to grievances and for negotiation of specific demands. It may entail having to offer concessions and perhaps even increased opposition access to or power-sharing with the authoritarian elite, but it could serve as a pre-emptive reform-mongering gesture that keeps the basic composition of the regime, or at least the governing elite, more or less intact.
The alternative is to go fully militarized at the opposition, which entails using disproportionate force against one’s own citizens. This certainly does not ingratiate subjects to the regime and invites foreign condemnation and isolation. It is a no-win strategy and, quite frankly, is the beginning of the end of such regimes for a variety of reasons, military factionalization under the pressures of such a scenario being one of them.
It is thus with bemusement that I watch the Syrian opthamalogist-turned-dictator fulminate against his enemies. Although it is true that his Alawite regime is relatively united and fearful of the Sunni majority and thereby willing to commit atrocities until the bitter end, and that Syria has a geopolitical position that Libya does not, Assad’s rhetoric clearly indicates that he does not realize that his regime’s utility as a strategic buffer has ended. Israel, the US, Arab and other Western states understand that removing the Assad regime and replacing it with a Sunni majority coalition will deny Iran land routes for the logistical supply of its allies in Lebanon and Gaza, who in turn help spread Shiia influence in the Sunni Arab world. After the demise of Gaddafi and other convolutions of the Arab Spring, it has become politically expedient for foreign parties to back the Syrian opposition, which they are now doing with material, safe haven and military advice. At least on this issue Assad is right–foreign actors are now at play in Syria, although he neglected to mention that Iran is one of them because it realizes what is at stake in the proxy struggle in the Levant.
All of which is to say that the outcome is clear and encapsulated by my new authoritarian demise rule of thumb: now that Assad has started to talk hyperbolically tough in the face of a continued uprising that is not bowed by the ongoing military violence meted out against it, his days are numbered. Best for him, then, to tone it down, pull his troops back and look for an exit strategy so that his departure will be unlike that of Gaddafi, Mubarak or Saddam.