The Oil and the Glory

The dictators’ playbook

There is no modern autocrat’s handbook, no hard-and-fast rules. When their people pour into the streets in opposition, strong leaders behave generally according to personal form, in my own decade and a half of experience living and working in autocratic and military-run countries. For a taste of what that means, consider Georgia’s Eduard Shevardnadze and ...

Alexander Zemlianichenko AFP/Getty Images
Alexander Zemlianichenko AFP/Getty Images

There is no modern autocrat’s handbook, no hard-and-fast rules. When their people pour into the streets in opposition, strong leaders behave generally according to personal form, in my own decade and a half of experience living and working in autocratic and military-run countries. For a taste of what that means, consider Georgia’s Eduard Shevardnadze and Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov (pictured above). In 2003, demonstrators broke into the Georgian Parliament, and made it clear that violence was the next step in their efforts to remove Shevardnadze as president; he resigned. Two years later, angry protesters gathered in the central square of the Uzbek city of Andijan, among other things demanding Karimov’s ouster. That evening, soldiers mowed them down with automatic weapons; several hundred Uzbeks died. Karimov remains president.

Shevardnadze and Karimov are two different people – the former was Mikhail Gorbachev’s statesmanlike foreign minister before he went home and took a different turn; Karimov is a vicious and slightly twisted strongman, and pretty much always has been in public life. But that’s precisely the point – given broadly similar situations (people in the streets), they responded in alignment with how we have come to know them over the years. No one can be surprised by either of their responses to challenge.

There are exceptions. In the late 1980s, for example, Afghanistan’s Najibullah, after years of torturing and killing Afghans as his country’s intelligence chief, became a peacemaker once Gorbachev told him that the days of a blank check from Moscow were over. Najibullah predicted that mayhem would follow any mujahedin takeover of power, and that’s pretty much how Afghanistan has been the last two decades.

In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak is responding from his own personal playbook. Faced with protests, he sent out the thuggish police. When the Army made clear that wasn’t going to work, he adopted the pose of the reasonable man. He moved loyal officers into successor posts, and promised to step down in seven months. Still the protestors remained. That gave him space with the Army to deploy more thugs in Tahrir Square, which he did yesterday. Still, the protests go on.

This is why the smartest analysts aren’t looking to Mubarak, but to the Army, for the Egyptian end game, as Roula Khalaf and Daniel Dombey write well today in the Financial Times. As for Mubarak, he can be expected to follow his playbook.

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