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
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.

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.

<p> Steve LeVine is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, and author of The Oil and the Glory. </p>

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.