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The Dictator's Learning Curve

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The same holds, Dobson finds, even in Egypt, heart of the Arab Spring. When the all-powerful military turned on protesters in the late spring of 2011, activists realized their work would be more difficult than ever. “In the old system, with all its violence and horrors, we know how it functioned,” one human rights activist told Dobson. Not knowing the new ways in which oppression works, he said, “is worse than our worst nightmare under [Hosni] Mubarak.”

It’s in these moments, when Dobson is in conversation with the people who are finding new ways to work against the more “nimble” systems of today’s autocrats, that the book is at its best.

We meet a Chinese free-speech lawyer, a Russian environmental activist, and an Egyptian cop-turned-human-rights-lawyer-turned-exiled-dissident, who offers tips to youth activists on what police response they can expect. We meet Egyptian protesters who take the brunt of later-2011 military violence, and we join in an afternoon walk that’s actually a political protest in Beijing.

We watch with Dobson as the Chinese use not tanks and guns, as in Tiananmen Square in 1989, but “street repair” closures and sidewalk-washing tasks to clear crowds who’d thought they might try a “Jasmine Revolution.” It’s a far subtler form of power, but just as effective.

That’s also true of the book. Dobson seems least plausible where he’s at his most brash. “[I]f you order a violent crackdown ... you now know it will likely be captured on an iPhone and broadcast around the world. The costs of tyranny have never been this high,” he declares.

That’s a tempting aphorism, but it’s a conclusion not entirely supported by the evidence Dobson has marshaled.

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