I ’ve seen it in action from Cairo to Harare to Yangon. I’ve met the government officials who seem to know it word for word—and the regular people who refuse to accept it. And the script is both uncreative and chilling. I call it the Police State Playbook—an unwritten code of conduct for dictatorships eager to hang on to power.
It transcends religion, culture, and geography. A Muslim Arab Bashar al-Assad is just as likely to follow it as a Christian African Robert Mugabe or a Buddhist East Asian Than Shwe. It’s a story as old as history—leaders sacrificing their people to stay in power. But today people are tearing up the pages of the playbook—and sending their leaders on their way.
In a remarkable number of countries, in a remarkably short amount of time, fear seems to have changed sides, and it’s the leaders now looking anxiously at their own people, rather than the other way around.
I began jotting down chapters of the playbook in 2007, when I returned from covering the “Saffron Revolution” in Myanmar. Like the peaceful revolutions sweeping the Middle East today, the popular uprising by thousands of Buddhist monks captivated the world. It was peaceful; I’ll never forget those quiet crowds of monks in yellow robes filling the streets, bold and tech-savvy. We reporters wouldn’t have known the scale of what was happening at first without the ubiquitous camera-phone videos, smuggled out of the country via proxy servers. (I snuck into the country to record it all for ABC News on my own cell phone.)
The government responded by what has since become its reaction of first resort—blocking the Internet, banning journalists, cracking down with its street thugs. I saw almost exactly the same tactics when I covered the widely disputed presidential elections in Zimbabwe in 2008, and again in Iran in 2009, when leaders of a different race, religion, and continent invoked the same methods almost to the word. This year, I’ve been witnessing it yet again, from Cairo to Tripoli to Damascus.
I sometimes smile at the sheer lack of creativity. How could these very powerful dictators be so obvious? It shakes the assumptions we make about the resourcefulness that sustains dictatorship around the world. Indeed, the playbook shows in stark terms the classic banality of evil. Here are a few of its basic lessons:
1. Blame It on Foreigners . Projecting the crisis onto a stranger is a good way to drum up nationalistic feelings and cover up real divisions at home. America is always a prime target, although the West in general will do almost as well. The foreign media often shares the blame. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did a memorable job of this in 2009, blaming the West in general, and the British in particular, especially BBC Persian, for fomenting the street protests that followed the corrupted presidential election. Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe blamed what was clearly homegrown opposition to the stolen election in 2008 on the old colonial ruler. “Be aware of the vicious machinations of Britain and its allies,” he told supporters.
More recently, Middle Eastern leaders have taken aim at their old favorites, the US and Israel. These are the villains responsible for the growing unrest in his own country, according to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. Hosni Mubarak and his vice president, Omar Suleiman, were less specific, blaming “foreign spoilers” and “foreign agendas” for the uprisings in Tahir Square that ultimately undid them.
There is no better way to emphasize the dangers of foreign plots, according to the playbook, than to arrest the foreigners. Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi has made a double point by targeting journalists. The upcoming trial of the American hikers in Tehran will allow Iran to revisit the point as well.
2. Conspiracy Theories Always Work . Joseph Goebbels said it best: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” Iran took his advice to a new level by accusing the BBC of being behind the killing of the Iranian protester Neda Agha-Soltan, whose horrifying death—bleeding out in a Tehran street in 2009—became the iconic moment of the unfinished Green Revolution. Unable to deny the death itself, which was captured with nightmare realism on a cell-phone video, the Ahmadinejad regime said that the killing was carried out by thugs hired by the BBC. (This was only a slightly more streamlined version of the thinking which led some government officials in 2004 to suggest that a new CIA superweapon had caused the earthquake that devastated the ancient city of Bam.)
Robert Mugabe played the conspiracy card in a less creative way when he blamed Britain for the cholera outbreak that ravaged his country in 2009, calling it “a genocidal onslaught on the people of Zimbabwe by the UK” and “a serious biological chemical weapon.”
More recently, in the early days of the Cario protests, Egyptian state television aired confessions by protesters who claimed they were recruited by Mossad, trained by the American human rights organization Freedom House, and working in Qatar, home of Al Jazeera.
3. Weakness Is Death . The Shah of Iran is as much a cautionary tale for the region’s dictators as he was for Jeane Kirkpatrick and the enemies of Jimmy Carter thirty years ago. But the lesson they draw from his fate is a bit different: early concession means early exit.
The brutality may start small. One thing Iran and Myanmar had in common is the desire to avoid a Tiananmen-style massacre. Rather than gunning down hundreds in a day, security forces killed a handful of protesters over a number of days, hoping that the repetition would make the murder mundane, and that fear would drive the rest into their homes.
The technique seems to have worked.
The protests elsewhere this spring have been more tenacious, more able to weather killings by security forces. And so, noting that Egypt’s sometimes deadly but less systematic crackdown failed to quell the protests, other leaders have turned to far more brutal responses.
Western leaders launched air strikes because they feared Muammar Qaddafi was planning a “genocidal” punishment of eastern rebels. Betting that the West will not do the same to him because of his allegedly strategic importance in a Palestinian-Israeli deal, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad has sent soldiers and tanks to silence his own people, perhaps taking a page from his father’s own book: the 1982 massacre in Hama that killed an estimated thirty thousand.
Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are also deploying soldiers to quell what they see as an Iranian-led Shia uprising in Manama, one the Saudis fear would quickly spread to Riyadh if unchecked.
4. Wait Them Out . Dictatorships have patience. They come down hard on protests in their early stages and then wait, knowing that the attention span of foreign media and governments is short. Once Myanmar was out of the spotlight, for example, calls for economic sanctions against the military junta began to fade—and became much easier for Myanmar’s trading partners to ignore. It is clear that Libya’s leaders are hoping that they, too, can outlast NATO’s resolve. Ultimately, time is the enemy of dictatorship; but in the short term, it is always a friend.
T he Police State Playbook does not perhaps carry the biblical authority that it once did. In the information age, “big lies” are easier to debunk. I doubt many Iranians bought the story that the BBC murdered Neda. Egyptians smiled at tales of foreign plots.
Prison can often galvanize opposition leaders. See Myanmar’s Daw Aung San Suu Kyi or Zimbabwe’s Morgan Tsvangirai (or Nelson Mandela, for that matter). And while Iran may attempt to wait out the current protests, unrest has penetrated even the highest levels of the country’s leadership—and can’t be stopped by police on motorcycles. The opposition has learned that it, too, can play the waiting game as it watches for the arc of justice to bend in its favor. It was years after the first Solidarity strikes before Poland’s military dictatorship fell.
Watching the Arab Spring, I have sometimes thought that a People Power Playbook is being written too, as demonstrators have blended peaceful protest with new technology to write their own, powerful treatise.
Government officials’ specious claims of foreign meddling were quickly drowned out by the massive outpouring on Facebook and Twitter. In those forums, a respected small voice—such as blogger Gigi Ibrahim or Google executive Wael Ghonim in Egypt—quickly gained more weight than state media. Smartphone cameras and proxy servers let the world see governments’ violent response even where governments, such as Syria’s, banned foreign journalists and blocked the Internet.
And just as fear seems to be changing sides, so does hope. In one of the most powerful—and unexpected—developments of the Arab Spring, people truly believe they can change their countries’ futures.
The success of the Middle East’s new playbook is tenuous. Myanmar’s revolution faded, though there are some hopeful signs of reform this year. Robert Mugabe is still in power. The results of Iran’s transparently corrupt election still stand, and opposition leaders remain in prison.
For most of the Muslim world, many chapters in the new book have yet to be written. But this much is clear: the Police State Playbook is not the gospel it used to be.
Jim Sciutto is a senior foreign correspondent for ABC News. Since 2002 he has reported from more than thirty countries in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East, including twelve assignments in Iraq.