Fighting Words

The Shame Factor

When will dictators learn not to treat their people like fools?

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak 

Not long ago, a close comrade of mine was dining with a person who I can’t identify beyond telling you that his father is a long-term absolutist ruler of an Arab Muslim state. “Tell me,” said this scion to my friend, “is it true that there are now free elections in Albania?” My friend was able to confirm the (relative) truth of this, adding that he had once even acted as an international observer at the Albanian polls and could attest to a certain level of transparency and fairness. The effect of his remarks was galvanic. “In that case,” exclaimed the heir-presumptive, thumping the table, “what does that make us? Are we peasants? Children?” The gloom only deepened, apparently, as the image of the Arab as a laughing stock—lagging behind Albania!—took hold of the conversation.

Who could have predicted that such a comparison would have turned out to be such a catalytic one in the mind of this nervous dauphin? So multifarious are the sources of grievance in the Arab world that it could have been any one of a host of pretexts that ignited a revolt, or revolts. This ought to make one beware of too glibly selecting the ostensibly crucial one. Poverty and unemployment? These are so pervasive that they could explain any rebellion at any time—and in any case Tunisians are among the richest per capita in North Africa. Dictatorship and repression? Again, these are commonplaces, and so far the most conspicuously authoritarian despotisms—Syria and Saudi Arabia, for instance—have been spared the challenge of insurrection. (May these words of mine go out of date with all speed.)

I think that the factor of indignity and shame, of the sort manifested in the anecdote above, makes a more satisfactory initial explanation. And one of the cheering and reassuring things about dictatorship is the way that it consistently fails to understand this element of the equation. How gratifying it is that all such regimes go on making the same obvious mistakes. None of them ever seems to master a few simple survival techniques: Don’t let the supreme leader’s extended family go on shopping sprees; don’t publicly spoil some firstborn as if the people can’t wait for him, too, to be proclaimed from the balcony; don’t display your personal photograph all over the landscape; don’t claim more than, say, 75 percent of the vote in any “election” you put on. And don’t try to shut down social media: It will instantly alert even the most somnolent citizen to the fact that you are losing, or have lost, your grip.

People do not like to be treated like fools, or backward infants, or extras in some parade. There is a natural and inborn resistance to such tutelage, for the simple-enough reasons that young people want to be regarded as adults, and parents can’t bear to be humiliated in front of their children. One of Francis Fukuyama’s better observations, drawing on his study of Hegel and Nietzsche, was that history shows people just as prepared to fight for honor and recognition as they are for less abstract concepts like food or territory.

Sooner or later, the line gets crossed and people can take no more. Nicolae Ceausescu wrote his own death warrant on the day in December 1989 when he decided to summon the people of Bucharest for just one more compulsory rally where they would have to stand, screaming with inner boredom, and clap their hands to order while he spoke for as long as he liked. I remember thinking, of the Egyptian “elections” of last fall, that President Hosni Mubarak would have gotten more respect for simply canceling them than for pretending to hold them in the insulting way he did. Something similar applies to the “green” rebellion that followed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s most recent plebiscite: Everybody already knew that things were “fixed,” but this time the mullahs didn’t even trouble to pretend that they were not fixed. It’s possible that people will overlook outright brutality sooner than they will forgive undisguised contempt.

The best of the Egyptian “civil society” dissidents, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, produced the extraordinary effect that he did by the simple method of challenging the Mubarak regime on those very terms. If it was going to pretend to hold elections, then Ibrahim and his fellow researchers claimed the right to conduct independent surveys of the voters and to publish the results. One can hardly imagine a milder form of resistance, yet, because of the overweening stupidity and crudity of the authorities, it had consequences of an almost seismic kind. Show trials of mild-mannered opinion pollsters and think-tank scholars; dark accusations of secret foreign funding for the practice of political sociology: The whole lumbering apparatus of the Egyptian state conspired to make itself appear humorless and thuggish and to convince its people that they were being held as serfs by fools. Again, the sense of insult ran very deep, and Mubarak’s bullies were too dense to understand their own mistake.

Saad Eddin Ibrahim is one of the minority of Arab public intellectuals to have supported the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and to have believed that it might contribute to a democratic renaissance in the region. This argument will go on for a long time and can’t be resolved too simplistically one way or another, partly because the liberation of Iraq can’t be described as the act of its own people, and thus in a way underlines the same problem of dependency. The post-2003 democratic wave was brief and somewhat shallow, and it indirectly benefited Hamas and Hezbollah as well as the Kurds and Shiites of Iraq and the Lebanese democracy movement. But the regime-change school in America can claim a degree of vindication.

We argued that the supposed attractions of authoritarian “stability” are in fact illusory, since nothing is more volatile and unsafe than dictatorship, which lacks any self-critical method for learning from its mistakes. Earlier “people power” episodes, in Asia in the early 1980s and in Eastern Europe in 1989, as well as in the general repudiation of military rule in Latin America and the peaceful liberation of South Africa, had definitively proved this point. They had also left the Arab regions looking rather conspicuous, and rather backward, in consequence. In the long term, this sense of being relegated to infancy and immaturity has had a salutary effect, which one hopes will outlast the temptations—of the immature culture of self-pity and victimhood, plus the equally false reassurances of theocracy—that are certain to arise now that the period of enforced adolescence is over.

Like  Slate on Facebook. Follow Slate and the Slate Foreign Desk on Twitter.