Don’t let the hype fool you, dictators are not becoming more democratic?

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL February 13, 2015
China's Xi Jinping faces different pressures to Mao but he can hardly be called the great democrat

China’s Xi Jinping faces different pressures to Mao but he can hardly be called the great democrat

Robert D Kaplan and Dafna H Rand of the Center for a New American Security say that dictators’ new appreciation of public opinion is “part of a global transition to more democracy.”

In their engagingly titled piece ‘The Postmodern Autocrat’s Handbook’, they admit that the more-democracy project “will take time”. But they argue that we are heading toward “mixed regimes that combine elements of autocracy and democracy, where central power over time becomes more diluted but individual freedoms are still limited.” They point to “the traditional, consultative monarchies of Morocco, Jordan and Oman” as good examples of mixed systems that do the job much better than “the presidential tyrannies of Libya, Syria and Iraq that eviscerated all forms of political and communal expression except for the regime at the top and the family and tribe at the bottom.”

They say that Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping has constraints Mao never faced. Unlike Mao, Mr Xi “must contend with social media and a policy elite that are fiercely nationalistic about depredations against China by the West and Japan in the late-19th and 20th centuries.”

They mention Vladmir Putin’s great popularity at home because he is seen to be playing to the gallery and showing the world that Russia is strong.

They say that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei “has to tolerate the relatively softer approach toward the West of democratically elected President Hassan Rouhani.” Even in an “authoritarian theocracy” like Iran, “there are today competing elite and public views about domestic and foreign affairs,” they write.

And they indicate Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El Sisi’s strenuous attempts to “ease economic hardship on the average Egyptian because the population has already demonstrated its ability to help remove a ruler.” Mr El Sisi, they say, “is a far more nervous man than toppled dictator Hosni Mubarak was for much of his tenure.”

There’s some truth in all of this, of course, but I think it’s hard to see this as the democratization of dictators. It’s hard to see today’s dictators’ need – and tendency – to use social media, market themselves constantly as somehow a democratization project.

Think of Twitter as today’s equivalent of the proclamation of earlier times.

Think of hagiographic articles as today’s equivalent of the flattering stories that made the rounds in earlier times.