A month ago, I was sitting in a restaurant with Srdja Popovic, a democratic activist and leader of the revolution that toppled Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. We had met to discuss the revolutions ricocheting around the Middle East.
“It’s been a bad year for bad guys,” he said. In late 2010, he mused, no one would have possibly predicted that six months later, “Ben Ali and Mubarak would be out, Gaddafi and Saleh would be on their knees, and Assad would be seriously challenged. If you would have seen that in your crystal ball and then told people on TV, men in white coats would have come to take you away.”
This past week, the dictator’s club lost another member. When Libyan rebels stormed Moammar Gaddafi’s compound and seat of power in Tripoli, he went from a bizarre, mercurial Arab tyrant to a fugitive of justice. Libya is the newest piece in the Arab Spring jigsaw puzzle, which when connected to Tunisia and Egypt has created a dictator-free zone across a growing stretch of North Africa.
But why should it end with North Africa, or even the Middle East? The truth is that a world without dictators may not be such a lark. Yes, it has never been harder than it is today to be a dictator. An army of Western experts and activists now stands at the ready to shine a spotlight on human rights abuses or gross corruption. If you order a violent crackdown, you know it probably will be captured on an iPhone and broadcast around the world in real time.
Totalitarianism, the ultimate expression of dictatorship, is virtually extinct. It was just too expensive. The Joseph Stalins, Pol Pots, and Idi Amins belong to a distinctly 20th-century version of dictatorship. No one wants to be North Korea or Burma. Police states are passé. Maybe we don’t need to fear the men in white coats after all.
And picture, for a moment, the benefits of a dictator-free world. No more rogue regimes sponsoring terrorists or giving haven to mass murderers. No more famines in North Korea. The humanitarian benefits would be enormous. Once the last tyrant had fallen, imagine the creativity that would pour forth from the millions of people who had known nothing besides fear, repression and the best ways to survive it. We could build a museum to dictatorship — perhaps in Rangoon — where we could view their portraits, remember their crimes and wonder how men (they’re almost all men) could be so cruel to so many.
Just one problem: The end of some of the harshest dictatorships has not necessarily spelled a more free world. The extinction of the thing we despise is not giving rise to the democracy we hoped for. According to the watchdog organization Freedom House, political freedom has declined around the world for the fifth consecutive year, the longest continuous decline since it started monitoring these trends in 1973. Furthermore, the number of fully functioning electoral democracies is the lowest it has been since 1995.
What we see instead is the rise of electoral strongmen, figures such as Vladimir Putin and Hugo Chavez, who go to great lengths to maintain a thin democratic façade to hide the fact that they have concentrated power in their own hands. Russia’s back yard is littered with authoritarian regimes — Azerbaijan, Belarus and Uzbekistan, to name a few — whose leaders seem to view their positions as lifetime appointments. China thankfully is no longer ruled by a Mao-like figure, but in some ways its economic success has made it more insidious; strongmen and would-be authoritarians look to it as a beacon of nondemocratic strength. Some in Asia may be softer — Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore — but they are no pillars of Jeffersonian democracy.
Political scientists are at pains to establish the proper species of many of these regimes. Are they “semi-authoritarian,” “hybrid,” “pseudodemocratic” or something else? Suffice it to say, they are not democracies.
Nor does history move in some uninterrupted line of progress. The transition from dictatorship to democracy is full of false starts and retreats. Some of the revolutions we recently applauded have led to governments with a shaky handle on the democratic tenets they once espoused. In Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, the leaders who rode the revolution to power quickly displayed familiar authoritarian reflexes, choking free media and tightening civil liberties. In Ukraine, the Orange Revolution prevented Viktor Yanukovych from stealing an election in 2005. In 2010, he returned, this time winning elections that most say were free and fair. The fact that he won isn’t a problem; he was the people’s choice. The trouble is that since coming to office, he has proved to be the authoritarian bully we remember, intimidating civil society groups, undermining press freedoms and bringing trumped-up charges against his political enemies.
It is too early to say what the Arab Spring will yield, either. The Egyptian military has promised to steer the country toward democracy, but its behavior since Hosni Mubarak was ousted — which includes arbitrary arrests, military trials for thousands of civilians and forced “virginity tests” for female protestors — hardly inspires confidence. As welcome as the collapse of Gaddafi’s reign must be for Libyans, building a pluralistic democratic society from the ruins of his regime will be much harder than the march on Tripoli.
Of course, Libyans deserve to celebrate their victory. Next week would have marked the 42nd anniversary of Gaddafi’s rule. Now that day will never come. Twenty years ago, Eastern Europeans showed the way. Today the people in Libya, and across the Middle East, are demonstrating that the most entrenched dictators can be challenged, and in some cases, uprooted. What about Africa or Asia? No one would be crazy for thinking it could happen again.
William J. Dobson, a former managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine and senior editor for Asia at Newsweek International who is writing a book about dictatorships.