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Why dictators now face civilian revolt, from Syria to Swaziland

Protests in a growing number of countries show that citizens have more tools at their disposal to throw their dictators off balance, if not out of power.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer / September 30, 2011

In this citizen journalism image made on a mobile phone, anti-Syrian President Bashar al-Assad protesters flash V-victory signs as a woman in the foreground displays her hands with the Arabic word reading: 'leave,' during a demonstration against the Syrian regime, in Edlib province, Syria, on Friday.

Shaam News Network/AP



Authoritarian regimes are crumbling across North Africa; street protests are rocking capitals from Syria to Swaziland. Is the age of dictators finally over?

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Certainly dictators have been around for thousands of years, and for every strongman turned out of office in the past few months, there are dozens still holding onto power.

And yet, what protests in a growing number of countries show is that citizens have a greater sense of courageous solidarity and more tools at their disposal to throw their dictators off balance, if not out of power.

"I think the statement, 'The age of dictators is over,' is a bit dramatic and too simplistic, but we have certainly reached a key point in our history," says Gene Sharp, author of an influential book for nonviolent protest, "From Dictatorship to Democracy."

"The knowledge of how to get rid of dictators is spreading," Mr. Sharp says, noting that nonviolent techniques are now being used in Africa, the Middle East, and even military-run Burma (Myanmar). "Nonviolent struggle is not intuitive. It's not spontaneous. It's learning how to think about the problem of authoritarianism, and what to do about the problem. And that knowledge is spreading."

Ousting dictators: It takes more than a smartphone

It takes more than a smart phone to take on an authoritarian regime, of course.

In addition to courage, it requires organization and discipline, coordination and communication, and clever techniques to keep a regime guessing about what will come next. For this reason, protests have worked best in North Africa, where citizen networks had prepared their civil disobedience campaigns well in advance, and then adapted their methods to stay one step ahead of the security forces.

They have not worked as well in sub-Saharan Africa, where citizen groups are less organized and often associated directly with political parties rather than the citizens themselves.

In the early days after the Tunisian regime of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fell, many eyes turned to Zimbabwe because of the similar factors of strong civil society on one side and the long-ruling reign of President Robert Mugabe on the other. Mr. Mugabe's own security forces were looking for signs of this revolt, going so far as arresting college students for the simple act of watching a video about the Egyptian and Tunisian revolts. The detainees were later released, although some of the charges are still pending.

Citizen revolts in surprising places

But citizen revolts have arisen in some surprising places. A prime example today is Swaziland's: Protests against Africa's last monarch began well before the Arab Spring erupted, and have proved more enduring than many expected – thanks in part to international support.


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