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.

Shaam News Network/AP
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.

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

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.

In September, Swazi citizens groups and South African labor union organizers conducted a week-long campaign of protests against the Swazi regime and against South Africa's 2.4 million rand loan to Swaziland's King Mswati III, whose government has run out of money. In the provincial town of Siteki, nearly 3,000 protesters were reported on the streets on Sept. 8, a remarkable feat in a country with just under 2 million people. And in the nation's commercial capital, another 5,000 marchers brought the city to a halt.

Their anger is aimed primarily at King Mswati, who spends lavishly on himself and his family – including at least a dozen wives – and loads up Africa's most bloated bureaucracy with personal supporters and friends.

His country is currently in arrears of about $180 million (roughly the same amount as the king's personal fortune), has failed to pay teacher and other civil servant salaries for months, and has been urged by the International Monetary Fund to get its finances in order through massive cuts in public spending.

Swazi citizens simply demand a government that functions.

"In the past, in the late 1990s, we would just hold demonstrations and sit-ins, but then we realized we weren't getting much progress in terms of the government making changes, so we took it to the second level, with border blockades to try to frustrate the economic relations between Swaziland and South Africa, and we did that in coordination with trade unions in South Africa," says Sikhumbuzo Phakathi, secretary-general of the banned People's United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO).

The movement has steadily gathered force. At first it was citizens groups protesting, Mr. Phakathi adds. Now civil servants and teachers are joining in, along with churches.

In mid-September senior members of South Africa's top labor movement, which supports South Africa's ruling government, were arrested and deported after appearing at a protest rally in Manzini.

Their eyewitness report of police using rubber bullets, tear gas, and live bullets to disperse protesters has helped to amplify the accusations of groups like PUDEMO.

"What this has done is it brought the attention of the world to Swaziland," says Phakathi. "When we say that there is corruption and brutality by the regime, and people don't see it, then people won't do anything. But these protests show the world that the regime responds with violence."

Malawi, too, has seen a well-coordinated series of protest marches in cities and towns across that impoverished country challenge the authority of President Bingu wa Mutharika.

The protests seemed to take Mr. Mutharika by surprise, and he responded by firing his security chief for failing to shut down the protests and by reshuffling his cabinet.

Overcoming fear is only a first step

For Sharp, who has become a mentor for liberation movements as far away as Burma, Lithuania, Serbia, and, more recently, Syria, the beginning of the end for a dictatorship is when citizens stop fearing the regime. But that's not enough.

"It all depends on what you are going to do when you are not afraid," he says.

"Dictators depend on our cooperation and obedience. All you have to do is cut the source of their power, and the dictatorship starves; and you do that by peeling away the civil servants, the police, and the military. Without the obedience of these people, the regime has no control, and it will crumble."

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