Foreign Policy Blogs

If You Can't Beat 'Em, Beat 'Em

Paper covers rock, nightstick beats computer.

With revolutionary fever fermenting across the Arab world, other long-serving dictators are getting a bit jittery these days.

The demonstration effect is a powerful phenomenon- when long-suffering citizens see people in similar situations casting off the shackles of repressive regimes, they’re inclined to as “well, why not us, too?” It isn’t a coincidence that all the post-Soviet governments fell within a few months of each other, though if you want a really remarkable story read up on the extraordinary year 1848.

Living in this world of compressed news cycles and ubiquitous social media, citizens get that revolutionary bug faster and easier than ever.

That doesn’t sit well with autocrats.

So when Munyaradzi Gwisai, Zimbabwean prof and obviously ballsy fellow, decided to show a some YouTube footage of protests taking place elsewhere on the continent he got a response – before class had even finished, the police broke up the class.

The agents seized laptop computers, DVD discs and a video projector before arresting 45 people, including Gwisai, who runs the Labor Law Center at the University of Zimbabwe. All 45 have been charged with treason — which can carry a sentence of life imprisonment or death — for, in essence, watching viral videos.

Gwisai and five others were brutally tortured during the next 72 hours, he testified Thursday at an initial hearing.

From Wired’s writeup.

When you’re running a thuggish police state you can get the information you need via watching the pipes – but you also probably have informants everywhere. Authoritarians are playing a game against activists on many levels, and they can checkmate their opponents in any of them.

The trump card is the pure, brutal violence.

Mugabe is known as one of the most ruthless and vicious dictators in the world, and it appears he has managed to terrorize his own people sufficiently that the prospect of any sort of popular uprising is very remote.

“They’re too fractured and fearful,” Bloemen said of Zimbabwe’s opposition movement. “They’re inspired by what has happened in North Africa, but you have to reach a turning point, a critical mass, to convince people it’s worth it and you’re going to succeed. That’s always been the difficult question in Zimbabwe, getting that critical mass.”

Virtual protests and other actions in North Africa had a chance to grow to large numbers before the government moved against them, providing a certain degree of safety in numbers. It looks like Mugabe’s not going to make that mistake.

Naturally there’s a Facebook group decrying these actions. Unsurprisingly, most of the members do not appear to be Zimbabwean. I hope those that are have their privacy settings correct.