The term sic semper tyrannis is Latin for ’thus always to tyrants’. These are the words attributed to Marcus Junius Brutus as he helped to stab Julius Caesar to death on March 15, 44 B.C. The words are sometimes mis-translated to mean ’death always to tyrants’.
In the singular case of Moammar Gadhafi, the mis-translation held, as he was executed by Libyan revolutionaries while attempting to flee the sewers of his home town of Sirte on October 20, 2011.
Gadhafi so far is the only Arab dictator to have been executed as a consequence of the Arab Spring. Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had the good sense to flee into comfortable exile. Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak fled too late and insufficiently far, and is now on trial for his life. Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh had the good sense to flee to safety in Saudi Arabia, but then decided to return to Yemen where it remains to be determined whether he will recover his autocracy, and at what cost in terms of repression.
Political economists who specialize in the study of autocracy used to argue – with a lot of evidence in support of their hypothesis – that successful revolutions are rare and that, for the most part, autocrats are removed by coups d’etat, where the benefits are largely privatized, and the free-rider problem associated with revolutionary behavior does not apply. The Arab Spring challenges that hypothesis.
The institutional change that now favors revolution is the collapse in organizational costs associated with the Internet and modern communications technology. Revolutionaries are now able to find their way to relevant weak spots in the dictator’s defenses and to group themselves accordingly.
The unpopular dictator, in consequence, confronts an unpleasant dilemma. To remain in office against well-organized uprisings, his army must be prepared to kill on a massive scale. In so doing, if the dictator eventually loses, he and his military leaders, if they survive the bloodshed , will find themselves on trial in international courts.
Gadhafi’s forces showed this willingness to kill, but ultimately failed to retain power because of outside intervention. Mubarak’s forces deserted his command. So far Bassar Assad appears able to control his Syrian forces – albeit with powerful support from Iran. It is now increasingly likely, nevertheless, that Assad will meet his death fleeing from a Damascus sewer before the Arab Spring runs its full course.
Even if dictatorship survives across most of Arabia – as may prove to be the case, this is good news for Arabs who find themselves living under new oppressors. For water tends to run downhill. As the marginal cost of repression increases relative to the marginal cost of loyalty, rational autocrats will substitute loyalty for repression at all relevant margins of behavior.
And that will make for a better world.