Intelligence: April 26, 2000


Coup Proofing: Dictators stay that way by preventing others from taking their place. Any tyrant worthy of the name knows what it takes to stay in business. It's called coup proofing, and it's that collection of tricks and techniques that keeps you in and the wannabes out. Nobody wants to be on the wrong end of a coup. Not only do you lose all the perks of office, but you often get killed as well. 

Staying in office starts with information and fear. Thus every dictator has informers, secret police and control of the media. Knowing who is doing what, and knowing it first, goes a long way towards stopping plotters before they can get started. Fear is the dictators friend, for if you just go around killing anyone who might overthrow you, you end up eliminating a lot of competent, and potentially useful, people. Fear keeps people on their toes and often eager to do you a favor, like ratting out someone who's planning to move on you. A system of informers and a diligent secret police keeps everyone unsure of who they can speak freely with. This alone stops a lot of coups, and the fact that a plotter will inadvertently speak to someone on your payroll exposes the rest of them. When the communist East German government collapsed in 1989, the records of the secret police were obtained. It was found that half a million informers aided 90,000 police to keep records on six million people (over half the adult population). This could have kept the communist government going, but many in the leadership were unwilling to use force to put down the massive unrest. Successful dictators are not only nosey, they are also not wimps. 

But informers are not enough, for in many cultures family and tribal loyalties are strong. So you need tools to weaken these relationships. Money and media does the trick. Throwing some cash around always gains a little gratitude here, a little sense of obligation there. No matter how desperate the local economic conditions are, a competent dictator will always have money for those whose loyalty can be bought. The rest can starve, and often do. This also serves a useful purpose, providing a vivid example of what happens to those who don't play along with the strong man. Often entire groups are paid off to behave. This eliminates the problem of ethnic and family loyalty, for there will always be some in each group who will feel obliged to betray any disloyalty. This approach is used to good effect in the Middle East, where dictatorships in Syria and Iraq lavish goodies on those with family, clan and religious ties with the Big Guy. These groups also know that, by throwing in with the dictator, they would be punished if their boy ever got overthrown, unless they were leading the coup. For this reason, Saddam Hussein has to occasionally execute members of his own family or clan. 

And then there's the media. It's become something of a clich for any coup to begin with the rebels seizing the radio and TV stations. Since these media became common during the last half century, dictators and coup plotters quickly noted how useful broadcasting was in stirring up opposition, or keeping an enslaved population quiet. Dictators have become ever more adept at using the media to control the people. We are past the blatant, "Big Brother is your friend" pitch. Dictators always looked to the American networks for tips on how to mould public opinion without turning off the audience. The proliferation of satellite TV and CNN has also forced dictators to adopt world class production values. This was bad for the captive populations involved, for they had a hard time telling the reasonably accurate CNN from the carefully twisted local newsfeed. But it got worse, as dictators found they could keep many angry citizens off the streets at crucial moments by simply airing some big Hollywood movies when the opposition planed big demonstrations. And many people are suckers for screen time. A wise dictator makes sure that his friends show up, not just in the news programs, but in lifestyle and entertainment shows, if only in the audience. A little flattery can save your life if you are a dictator. 

Coup proofing is basically the creative use of paranoia. A police state runs on it and makes sure none of it's citizens leave home without it. Fear, uncertainty and doubt all combine to discourage all but the most steel nerved and competent from making a move on the hated tyrant. It's no accident that many dictators last for decades. And those that do get overthrown generally do so because they got sloppy, or soft. A dictator who gets too much into the good life, or loses his taste for blood, is soon out of a job.

It's not easy being a dictator, but it's also nearly impossible to overthrow one who tends to his coup proofing.


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