By Paul Collier

Bashar al-Assad is now history. Ignore his bluster towards Kofi Annan’s diplomatic mission. The issue is not whether, but how he will be forced out, and the answer is surprisingly encouraging.

Recently, there has been a remarkable collapse in the ability of dictators to maintain power. The dictator model has hitherto been straightforward: control the army through kin in senior positions and deploy pre-emptive repression. In the softer dictatorships, this has broken down because protest can no longer be pre-empted. The calculus of protest depends upon the number of people who are expected to turn out; there is safety in numbers. The new technology enables co-ordination and so has made protest much safer, hence Tunisia and Egypt.

The Syrian regime is not of this type: it is willing to kill protesters en masse. About one in 10 are getting injured, a rate so exceptional for mass protest that it calibrates both the courage of citizens and the depravity of the regime.

Rebellions in Ivory Coast and Libya show that even such grotesque regimes are vulnerable. This new vulnerability depends upon a sequence in which a triggering event initiates crucial defections by members of the army.

Step one is popular opposition on a scale that forces the regime to choose between ceding power and an action that crosses a red line. In Ivory Coast, the red line was the refusal of Laurent Gbagbo, the then president, to accept the UN-certified result of an election. In Libya it was the ugly public threats of vengeance: “We’ll find you in your cupboards”. For months, Mr Assad was able to suppress protest without quite crossing such a threshold. That time has long gone.

Step two is the financial squeeze on the government by international action. The regimes most exposed are those such as Syria whose revenues are drawn from natural resource exports, rather than taxation of the domestic economy. It is not just sanctions: international companies dare not besmirch their reputations by association with the morally toxic. As revenues are squeezed, army officers realise their future pay is in jeopardy. Read more…

Paul Collier is professor of economics at Oxford university and author of ‘Wars, Guns and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places’.

As published in www.ft.com on April 10, 2012.


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