Natasha Ezrow: Dissecting Dictators

2011 is the year where many observers and so called experts around the world scramble to understand how it is that so many dictatorships suddenly arrived at a crisis. As people take to the streets and battles take place in city squares throughout the middle east, we discover that in fact many of the dictators of these regions have not been well studied or understood.

Natasha Ezrow, Director of the International Development Studies Program at the University of Essex and author of Dictators & Dictatorships: Understanding Authoritarian Regimes and Their Leaders, has written about the important differences between dictators which we now see being played out by how they handle calls for reform.  She also lays out criteria for why types of leaders might flee a country before anyone is harmed, while others would stay til their last breath.

ctrp367 Reflections on Revolutions

It is a new day in Egypt. You’ve heard about the tools, you’ve heard about the youth, but what happened and what happens in not only the region but in places like the United States.  What do Egypt and the United States have in common and could youth in the US be inspired? And what can be said about Algeria, Iran, and other areas where something big might be happening and what is the nature of that something?

My guest is John G. Mason, professor of Political Science at William Paterson University (the same department and classroom in which I became socially and politically conscious).  He does not claim to be an expert with all the answers on Middle East or North African politics.  What John does know about is asking the right questions and keeping a critical eye on events even in a time when many have taken the focus off of the process now taking place in Egypt and Tunisia.

Liberation Square

Some of John’s recommended sources:

Juan Cole | Tom Dispatch | Courrier International

45 to 60 Days

The world is fixated on Egypt for the last 7 days and for good reason. However elsewhere in the world things are also changing in different ways and it is important that good journalists and critical minds don’t all converge in one place.

Just over two weeks ago much of the attention in the international press was focused on Tunisia, again, understandable considering the powerful and historically breathtaking images from the streets of Tunis. The departure of the president/dictator was a great victory for anyone who favors an open and democratic Tunisia. The event is hailed as the inspiration of Egypt and possibly a growing list of nations where iron fisted rulers are suddenly scared of what fate may await them.

You’ve heard about these things, but what of Tunisia since January 11? An acting President and a whole new slate of ministers, including a political party and cabinet member that had been banned and jailed under the tyrannical rule of Ben Ali. According to the constitution, in 45 to 60 days from the moment the acting president steps in, an election must be held. At this point no date has been set, but that doesn’t deter the questions of who will run, what parties will come forward, how will they work together in an eventual government, and what will be their program. I‘ve heard analysts say left of center, or islamic left, but I still wonder how it will all play out.

In the meantime there is word of many new freedoms, especially when it comes to the press. This is of course a great and essential development, but it is important in such a critical aftermath of a revolution, when the world’s short attention span has moved on, that critical and concerned observers not sit back and assume all will be well. Part of what ensures this process really takes place and has long lasting value, is that we keep asking questions, and keep up the pressure.

Your Personal Mayor

Mayor of Twitter! Cory BookerWhen looking critically at changes in democracy and politics around the world, much has been said about the personalization of politics. In many countries, where politics may have once been about the policies of a party and choosing between those parties at the ballot box, today it is increasingly all about the individual candidate.

Political posters feature huge images of the face of a candidate, either smiling or looking confident. Somewhere in smaller print is the party logo, in case you’re wondering about that.  In many municipalities in the US, where one party automatically dominates, it is all about the individual candidates.  But even on the highest levels, president, prime minister, these days we pay close attention to the policies, values, and personality of the individual, more so then the party. This has been referred to as the personalization of politics.

Yet right now there is another type of personal politics that has become a major force in many democracies thanks to the internet. It is the type of political relationship where the candidate or election official reacts and behaves based on your wishes.  Bill Clinton’s staff used to do phone surveys after his speeches and TV appearances, to get a feel for what works and doesn’t work for potential voters.  Adam Curtis laid out these and other activities in his fantastic documentary “The Century of the Self,” where he looks at how candidates would make changes to their policies and actions, based on what individuals wanted.

Tweeting Snow CleanupThis might all sound well and good, people getting what they wish; a direct democracy perhaps?  If we look at the phenomenon of Mayors who make use of twitter on a regular basis to communicate with the public, we find what is very much another example of this personalized representation.  Many, including myself, have celebrated this development, as citizens are actively hearing about their election official’s daily activities, and providing real time feedback.

One of the greatest examples I follow has been my friend, Newark Mayor Cory Booker.  Now in his second term as Mayor, much has been documented about how this young Mayor takes a different approach to politics and leading a city.  Where some make speeches with their sleeves rolled up to look busy, Cory picks up the shovel during snow storms, pulls over drivers who litter, patrols the streets with citizens at night, and turns up more neighborhood parties than anyone in history.

It should be no surprise based on this description, that Mayor Booker is an avid twitter person. Tweeting a mix of inspiring quotes, personal observations, thank you’s, and daily city hall acitivies, he is not only widely followed but he also does a lot of following as well.  I should know, I’m one of those he follows.   As someone who keeps an eye on twitter and has the good nature to listen when citizens have a problem or concern, Cory receives many public twitter messages asking for help with issues in Newark.  From large to small problems, citizens tweet their Mayor about streetlights being out, meetings being held, abandoned lots that get filled with garbage, and most of all at this time of year – snow not being shoveled on their streets. Unlike his counterpart Mayor Bloomberg of (admittedly much larger) New York City, Cory does not simply post a phone number and tell his followers to use it, almost 100% of the time he responds with a “sending a crew over now” or “we’re on our way.”  Sure enough some hours later, you will be able to find a followup tweet from a citizen saying thank you or great job Mr. Mayor.  Occasionally it will be a followup complaint if the street in question isn’t clean yet, to which he still takes the consideration to tweet a very polite “be patient, we will get to you.”

Once again many observers will say – Fantastic! A modern Mayor using modern means to cut out the middleman and communicate openly with the public. Indeed I never miss a chance to tell people about the good deeds the Mayor of the city of my birth does using twitter.

Yet as more snow falls, as more problems appear for the city of Newark (or any city for that matter), and more people join twitter to tell the Mayor something directly, the more it becomes a legitimate question if this is really as fantastic as it first seemed. The individual might rejoice because their complaint or demand has been addressed almost immediately, but taken together, is the energy spent satisfying the individual well spent, among all the tasks the elected official must perform. Beyond that, how can the Mayor be sure that these issues tweeted to him are as deserving of his attention as say, some other city hall business? At some point even Mayor Booker himself tells people with demands to “be patient”.

Naturally the work of the Mayor is more often in city hall and not on twitter, the responsibilities people entrusted him with by electing him to the office.  Much of that work, as long has been true, occurs in the offline world, and sometimes unavoidably, out of the site of the general public.  Citizens of course see and live the results of the Mayor’s work over time, which always results in approval, disapproval, or something in between.

The main question here is: Does this style of leadership, elected leadership directly active on twitter, signal something positive in the long run? Is it a breakthru in the practice of addressing the needs and concerns of citizens? Or at some point will it just be the individual speaking only for an immediate and personal problem, at the expense of the greater good.

Postscript: Mayor Booker became the focus of this post which I actually wanted to be about the bigger picture of politics and twitter. I know for a fact he does tons more offline and online to hear from citizens directly and man oh man do I admire him for that.

Upside of Afghan Elections

Cross-posted on

There is a term that is often thrown around in reference to how elections, in any nation around the world, should ideally be conducted: “free and fair”. When much of the world is watching an election and trying to gage if it is a good election, we look for evidence that people were able to vote without intimidation or any other undemocratic obstacle, and that the results of the vote were processed without irregularities. If this does not happen, then the reports start coming in, and we all sort of collectively decide that whatever elections a nation claims to have had, they were not up to the “free and fair” standard and therefore are not really a democracy.

Here in Afghanistan elections are only 2 weeks away. It is no secret that the government does not control the entire country and a war continues to be waged. Last month the announcement came that due to the strong risk of fraud and violence in certain regions, 900 polling stations would remain closed on election day. In a city like Kabul, Afghan National Police (ANP) run checkpoints throughout the city and there is the undertone of fear of being attacked or kidnapped by both foreign and local people. All-in-all, the task of holding an election in two weeks time is obviously going to be difficult and not without some problems.

The conclusion many observers in the media, governments, and perhaps you reading this right now, is that based on the aforementioned problems, the election is a failure before it even takes place. They take the standard of “free and fair” and they look at the poll closings, the threat of violence, and the recent attacks on political candidates, and they say – nope, Afghanistan’s election is a failure.

Yet the situation could also be looked at in another way. We could look at the 19,942 other polling stations that will be opened and look at the examples where people are voting when election day comes. We can look at the long list of 2,556 candidates from diverse backgrounds, including 405 women, running for parliament. Because looking at election with an interest in what goes right, not only what goes wrong, should also be part of the story that is Afghanistan today.

“Free and Fair” is certainly something anyone would want in an election, and if we were honest, we would admit that this doesn’t exist anywhere in the world. In the end we aim for an election that is as free and fair as possible within its context. The Afghan context is no doubt one of the most difficult in the world right now, but to be able to carry out an election, even one wrought with problems, should also be worth something on the road to stability.

Portugal’s Alternative Energy Revolution

Outside Lisbon, 2008

It isn’t hard to find things that don’t work correctly in Portugal.  It also isn’t hard to find people who will go on and on about how the prime minister is a bum and a crook. Indeed Portugal has plenty of problems as a nation with high unemployment, a disappearing rural population, and unsustainable metropolitan centers.

So it may come as a surprise after all this, to learn that Portugal is a global leader in alternative energy. More specifically, as of this year the country gets 45% of its total energy from renewable resources like wind, solar, wave and hydro.  Besides being an impressive number it is even more eye opening when you learn that this is a 28% increase from 5 years ago.  And just when you thought you’d already been impressed, you will find that -in fact- Portugal has become one of the largest (if not THE largest) wind energy producers in the United States!

How did this happen? What conditions and factors somehow led to this fairly small and less wealthy European nation become so active in alternative energy?  Here are a few reasons:

Despite a very low approval rating now, when his party was elected with a parliamentary majority in 2005, Prime Minister José Socrates and his cabinet set their sites on major investments in renewable energy, even under huge warnings that it would cost too much money.  5 years, many landmark projects,  and 13.6 billion euros later, Portugal has developed energy production and a smart grid that most of the world only talks about having one day.  The nation is now in a position to decommission 2 coal power plants and even sold energy to Spain this year. In the next few years they will roll out the world’s first nation wide electric car and charging station network. They also expect their percentage of electricity produced by renewable sources to be 60% by 2020.

Sure there are questions and a whole lot of concerns about what has happened in Portugal.  The biggest being the high price of electricity in the country.  Or what will happen if private investors and private energy companies get into financial problems, will the windmills, solar panels, tidal machines, and hydro-electric power plants still be run and maintained?

In the short term people may look at their energy bills and feel like they have been wronged.  The government may be accused or in fact involved in some scandal eventually resulting in it being voted out of office.  The achievements of Portugal may always be overshadowed by large nations like the US and China being unwilling and unable to take bold steps towards an efficient and environmentally sustainable energy system.   Yet despite all the criticism that has come and may come one day, especially in the political and economic realm, Portugal has accomplished an amazing feat in the quest to reduce emissions and dependence on fossil fuels.