Despots are good at a lot of things suppressing dissent, muzzling the press, crushing hope, the whole tool kit of talents necessary to cling to power for 30 or 40 years. What they tend to be a little rusty on are their people skills the ability to understand the motivations of others and act in a way that effectively communicates their own. That interpersonal obtuseness was on breathtaking display on Thursday, when Hosni Mubarak made his last globally televised stand, informing the Egyptian people that, no, he still wasn't going anywhere before finally giving up and packing it in the next day.
That Mubarak at last did heed the will of his people is a good and sensible thing for him to have done. That it took him so long says a lot about what goes on in the mind of a dictator and how hard it can be to make him see the world the way everyone else does.
Disputes between the leader and the led usually flow from the bottom up. There is no happier autocrat than one whose rules are being unquestioningly obeyed and whose authority is being docilely accepted. The problem comes not so much when there are small stirrings of dissent those can be quickly snuffed as when there's a large-scale popular uprising.
Biological anthropologist Chris Boehm at the University of Southern California studies the human revolutionary impulse and has been struck in particular by how it plays to a unique tension in the psychology of our species. On the one hand, humans are extremely hierarchical primates, readily picking leaders and assenting to their authority for the larger good of the community. On the other hand, our hunter-gatherer ancestors were a very egalitarian bunch, doing best when the group operated collectively, with dominance asserted only subtly. When one individual usually a male began to overreach, he was dealt with swiftly. That impulse to challenge the bully and take him down is one that stays with us today, and that we practice with great relish.
"The revolutionary urge is the universal reaction to power being exerted over us in an illegitimate way," says Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist at the University of Virginia, whose own work parallels Boehm's. "It's absolutely thrilling and intoxicating to people." How thrilling and intoxicating? "Put it this way," says Haidt, "the flag of my state is an image of a woman warrior with a bared breast and her foot on a dead man, who represents tyranny. The state emblem is a murder."
But it's not typically a single, half-clad Joan of Arc who brings down a dictator like Mubarak. It's a mobilized force representing a deeply fed up nation, and that happens in a very predictable way. Political wildfires, like all fires, start small, with scattered acts of defiance or rebellion. When the conditions are right, many of those little fires come together, and then the blaze accelerates fast.
"It has to do with a lot of things," says political science professor Ian Lustick of the University of Pennsylvania, "the density of the social networks, how fast the second movers follow the first ones, and the third then follow the second. The pattern is the same in most such rebellions, with a cascade of events leading to a tipping point."
Of course, even a revolution that looks fast in hindsight can seem awfully slow while it's unfolding, and eighteen full days elapsed between the time Egyptians began rising up and Mubarak finally quit the field. For most of that period, it was clear to any rational observer that his position was untenable, so why did it take him so long to reach that conclusion too?
First of all, never underestimate the impenetrability of the presidential bubble. "Dictators dislike dissent and they surround themselves with sycophants," says Haidt. "It is quite common for them to have no idea about how they're actually viewed by their people."