Never Underestimate The Ability Of Dictators To Miscalculate

Hosni Mubarak just resigned as President of Egypt, a day after giving a defiant speech that can only be seen as a huge miscalculation.

As Americans, we aren’t used to seeing political leaders miscalculate this badly. Yes, our politicians commit gaffes, get caught in scandals, and make bad political decisions. But rarely, at such a senior level, do our political leaders make major strategic political calculations that fail so spectacularly.

Let’s review how colossally dumb Mubarak was yesterday. Throughout the day rumors spread that Mubarak will resign. There are signs that the military was beginning to exert greater control. Mubarak’s absence in a senior level meeting appeared to confirm the rumors. The crowds at Tahrir square increasingly swell with the expectation that Mubarak will step down. As hour after hour went by, hope grew, leading to a party like atmosphere in Tahrir. Instead of coming out quickly during the day to dispel the rumor and tamp down expectations, Mubarak only adds fuel to the fire by not giving his speech until nearly 11 pm.

The speeches from Mubarak and Vice President Omar Suleiman yesterday were a tactical attempt to actually appease the crowd and to make further protests seem unreasonable. This backfired spectacularly. One commentator said the crowd at Tahrir went from a jubilant atmosphere to one that resembled an angry crowd of soccer fans that have just watched their team lose. In other words, Mubarak’s speech had the exact opposite effect of what was intended. It further fueled the protests, not calmed them.


To compound Mubarak’s miscalculation, the speech came just before Friday — the Muslim holy day. This is a day that has helped spawn the largest crowds of the protests, as Egyptians go from the Mosque to the street. When you have bad news to deliver, you don’t do it just before the potentially most radical day of the week. In the US, if you have bad news to deliver, you deliver it on late Friday afternoon when no one is paying attention, not early in the week.

One positive side effect of the horse-race nature of the media coverage of US politics, is that our political leaders rarely politically miscalculate to such a degree. Sure Bush invaded Iraq, but that was a policy miscalculation not a political one. Sure political leaders make bad political choices. But rarely do they ever make a high stake calculated decision that almost instantly spectacularly blows up in their face so quickly. The only one that really comes to mind is John McCain choosing to suspend his campaign in 2008.

Part of this is down to practice. Democracies force political leaders to compete with each other, to maneuver, to calculate, to think strategically. Dictatorships don’t do this. Mubarak has been in power for 30 years. He and his regime rarely, if ever, have to engage in such tactical decision-making. Rarely, if ever, do they sit down and think about how such and such a move could increase their appeal with a particular demographic. They aren’t forced to have their finger on the pulse of their people, and therefore dictatorships are prone to “let them eat cake” style gaffes and miscalculations.

In other words, the tactical gamesmanship of democratic politics, that can be so exhausting and tedious (especially here in the US), at least forces our political leaders to constantly have their finger on the pulse of the people.