Democracy Lab

Why Dictators Don’t Like Jokes

Pro-democracy activists around the world are discovering that humor is one of the most powerful weapons in the fight against authoritarianism.

Fifteen years ago, when Serbia's non-violent pro-democracy movement, Otpor, was just a tiny group of 20 students with $50, we decided to play a prank. We took an oil barrel, taped a picture of Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic to it, and set it up in the middle of Belgrade's largest shopping district. Next to it we placed a baseball bat. Then we went for coffee, sat down, and watched the fun unfold. Before long, dozens of shoppers lined the street, each waiting for a chance to take a swing at "Milosevic" -- the man so many despised, but whom most were too afraid to criticize. About 30 minutes in, the police arrived. That's when we held our breath, waiting for what would happen next. What would the Milosevic's police do? They couldn't arrest shoppers -- on what grounds? And they couldn't arrest the culprits -- since we were nowhere to be seen. So what did Milosevic's police do? The only thing they could: They arrested the barrel. The image of the two policemen dragging the barrel to their police car was the best photo shoot in Serbia for months. Milosevic and his cronies became the laughing stock of the nation, and Otpor became a household name. 

Revolutions are serious business. Just recall the grumpy faces of 20th-century revolutionaries like Lenin, Mao, Fidel, and Che. They could barely crack a smile. But fast-forward to the protests of the 21st century, and you see a new form of activism at work. The ominous scowls of revolutions past are replaced by humor and satire. Today's non-violent activists are inciting a global shift in protest tactics away from anger, resentment, and rage towards a new, more incisive form of activism rooted in fun: "Laughtivism." 

Just take the Middle East and North Africa, where non-violent protesters are using laughter and wit to embolden their calls for democracy. In Tunisia, in January 2011, at the height of the protests against Ben Ali, a lone man -- later immortalized as a super-hero Captain Khobza (bread) -- fought off Ben Ali loyalists armed with a sharp wit and a French baguette. In Egypt, an outlandish video portraying Egyptian President Mohammed Morsy as Super Mario made the rounds on YouTube this March. In Sudan, students have taunted Sudanese Dictator Omar al-Bashir, holding "elbow-licking" protests -- a reference to the derogatory term he used to denigrate the democratic opposition. Even in Syria -- where the civil war has taken 70,000 lives -- satirical anti-Assad graffiti and biting slogans have electrified street protests

And in case anyone needed reminding, the political relevance of comedians in the Middle East was recently brought home by the Egyptian government's decision to raise criminal charges against the talk-show host Bassem Youssef (the man often described as "Egypt's Jon Stewart"). The move by the government of Mohamed Morsy attested to the capacity of humor to discomfit the powers that be. (For the moment, Youssef remains free on bail.) 

But the strategic use of humor isn't confined to the Middle East and North Africa alone. In the United States, Occupy Wall Street protesters regularly used humor to mock corporate America. Who can forget the ridiculous-looking protestors who, dressed as rodeo clowns and a matador, tamed Wall Street's legendary bull statue? Even in Spain, where protestors are branded Indignados ("the Indignant"), laughter is a potent weapon. Satirical theatrical performances, flash mobs, and seemingly spontaneous outbursts of singing and dancing, have become hallmarks of Spain's anti-capitalist movement, helping to reduce tensions and sustain enthusiasm for two years and counting. Russians, too, have infused laughter into their demonstrations -- using everything from condoms, boa constrictors, mental hospitals, and even Lego toys to poke fun at Putin. 

There is a reason why humor is infusing the arsenal of the 21st-century protestor: It works. For one, humor breaks fear and builds confidence. It also adds a necessary cool factor, which helps movements attract new members. Finally, humor can incite clumsy reactions from a movement's opponents. The best acts of laughtivism force their targets into lose-lose scenarios, undermining the credibility of a regime no matter how they respond. These acts move beyond mere pranks; they help corrode the very mortar that keeps most dictators in place: Fear.  

Take Egypt again. For decades, Mubarak's Egypt was a country in which political opposition was stifled at the hand of state-sanctioned abuse, arrest, and murder. Mubarak lived on that fear, and he had every reason to expect that he could use it to squash the protests that emerged on the heels of the Tunisian revolution of early 2011. Which is why he denounced protesters for serving "foreign agendas." But rather than take the regime's bait, activists successfully used Mubarak's culture of fear against him. In the early days of the anti-Mubarak protests, activists took to Tahrir Square carrying ordinary notebooks and an ingenious complaint: They'd left their foreign agendas at home. Their defiance soon spread beyond Tahrir Square, often spurred by new media. One computer message depicted an "Installing Freedom" screen grab, showing files being copy-and-pasted from a folder labeled "Tunisia." The photo was accompanied by an error message reading "Cannot install Freedom: Please remove ‘Mubarak' and try again." 

Humor quickly became a central part of the anti-Mubarak communication strategy, serving two primary purposes. On the one hand, witty puns, biting caricatures, and snarky performances made it "cool" to come to Tahrir square and to be seen as politically active. Every day, larger crowds and new faces joined the square's protests -- not only because they wanted to oust Mubarak, but also because they wanted to be a part of the "comic explosion" unfolding across the nation. 

Today's protestors understand that humor offers a low-cost point of entry for ordinary citizens who don't consider themselves particularly political, but are sick and tired of dictatorship. Make a protest fun, and people don't want to miss out on the action. 

On the other hand, acts of humor and cunning reminded the outside world that Egypt's protestors weren't the "angry young men" and fervent radicals that the regime would have them believe. Humor effectively communicated a positive image of the Egyptian uprising and won the sympathy of the international community. 


It's a message that the youth of the Arab Spring haven't forgotten. Kids' embrace of the Harlem Shake in Egypt and Tunisia recently turned the Internet meme into a funky satirical protest that underlined the creative, democratic aspirations of so many young people across the region. Once again, the international community has been forced to recognize that the region's youth are not just the football hooligans we see on TV -- they're young kids eager to embrace democracy. They just want to be able to have fun doing it. 

And so do millions of other people around the world. By using humor, activists confront autocrats with a dilemma: the government can either crack down on those who ridicule it (making itself look even more ridiculous in the process) or ignore the acts of satire aimed against it (and risk opening the flood gates of dissent). Indeed, when faced with an act of brazen mockery, oppressive regimes have no good choices. Whatever they do, they lose. 

But perhaps the best example comes from Putin's Russia. There, a Siberian anti-Putin toy protest featured teddy bears, Lego characters, and South Park figurines. It was toys only -- no humans allowed. So what happened? Did Russian authorities find the culprits? Did they arrest the toys? You bet they did. After confiscating the Lego figurines, Siberian authorities imposed an official ban on all future toy protests. On what grounds? That the toys were made in China.

In the months that followed, the antics of Siberia's troubled officials went viral. In the process, they've reminded dictators the world over that once the spirit of laughter and people power comes out of the bottle, there's no stopping it. 

Political humor is as old as politics itself. Satire and jokes have been used for centuries to speak truth to power. They infused protests against the Soviet Union in the 1980s, the peace protests of the 1960s, and inspired resistance movements in Nazi-occupied territories during the 1940s. But today's non-violent activists have taken humor to another level. Laughter and fun are no longer marginal to a movement's strategy; they now serve as a central part of the activist arsenal, imbuing the opposition with an aura of cool, helping to break the culture of fear instilled by the regime, and provoking the regime into reactions that undercut its legitimacy. 

Of course, just because laughter in non-violent struggle is now common, it does not mean that it is easy. To the contrary, laughtivism requires a constant stream of creativity to stay in the news, headlines, and tweets, as well as to maintain a movement's momentum. Without creativity and wit, laughtivism can wilt before a movement's ambitions are met.  And without discipline and sound judgment, mockery can quickly descend into chaos and violence. 

But when it works, it really works. In the case of the arrested barrel in Serbia; what may have seemed like isolated acts of humor soon proved infectious, inspiring activists across the country. Before long, Otpor had transformed itself from a small student group into a national movement of 70,000 members. Once the barrier of fear had been broken, Milosevic could not stop it. 

Democracy Lab

Mongolia's Growing Pains

Mongolia's blue skies may soon be darkening. A key challenge: Putting the mining companies in their place. 

As I suspect others with a professional interest in Mongolia's transition to democracy and capitalism have found, the country seems to attract attention in a predictable cycle. On the up side, some peripatetic journalist based in Beijing with time to kill discovers the miraculous changes wrought in only two decades after effectively being a Russian colony (complete with mandatory mention of its fabulous blue skies). Then comes the corrective: A jeremiad on Mongolia's incipient slide into self-destructive nationalism and dysfunctional economic policies (with mandatory mention that the skies over the capital, Ulaanbaatar, are the world's most polluted). Publish, forget and repeat. 

In the latter half of 2012, the cycle entered the downside. The Economist found the mood  "bitter" in Mongolia, while The New York Times warned that "the underlying fundamentals of the country look increasingly shaky," noting that "foreign direct investment plunged" in the closing months of 2012. The Times was echoing complaints from the IMF, the World Bank and foreign embassies. Standard & Poor's was apparently listening, too: in October, it lowered its rating outlook for Mongolia's debt quality. 

Growth did fall in 2012, but only to 11 percent, which is the stuff of dreams of most political leaders and talking heads. Moreover, in those apparently foreboding last months of 2012, Mongolia floated its first international bond issue, surprising many analysts by easily selling $1.5 billion of five- and ten-year bonds at rates of 4.125 percent and 5.125 percent respectively  (rates below those being offered by Spain at the time). Many countries at Mongolia's level of development could not hope to enter world capital markets -- certainly not with a bond issue so large relative to the size of the economy. 

What accounts for the cycles of boom and gloom in media coverage? My own guess is that it's just not very interesting to write about Mongolia's ups and downs as par for the course for a poor democracy struggling to make its way in a very difficult world. Far better to delve into the soap-opera of Mongolian politics, which can be fascinating in a tiny (population three million) country on the verge of a mammoth hard-rock mining boom with China, its resource-guzzling leviathan neighbor, looking hungrily on. 

Two events precipitated last year's apprehensions.  First, in May 2012, the Mongolian parliament passed the "Strategic Entities Foreign Investment Law," which opens the door to ill-defined political interference in foreign projects. Nevertheless, the law does address a legitimate problem: The fear of the political, economic, and diplomatic spillover effects of vast mining projects -- a fear most relevant when the mining companies are Chinese state-owned enterprises. 

This issue is hardly unique to Mongolia. Other countries -- think Canada -- have reacted warily to the prospect of dominance by the global power next door. But Mongolia does not have Canada's soothing track record of pragmatic political decision-making. Nor does it have the institutional capacity and technical expertise to write and enforce mining regulations that are clear and reasonable. Hence those who care about Mongolia worry that the mining rush is a recipe for exploitation, corruption, or populist excess that retards economic development. 

Adding to such concerns, the June 2012 election brought to power a government whose members included "resource nationalists" aiming to maintain government ownership and control of natural resources. The mining minister, Davaajav Ganhuyag, made vague statements about wanting to renegotiate the agreement with foreigners investors in the Oyu Tolgoi (or simply OT) copper and gold mine project.  He has the unqualified support of only a vocal minority of members of the State Great Hural, Mongolia's parliament. Nevertheless, a more moderate version of his views has found favor across the Mongolian political spectrum. Indeed, the 2013 government budget depends on revenue increases from a successful renegotiation of the OT agreement. 

At the moment, almost everything in Mongolia revolves around Oyu Tolgoi, one of the biggest mining projects in the world located in a country with one of the smallest GDP's ($15 billion in terms of purchasing power). The project, effectively controlled by the multinational giant Rio Tinto, began production ahead of schedule in December 2012.   

Big doesn't even begin to describe it: This one project is expected to double Mongolia's GDP by 2020.  By then, other projects will be coming online. But their size and timing will depend upon how Mongolia deals with OT.  

The other side of the coin is that the flow of benefits to Mongolians from OT will be a crucial sign to the electorate of the mettle of politicians.  With a thirst for democracy, surprisingly high levels of education (the Soviet Union's only lasting gift to Mongolia) and access to a robust media, that electorate will be following developments very closely.  

The western financial press (not to mention western governments) presume that politicians dealing with OT have the discretion to act as if they are simply businessmen signing contracts supported by sophisticated legal systems. Once signed, the thinking goes, contracts should be binding and foreign investors should be given the benefit of doubt on matters of goodwill. 

But this probably isn't realistic when so much is at stake for a country that has been isolated for so long from the world economy, and where legal institutions are developing from a base of near zero just two decades ago. Actually, it may not be realistic anywhere. Contracts for such projects are regularly renegotiated in developed economies -- just delve into the history of the United Kingdom and Norway on North Sea hydrocarbons. And don't forget whom Mongolia is dealing with: Rio Tinto's recent episodes of ethical challenge hardly inspire confidence. 

There is a huge difference between what Mongolia would earn if it settled for merely a normal competitive market return on its national resources and what Mongolia would earn if foreign companies settled for a normal competitive market return on their capital. The windfalls to be divided -- what economists call the rents -- are mindboggling. And securities markets offer a sense of just how big they are. Back in October 2011, when the Mongolian government reaffirmed its commitment to the original OT agreement after having made noises about forcing a renegotiation, the market value of outstanding Rio Tinto stock increased by $5 billion dollars in a single day. 

By the same token, the expected size of the rents to be divided is always changing. Gold prices have nearly doubled since the agreement was signed, while copper prices have increased by over 20 percent -- neither of which were expected in light of lagging resource demand from the advanced industrial economies. 

But each new glitch should not be taken as a sign of impending collapse of the OT agreement, but rather another installment in the high-stakes bargaining. One of the earliest insights from economic game theory is that, in negotiations, weakness can lead to strength -- as in, "I'd love to give you better terms, but I am constrained by my sales manager, my dean, my mother-in-law, my political opponents [pick one]. A Mongolian negotiator would be letting down his side if he silenced the resource nationalists who are now stirring the pot. The real test of Mongolia's political class in coming years, then, is its ability to walk the line between populist nationalism and doormat to the global economic powers. 

Financial markets could use a reality check here, too. Last December, when one of the smaller parties in the newly elected coalition threatened to decamp, the market value of Mongolia's largely foreign-owned sovereign debt fell by seven percent ($100 million) in a day. In fact, the contretemps had little to do with finance. It was an attempt to pressure the Supreme Court to rule in favor of the party's former leader, who was appealing a jail sentence for corruption. 

One day in 1777, Adam Smith was confronted by a panicky young acolyte predicting ruin for Britain after the loss of a battle with George Washington's army. Smith nonchalantly replied that "There is a great deal of ruin in a nation," implying it is all too easy to jump to the wrong conclusions when otherwise successful countries suffer reverses. That surely applies to Mongolia, which can afford a few setbacks in its efforts to reconcile capitalism and democracy before it is time to declare them a failure.

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