As a slightly prolific reader, I sometimes find myself starting a new book and realizing immediately its real-time relevance to world we live in.

Unfortunately for me and my neighbors in Cairo, this real-time relevance is entitled “Defeating Dictators: Fighting Tyranny in Africa and Around the World” by George B.N. Ayittey.

I knew from the third paragraph this book was going to dominate my evening:

“… much effort, money, and time have been spent to reason with, persuade, cajole, or bribe dictators, or even threaten them with sanctions. Western governments have spent billions in this effort to no or little vail. A new way of thinking or a different approach is imperative. Leave the dictators alone for now. They are stone-deaf and impervious to reason. Railing daily about their abuses of human rights, acts of brutality, and violence will not bring about change. It is time to think about the other side, the opposition, the pro-democracy activists and reformers. That is the focus of this book.”

Yep. You got me.

Refreshingly George Ayittey is not some high-brow academic parroting talking points on democracy and human rights and change. He brings frontline knowledge to the task, having been called “one of the architects of democratic change” by fellow countryman and former Ghana President John Kufuor.

So given the “walked-the-walk” expertise and timeliness, I will share my dog-eared pages as I “ear” them. For example, with this week’s crackdowns on Egyptian media, I found this worth rereading:

“… Thus, political reform must precede economic liberalization. In the same vein, intellectual freedom must precede political reform because people need the intellectual freedom to determine the type of political system they want.


“Real reform begins with intellectual freedom; continues with political, constitutional, and institutional reform; and concludes with economic liberalization. Call it ‘Ayittey’s Law.’ The West underestimates the reformist potency of freedom of expression and its corollary, the free media… The free media are the most effective weapon against all dictatorships…”

Chapter 1 – Despotic Regimes Today

“… Most despotic regimes are characterized by the following… Intellectual repression: Censorship may be imposed; journalists, editors, and writers are harassed, intimidated, jailed, or killed; newspapers and radio and television stations that are critical of government policies are shut down…”

Chapter 2 – Traditional Societies

“… Despotism in neither a legitimate nor an acceptable form of government for the people of the developing world. The source of much of this mythology was the failure to distinguish between the existence of an institution and different forms of the same institution. The absence of a particular form of an institution does not mean a total absence of that institution. The focus of our study here is the institution of democracy.


“Democratic decisions can be taken in two ways: by majority vote and by consensus. Each method has advantages and disadvantages. Decision-making by vote is fast and transparent. This is the Western way, but its downside is that it ignores minority positions and can result in ‘mob rule’ or ‘tyranny of the majority’…


“… The Western-style majority vote, ‘winner-takes-all-and-eats-all,’ should not be taken as the gold standard as it lies at the source of many of the political problems in the developing world. It is a ‘zero-sum game’ (I win, you lose), and in multiethnic societies in the developing world, minority groups will always be losers, which gives rise to ethnic tensions and strife… it is another reason why despots have proliferated in modern times: they never lose Western-style elections…”

Chapter 3 – Indigenous Curbs Against Despotism 

“… The caliphate was the first system of governance established in Islam. It was a republic, and the rulers were bound by a set of laws that they could not break at a whim. Further, the people had the right to appoint their ruler through their local leaders and also had the right to remove him. This can be inferred from the inaugural speech of the first caliph, Abu Bakr:


“O People! I have been put in authority over you and I am not the best of you. So if I do the right thing then help me and if I do the wrong thing then put me straight. Truthfulness is a sacred trust and lying is a betrayal. As long as I obey Allah and His messenger, you should obey me, and if I do not obey Allah and His messenger, then obedience to me is not incumbent upon you.”

THE REAL CAUSES OF DESPOTISM IN MODERN TIMES: 1. The unitary system of government, 2. Western-style multiparty democracy, 3. Means and reach, 4. Other factors such as the Cold War and foreign aid.

“… With Western-style liberal, multi-party democracy, incumbent despots don’t lose elections; to do so would amount to political suicide. Thus, the use every trick  fair and foul – to ensure a ‘win’ with ‘comfortable’ margins. Forget about free and fair elections and foreign election observers. President Hamid Karzai stole the November 2009 election right under the noses of NATO forces and UN observers in Afghanistan.


“Witness the 2009 and 2010 elections in Bahrain, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Ivory Coast, and Rwanda. No coconut lost. The international community kids itself if it thinks the presence of a handful of foreign observers can ensure fairness and transparency. In many cases, the elections are stolen even before the foreign observers arrive. The usual trick is to permit a certain number of foreign observers and closet them in five-star hotels in urban areas, then chauffeur them to pre-selected polling stations, where voting is conducted peacefully, freely, and fairly. But the skullduggery takes place in rural areas…”

THE INFORMAL SECTOR: A DYNAMIC ENGINE OF GROWTH… From Hernando de Soto, author of “The Mystery of Capital“:

“… in Egypt, ‘To open a small bakery, our investigators found, would take more than 500 days. To get legal title to a vacant piece of land would take more than 10 years of dealing with red tape. To do business in Egypt, an aspiring poor entrepreneur would have to deal with 56 government agencies and repetitive government inspections. De Soto’s complaint is that the poor have assets but, because they have no legal title to them, they cannot be used to secure capitol or loans from commercial banks… De Soto’s campaign, then, is to get governments in the developing world to undertake legal reform and extend property rights to the informals. But the ruling vampire elites can’t be bothered because they hold the informals in such rabid contempt: they are ‘filthy,’ they live in the ‘slums,’ their activities are such an ‘eyesore,’ and – most important of all – the informals do not pay taxes for the ruling elites to loot. As de Soto discovered in Egypt, ‘Hidden forces of the status quo blocked crucial elements of the [legal] reforms.’


“These informals are very hardworking and entrepreneurial and must be admired. They toil, breaking their backs pushing carts, carrying goods on their heads, and walking long distances… Theirs is a daily struggle for survival…


“All to often in the developing countries, some culturally and economically illiterate ruling vampire elites emerge, aided by some crackpot despots, to denounce markets as ‘Western institutions’ and set out to ban or destroy them. Rather than being banned, the markets should be cleaned up and better organized. This is exactly what Dr. Muhammad Yunus did with the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh in 1978, igniting a revolution in microcredit finance and earning a Nobel Peace Prize…


“More importantly, the informal sector has always existed in the West… Basement tinkering, garage sales, backyard sales, flea markets, farmers’ markets, and fish markets are all part of the informal sector in the West, and hundreds of thousands of inventors, entrepreneurs, manufacturers, and computer scientists started out this way. A few examples: George Stephenson, who invented the first steam locomotive… Alexander Graham Bell, who invented the modern telephone… Henry Ford, who produced the Model T automobile… Bill Gates and most of the Silicon Valley computer wizards…

And in December 2010 in Tunisia:

“… a young unemployed university graduate tried to sell fruits and vegetables by the side of the road. Africans have been doing this for centuries; they don’t need a permit from the chief or the sheikh. But a police officer ordered this young man to stop his informal  sector activity because he did not have a permit. When he protested, the officer spat in his face, and the police seized his cart. He set himself on fire and later died of his injuries. That young man was called Mohamed Bouazizi, and he lived in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia. His story has forever changed the face of North Africa and the Middle East.


“Two lessons can be drawn from the self-immolation of Bouazizi. First, building upon the indigenous and the informal sectors – instead of destroying or holding them in contempt – can at least provide employment… Second, the ruling elites who deprecate the dignity of their people and hold their cultural heritage in contempt will be swept away by popular revolutions…”

To be continued… need to do some more reading and dog-earing!