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The Dirty Tricks Dictators Play

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Cunning bad guys are essential to most political dramas, and the real life battles between democrats and dictators are no exception. As the strategies of non-violent resistance to authoritarian regimes have developed, so too have the dirty tricks and counterattacks of the regimes themselves.

In April a top-secret document, said to be from the Syrian Department of Intelligence, became public. The paper lays out a detailed strategic plan for the regime of President Assad to undermine, weaken and destroy the country's pro-democracy movement. It identifies three key areas of operation - Media, Security and Political. The Media front includes: posing as opposition activists and advocating anti-regime violence to tarnish the movement's reputation; fueling traditional ethnic and sectarian fears to create disunity; doctoring footage filmed by opponents to contradict and discredit their stories; and having professionally trained 'eye-witnesses' feed the regime's propaganda to foreign journalists.

On the security front the plan says "it is acceptable (for snipers) to shoot some of the security agents or army officers" to "provoke the animosity of the army against the protesters".

The political tactics, some of which have been used in Iran, Egypt and elsewhere, call for: mass pro-regime counter protests; the offer of dialogue (that some in the opposition will accept and some will reject) in order to expose divisions; 'temporarily' satisfying the demands of some groups but not others in order to splinter the movement; and, presenting a coherent image of all the "pillars of the regime". This last point, a direct counter to the non-violent strategy of winning over key sections of society ("pillars") that keep the regime in place.

Autocrats have also taken the battle online, with social media and the Internet becoming tools not only of revolution but of repression too. The Iranian regime has used crowd-sourcing to identify protesters from photographs uploaded on the Internet. In Sudan the regime has taken control of activist Facebook accounts and used them to deliver misinformation about the time and place of protests. This has caused an atmosphere of distrust and consequently stifled online activism. In Egypt, a fake Facebook group declared victory for the protest movement after Mubarak's first speech in an attempt to get people to leave the protests in Tahrir Square. Twitter and Facebook accounts, tweets and online groups have been used to track down and arrest activists. Social media can also deliver soft intelligence, providing a regime with some sense of the word on the street (or tweet), as well as what movements and activists are thinking. I'm reluctant to list too many strategies here in case it becomes a training manual for the less sophisticated regimes out there. These are just the better-known examples.

The interesting aspect of all this, is not that regime's have dirty tricks, but that they are learning to adapt them to counter the strategies of non-violent political movements. Observers of protests and revolutions have the challenge of discerning whether a breakdown in unity, or an outburst of violence from a peaceful movement, are really what they seem. A very sophisticated game of political chess is being played and each move may not always reveal the true direction of the game.

It is clearer than ever, that movements that are disciplined, non-violent, unified, and politically cunning, pose a powerful threat to the autocrats they challenge. It is for this reason that their strategies are being carefully studied by security agencies around the world. There is also no doubt that such movements have the herculean task of cultivating, maintaining and strengthening their unity and discipline against all the dirty tricks in the book. Their success or failure in that task so often decides the success or failure of their revolution.