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Professor: Springboard Moments Contribute to Psychology of Dictatorships

Fathali Moghaddam

Psychology professor Fathali Moghaddam says most researchers write about dictatorships from an outsider’s perspective, but he draws on his experience of living in Iran just after the 1979 revolution that put the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeni in power.

February 26, 2013 – Dictatorships emerge when leaders use an event to “springboard” to power, according to a forthcoming book by a Georgetown professor called The Psychology of Dictatorship. 

“Every human group has potential dictators – potential dictators where we work, in our families – but what they lack is the springboard,” says Georgetown psychology professor Fathali Moghaddam about the book, which the American Psychological Association Press will publish  in April.

Today, he sees Egypt moving toward a springboard moment.

“Although President Mohamed Morsi and his backers believe they are on the path of justice, they are actually moving further away from democracy,” Moghaddam says. “The new Egyptian constitution has left the door wide open for a potential dictator to spring to power.”

So far, there is resistance by some secular and minority groups in Egypt to the monopolization of power, but the professor says all the country needs is a 'crisis incident' equivalent to the hostage crisis in Iran for a potential dictator to spring to power.

Hostage crisis

Moghaddam, born in Iran and raised and educated in England, notes that Ayatollah Khomeni clamped down on his own country by using the 1979 to 1981 hostage crisis, the idea that the United States might attack and a war with Iraq as a springboard that “ended all freedoms and killed all opposition.

He recalls returning to Iran during the revolution in 1979 with “great hope." But then Khomeni took over after the brutal regime led by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

“Unfortunately, revolution did not lead to the end of a dictatorship,” he says, “but a replacement of one dictatorship by another.”

Revolution Isn’t Enough

Fathali Moghaddam Book Cover

Georgetown professor Fathali Moghaddam's latest book on the psychology of dictatorships will be released in April.

The book also explores the idea that revolution often isn’t enough to topple dictatorships.

“Revolutions can change governments overnight,” Moghaddam says. “We can write a new constitution in a matter of weeks, but what is much more difficult to change is the psychology of the people.”

Citizens who have functioned within dictatorships with limited or restricted freedoms may not easily respond to change, even when they are strong supporters of democracy, he adds.

“Laws on the books are just laws on the books,” the professor explains. “[Laws] only come to life when people act according to those laws. Women in Egypt are [still] being harassed and assaulted in the same way before the revolution, just by different people.”

 

Insider perspective

The scholar says most researchers write about dictatorships from an outsider’s perspective.

“[Many of them] assume the reason injustices persist in dictatorships is the same reason injustices persist in democracies,” he says, but that’s not the case.

“When you live in dictatorships, everyday common people who may even be illiterate are very aware that they’re living in a corrupt system,” he says. “They’re not fooled by ideologies. What keeps them in their place is the gun to the head … brute force.”

True democracy

Moghaddam says programs are needed to prepare people for the changes of living in a democracy.

“[True democracy] can only happen when you have change at the psychological level and change in legal and informal everyday system,” he explains.

While most of the book focuses on foreign governments, the professor also looks at the United States’ role in dictatorships.

u.s. foreign policy

“We have to make sure that our foreign policy doesn’t create the springboard to dictatorship in other countries,” says Moghaddam, who also directs Georgetown’s Master of Arts Program in Conflict Resolution.

He says America also should think about a potential springboard effect at home.

“Income inequality is increasing and social mobility is decreasing,” Moghaddam says. “Some people will claim that this has nothing to do with democracy, but can you have a thriving democracy if you have great inequality in resources and opportunities?”

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