On my point of view is pretty simple to overthrow an authoritarian government. You just have to gather a lot of people in the smallest area possible (where the leader is located). Further actions can be made such as restraining the leader in some way.

It is true that that requires collaborative effort by the people and most of them need to be willing to take risks. But are humans selfish enough that they can not realize that is of greater importance the well being of majority?

Authorities are not going to kill millions of people. Are they?

Or if you allow me to rephrase my question in other way. Why are people afraid of the government?

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    Because government has the monopoly of the violence. Unless you have a very good reason and you are very good explaining it to the world, it is quite unlikely that the international community will support a group of people trying to replace the government. – fedorqui Nov 30 '16 at 11:23
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    Authorities are not going to kill 1 million of people. Are they? uhm, yes they are? – Federico Nov 30 '16 at 12:44
  • Why? What makes you think that ends are desirable? – NPSF3000 Nov 30 '16 at 14:32
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    You're a poor farmer/worker. If you overthrow the authoritarian ruler, you'll likely STILL be a poor farmer/worker. What's your reason to risk your life on this? ideology trumps self preservation (and calling desire to not die "selfish" is a bit hard, innit?) for only a very small subset of humans; and typically, in VERY specific circumstances. – user4012 Nov 30 '16 at 15:01
  • I think the authoritarian regimes are too multiple and diverse to have an definitive answer. Most of the cases it's because an overthrow would only make things worse (case of most military dictatorships) by triggering civil wars. Just look at contemporary Syria... any dictatorship would be better than that. In rare case of totalitarian regimes (such as China and N.Korea, but also Nazi Germany and Soviet Union) people actually believe the propaganda and as such don't want to overthrow the regime because they support it. – Bregalad Jan 25 '17 at 19:40
  1. Authoritarian governments control the military and don't allow people to legally bear arms that could potentially oppose them.
  2. Such governments usually come to power on claims of fighting some real or imagined injustice that gives them a honeymoon period where enough people are happy with what's happening.
  3. People don't normally rebel against anything until it's pretty bad, most authoritarian governments exploit resources (oil, religion) to keep most people content. When the bubble collapses then the problems start, like in Venezuela.
  4. Authoritarian governments aggressively squash opposition early on before it can rally to a level that can threaten their rule.
  5. These governments will kill massive amounts of their own people to stay in power. Stalin's gulags killed more people than Hitler did in concentration camps.
  6. The government controls the education system and media to brainwash the population constantly. North Korea and China both fight hard to keep their population ignorant, and make themselves appear benevolent.
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    Other factors you could add to that list are controlling the media and surveillance unrestricted by civil rights. – Philipp Nov 30 '16 at 13:14
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    You could also elaborate on the importance of controlling the military. When a revolution is a quick success, it's usually because the military allows it to succeed. Compare the 2011 uprisings in Egypt and Syria. – Philipp Nov 30 '16 at 13:21
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    The answer could also apply to democratic/republic governments like in the EU and US. Some countries in Europe have a ban on guns, they also have government education/healthcare, and they also do have state run media like the BBC in the UK. People only usually rebel when it personally affects them like poverty, famine, job loss, etc.. – Noah Dec 7 '16 at 18:50
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    @Killer066 Some or all f these may apply to non authoritarian countries, but the difference is in degree. The UK has state run media and schools, but there are non state run media and schools as well which isn't true in places like North Korea. – Ryathal Dec 8 '16 at 12:33
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    If point one was accurate, why does the Arab world have such a strong gun culture, and yet is host to a plethora of dictatorships? The government always run the military, I don't think either point should be placed anywhere near as highly as terror tactics and intimidation used against dissidents. Dictatorship is a victory of psychological warfare, largely. – inappropriateCode Jan 25 '17 at 19:00

Authoritarian governments are kept in power by a small, elite part of their society. When they need additional support (perhaps to deter rebellion) they build domestic institutions - effectively sharing a part of their power in order to buy stability. Dictatorships can also use develop their own legitimacy (without sharing power), preventing people from wanting to resist in the first place.

The Structure of an Authoritarian Regime

Authoritarian regimes are built on the support of small, strategic parts of their society. This is in contrast to a democracy, which requires broad electoral support for a variety of pieces to be effective. For these small interest groups, the standard of living will be relatively high and members may enjoy more freedoms than the average person.

This article by Boix and Svolik contains a discussion of this structure.

This is the first deterrent to overthrowing an authoritarian regime. It's not that the government holds all the valuable resources (including military ones); it's that the government's allies hold many of them.

Of course, this is also a big opportunity: those same allies may be open to defecting.

Institution Building

The government may need additional support, beyond what it can get from domestic allies by dolling out extra economic incentives. When this is the case, the government will invest in developing political institutions (political parties, courts, legislatures, laws, formal departments, etc.).

This is risky, because it means limiting the government's power in exchange for (hoped) stability. For example, a government facing violent conflict from various groups might instate a national legislature with open elections. That will give the rebellious groups the opportunity to participate in a process, providing an outlet for their demands.

The government may or may not obligate itself to follow through with the legislature's proposals, but it's still a marginal victory for the rebels.

The linked paper by Gandhi and Przeworski focuses on providing empirical support for this.


Legitimacy is one of the cornerstones of political stability. Generally, people don't revolt against governments they perceive to be legitimate, even if those governments perform relatively poorly.

Nathan's article discusses this as part of a case study of Chinese politics. There are countless articles about identity politics (examples: Irish nationalism, trans-Africanism, Islamic solidarity) which illustrate how founding mythologies and other stories provide legitimacy for regimes. These actions are especially valuable for dictatorships, which sit atop a fragile network of political alliances.

From the citizen's perspective: economics

It's also worth noting that from the ordinary person's perspective, an authoritarian government might be significantly better than the regime that came before it. Or there might be real fear that the next regime will be worse. Both of these are reasons not to defect.

Of course, there is the possibility that a rebellion will improve things. People in poverty are notoriously risk-averse: any loss of income or resources could put them below sustenance-level (which means they will eventually die of disease, starvation, etc.). Even if the rebellion is successful, it likely won't meaningfully improve things for many years - can the poor afford to wait that long?


Yes, gathering enough people for an uprising would just about insure success. But if the authoritarians are willing to inflict a bloodbath, as they often are, to try and hold power, maybe not everyone needed is okay with the idea that there is a good chance that they will be a martyr for the greater good.

Think about the analogy of many Hollywood movies. Stand By Me, where the gang of bullies obviously has the raw numbers to overwhelm and mess up or even kill the smaller kids. -

Ace: What are you gonna do, shoot all of us?

Gordie: No Ace, just you.

Now, Ace's group would have still won, but Ace, himself, didn't see the value in it if he, himself, was dead.

You see it in westerns too. Something to the effect of, "Yeah, your mob is going to be able to take me down, but I'm going to take a bunch of you with me. Who wants to step forward and be the one to die?" Not usually a lot of volunteers. And, yeah, it's movies, but I don't think that aspect is especially inaccurate. Live people prefer, all things being equal, to remain living. They also prefer not to be taken away to be tortured for the rest of their days.

By brutal methods, greater access to firepower and general resources of force, and making very public examples of people who step out of line, totalitarian/authoritarian regimes are able to intimidate and cow the masses who have the combined might to throw them down. The problem is that organizing a unified front takes time, effort, and coordination, and with that many people, it's tough to keep things quiet until you have things ready.

Also, it's often tough to get the opposition organized, because many have conflicting interests beyond the overthrow of the current regime. That's been a key problem with what has happened in the "Arab Spring." Maybe you have a key group interested in a theocratic government. Another is a minority ethnic group who wants to splinter away on their own altogether. Yet another may want a secular democracy. If they get the military to help, maybe the military assumes they'll run the show, since they have most of the firepower. Maybe you get a group that wants an Amazonian matriarchy. Those groups will start jockeying and undermining each other long before they've achieved their initial goal, quite often.

Very often potential leaders and organizers get taken out, leaving the dual problem of people being afraid to be next, and losing the organizational leadership required to get an uprising together.

That's why it usually takes things deteriorating to a certain breaking point before you see those uprisings take place.


People are likely to support an authoritarian government if they feel that their group is in danger, according to authoritarianism theory and evolutionary psychology. There are many historical examples where authoritarian governments have fabricated collective dangers or exaggerated existing dangers in order to make people rally around the flag and support their government. I have explained this and documented many examples in this book https://books.google.dk/books?id=p845DwAAQBAJ (open access)


Some reasons are common and some differ from country to country. Since other answers cover mostly common reasons, I add some reasons that are special to one or several of them. First I'd note that I don't consider all examples mentioned below as authoritarian governments. I only say if one consider it authoritarian, it has stability because...

  • Religion: e.g Iran. In Iran avid fans of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are mostly because of his religious position. Largest percentage of population to attend a funeral was for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, The founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
  • Severe repression: e.g. Saudi Arabia.
  • In some countries there are elections that one person is the winner until dying. e.g. Azerbaijan. In this case people are not unanimous if the government is a kind of dictatorship.
  • not considered as authoritarian e.g. UK. It is widely accepted (true? or false?) that Queen has not notable role in the power.
  • Support of foreigners: e.g. Bahrain, One of the most sever dictatorships. Bahrain's started large protests against its rulers in early 2011. A month later the king requested security assistance from Saudi Arabia and ... . Also Bahrain's dictator has support of US and UK.

  • No good replacement: After many efforts the government overthrown; what then? It takes decades to reach a democracy like what in the US, which itself is not a good government system. people are socket puppet of owners of money and power. When they are tired of republicans they vote to democrats to change (e.g. vote for Obama). Then they don't see good changes. Again they vote to republicans and,...

Note that countries are subject to a number of cases above; e.g. the case "Severe repression" comes true also for Bahrain.

See also my answer to this question.


Because of assymetry in the payoff: the cost to overthrow a totalitarian government is often born individually, while the beeneefits of overthrowing a totalitarian government is public: everyone's happy when the overthrow is susseccful.

In essence, overthrowing such a government is a public good. Public good is difficult to supply without a government, and certainly ly will not be supplied by the only government whose supply of it means its own demise.


In an authoritarian state (since the definition talks about strict adherence to the government) people would grow up thinking that that is a good society and in extreme cases may even turn their back on democracy. In the case of Nazi Germany, Hitler controlled the media and focused a lot on propaganda. As a result of this few (of what Hitler considered good Germans) wanted change and many were willing to go to war for him. This coupled with what PoloHoleSet said about the western style, who wants to die first, scenario makes for a society where it is not only dangerous to speak out against the government but it goes against the interest of majority of the population. Check this page if what I said hasn't made sense.

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