The Poor Mr. Mubarak

" Man’s fear of death is closely related to his fear of the unknown, the eternal question of what comes after. The quest for longer life, for immortality too is linked to this primeval fear. Dictators feel the same way about political death. Because for a dictator, with political demise, comes the hell, of uncertainty and unfamiliarity."
by Tisaranee Gunasekara

“With light, a dictator gets blind
As without darkness he cannot rule”
Abdi-Noor Haji Mohamed (Dictatorship)

No one loves a fallen dictator.

(February 15, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Crafty or fortunate, Augusto Pinochet timed his departure as impeccably as he did his arrival. He engineered his own exit on terms most advantageous to him. If he did not, he may have been forced out by his own people.

Of course, during the long nightmare of dictatorship, Chileans did not succeed in mounting a significant challenge to Mr. Pinochet’s rule. But when the plebiscite he obviously hoped to win produced the opposite result, he had the sense to accept the verdict of the electorate. It is believed that there was international pressure on him to quit; the coming end of the Cold War and the changing situation in Latin America might have made his presence far less necessary for his patrons in Washington.

Perhaps he also had a premonition of a truth which Tunisia and Egypt has now taught the entire world: that revolutions can come unheralded, literally out of the blue, taking both enemies and friends, including those who had hoped, waited and worked for change for decades, completely by surprise.

For the absolute majority of Egyptians, January 26th was unimaginable, even on January 25th.

“I will serve as President until the last breath in my lungs and the last beat of my heart”, Mr. Mubarak has once said. Listening to his ‘I will not quit’ speech on February 10th, his precipitous departure on February 11th too was as inconceivable as the tidal-wave of opposition to him was. In that moment of raging despair, it looked as if he was determined to prove with (other peoples’) blood his absolute commitment to a life-time presidency.

There is something universal about despots, quite apart from their tendency to concentrate all power in their hands and to establish life-time rule. They are patronising, incredibly so. A despot does not see himself as the First Citizen in a nation of citizens. A despot sees himself as a father to a nation of children of less than average intelligence, often unruly and always incapable of making decisions for themselves. In a dictator’s world, he is the sole adult; everyone else is a minor, to varying degrees: from babies to teens. As the sole possible patriarch of the nation, it is thus his duty and his responsibility to keep a tight rein on affairs, chastise his wayward charges as required (‘this is for your own good’ and ‘this hurts me as much as it hurts you’) and, above all, be around, always. After all, what will his hapless children do, in the absence of his wise leadership and careful guidance?

Of course sustaining such an anti-reality mindset in this and age, especially in countries with high literacy rates, requires an uncommon amount of ego-centrism and a super-human capacity to be delusional. In everyday parlance, a swollen head and a thick hide. Those with despotic ambitions develop both attributes fast and in required quantities. Fawning coteries make the job easier. There is nothing a stooge will not do or say to gain or retain favour. No act of obeisance, no singing of encomiums is beyond him/her. In such an audio-visual environment, it is not hard for a despot to thrive in his make-believe world, a dark version of Neverland, year after year, decade after decade. In a dictator’s world, the people are caught in an eternal political-childhood, from which only death can release them.

The lucky despots die without discovering reality. The unlucky ones have their moment of awakening. Like Mr. Ben Ali of Tunisia and Mr. Mubarak of Egypt.

Tell me where all past years are….

The moment of awakening of a dictator must be unimaginably harrowing. Imagine waking up from a long, long dream in which you are the beloved father of your nation, without whom your subject-children cannot manage, into a reality where you are not just hated and despised but also reviled and ridiculed!

Little wonder that despots are programmed psychologically into not reading the writing on the wall.

Little wonder a despot become most delusional when his people awake, at long last, from their extended nightmare.

Your devoted stooges – those who promised eternal servitude, sang your praises like daily hymns, who were obedient to the point of servility and adoring to the point of idolatry, begin to look and sound different. Suddenly you can see your political morality in their eyes and hear in their voices the silent contemplation of a future without you. And unlike the Queen of Hearts in Alice’s Wonderland, you cannot shout ‘Off with their heads’ because there are too many of them, including those whose job it is to deprive the disloyal of their heads (or at the least their freedom).

Suddenly the world becomes an unfamiliar place. A frightening one. You, who were so able at ruling just yesterday, find this new reality un-navigable.

Then there are your international friends, your allies and patrons with whom you have had long and mutually beneficial relationships. They begin by dropping discreet hints and end up by sending unequivocal messages, first in private and then publicly. They know that you are no longer of any use to them; and maintaining useless friendships is simply not done, in those circles. You realise that they too are thinking of a future, post-you, sans you.

As ingratitude fills your world, ego-centrism and delusion begin to crumble.

You fight for a while, because life after political death is unthinkable. It is a hell which you want to avoid at any cost. So you cling to your political life at all costs, trying to postpone your day of demise by at least one day. You live, first from day to day, and then from hour to hour, and fight with all your might for each day and each hour.

Until the last moment, and a bit beyond, you cling to power, refuse to acknowledge the reality that is deluging you and hope it will all pass. You have lived in a dream for so long your capacity to tell the real from the imagined has evaporated. Accustomed to your long dream, you take reality for nightmare.

Twenty Four hours before he fled the country in ignominy, Mr. Ben Ali addressed the Tunisian people and told them, ‘I understand you’. By this time the streets were filled with raging protestors who just wanted him out, but he did not seem to hear. Perhaps he did, when he boarded his aircraft at the twelfth hour, in his last act as the President of Tunisia.

Mr. Mubarak sounded equally unreal when he addressed the nation on the Thursday before the victorious Friday. Most of Egypt and most of the world were expecting him to say ‘I quit’ but he said ‘I stay’, loud and clear. Perhaps the only point on which all the disparate protestors across the length and breadth of Egypt had total agreement was the need for Mr. Mubarak to leave, post haste. And yet Mr. Mubarak in his speech said, ‘This is not about me, Hosni Mubarak’. He said that right after he declared that he heard the voices of the young people of Egypt and that he will heed them!

Perhaps nothing can encapsulate the psyche of a despot as that moment; it was clear that the man was willing to risk civil war, to stay in power for even a day.

If not me, the deluge is the watchword of every dictator.

Next evening Mr. Mubarak was gone.

Fear of Death

When Mr. Ben Ali departed, there was a big question mark as to where he should go. None of his many international friends wanted him; not even France. He eventually ended up in Saudi Arabia. Now negotiations are on about Mr. Mubarak’s ultimate destination. It does not look as if any of his former patrons/allies want to house him in his twilight years. Perhaps he too may end in Saudi Arabia.

Little wonder, then dictators cling to their political lives with all their might. Their fall from power is a modern day version of ‘Paradise Lost’. The only way to avoid this fate worse than death is to stay in power for life. Because even Mr. Pinochet’s example may not seem so appealing these days, given the way his supposedly idyllic retirement did not pan out. These days, the practice of suing current and former leaders for human rights violations is far more prevalent. Recently former US President George W Bush decided to avoid Geneva because of the possibility of an arrest-warrant on him. For one-time dictators exiled by their own people the danger would be much higher, a thousand fold. Any moment some American or European citizen may file action against a former despot over some long forgotten crime; this might make the US and Europe, their former shopping and holiday destinations, the location of some of their properties, out of bound for them.

A lifetime in Saudi Arabia (perhaps with visits to China) is not an attractive prospect, even when one is rather old and does not have that much of a lifetime to live.

Then there is the family to consider. Political dynasties are becoming an idée fixe with most dictators, nominally republican governments in which the presidential father is succeeded by the presidential son. This was particularly trendy in the Arab world. The Assads in Syria set a fashion that most Arab despots are (were!) aspiring to (if Mr. Ben Ali had no visible dynastic project it was because he had no son – this after all is the Arab world where a daughter succeeding a father may not be seen as comme il faut. But Mr. Ben Ali, like other despots in the Arab world and elsewhere, had Familial Rule). You had planned and prepared and groomed your offspring to take the reins of the state after you. What happens to that plan if your political death predeceases your physical demise?

And what about that wealth you have amassed over the long years of autocratic rule? After all, if the country is your family and the people are your children, all its wealth should belong to you, by right. What happens when you have to leave? Can you safeguard your money without power?

Mr. Mubarak may have believed his money was safe in the Swiss bank accounts and invested in real estate at exclusive Western addresses. But even that certainty seems to be crumbling. Switzerland has frozen his accounts while his British friends are talking of a coordinated effort to deal with the issue of his wealth. Nothing much may come out of it, unless a new democratic government in Egypt pushes hard for at least a part of Mubarak-loot to be returned to its rightful owners, the people of Egypt. But the mere fact that it is an ‘issue’ is likely to make other actual and nascent despots in the Arab World and elsewhere dread the possibility of political demise even more.

Man’s fear of death is closely related to his fear of the unknown, the eternal question of what comes after. The quest for longer life, for immortality too is linked to this primeval fear. Dictators feel the same way about political death. Because for a dictator, with political demise, comes the hell, of uncertainty and unfamiliarity.

So actual and would be despots in the Arab World and elsewhere must be looking at Tunisia and Egypt, those new beacons of democratic-hope, with trepidation.

They signal the end of their world and the beginning of ours.

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