Over Their Dead Bodies
When street protests began throughout Tunisia in December 2010, it wasn’t long before President Ben Ali fled the country and gave up his power. When millions throughout Egypt took to the streets in February 2011, president Hosni Muburak swore he would never leave his post and his country. He eventually stepped down from the presidency after 18 days of massive demonstrations. When protests broke out in the East and West of Libya in March 2011, Muammar Gaddafi - the longest ruling dictator in the world- vowed to fight until his last breath, resulting in a civil war that is ongoing. Where some despots see the writing on the wall, grab the money, and run off to some safe haven; other rulers refuse to accept that their time has come. Where some talk tough, but ultimately take action to save their own skin, others feel it is their sacred duty to remain in power until they are physically dragged out of the presidential palace.
Why Some Dictators Cling to Power Until the Bitter End 34
would have predicted all the changes that have been taking place. We lump them together into one category. Because of that, we don’t really understand all the nuances and all the differences that exist between dictatorships.” What Ezrow and her fellow researchers on the subject of dictatorships have been able to explain by looking at economic or domestic policy, political organization, corruption, and military involvement, is that there are different categories of dictatorships. These categories , which were first developed by Barbara Geddes of UCLA in her book Paradigms and Sandcastles describe the different types of dictatorships that exist as well as their subcategories. There are personalist dictatorships, (e.g. the one implemented by Saddam Hussein in Iraq), military dictatorships (e.g. the Junta in Argentina from 1976-1983), and single party dictatorships (e.g. the Communist Party in presentday China). Further study led to the expansion to include sub categories to describe different types of single party arrangements, viscous psychopathic versus benevolent populist personalist regimes, and institutional military regime’s versus a more individually focused military regime.
How is it that these dictators choose one route versus another? Why is the greed for power and influence so powerful for some yet not for others? And do we, outside observers trying to understand and get involved somehow, correctly understand the nature of dictator- Ben Ali ships around the world? In order to gain a deeper understanding of both categories of dictatorships and why events have Natasha Ezrow is a researcher and scholar on unfolded the way they have over the past three the topic of dictatorships. As the Head of Inter- months, let us take the examples of dictatornational Development Program at the Univer- ships Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. On January 14th sity of Essex, she has written extensively on the 2011, following weeks of protests throughout topic including as a co-author on the book: Dic- the country, Ben Ali who had been President tators and Dictatorships – Understanding Au- of Tunisia for more than 23 years, gave up his thoritarian Regimes and Their Leaders. Watch- power. He fled the country with his estimated ing the international media attempt to explain fortune of $5 million. Prior to becoming presithe current events as they unfold across North dent, he had been prime minister and came Africa and parts of the middle east, she notes from a diplomatic as opposed to a military how under-studied the topic of dictatorships background. When his predecessor fell sick is: “We’ve always thought that these dictator- and medically unable to continue as president, ships in the middle east were incredibly stable, Ali took over in what has often been referred that nothing was going to happen and no one to as the ‘Jasmine Revolution.’ As president his 35
regime was notorious for its human rights violations, especially in regards to its suppression of journalists and a free press. He was also reelected four times by huge margins in contests where international observers were barred and opposing candidates were known to have been abused. Ezrow explains further how the Ali regime can be classified and how this explains his departure from power: “Ben Ali took over and sought to personalize the regime and concentrate more and more power into his own hands. He had not quite done that to the extent that we see now, a leader like Gaddafi has done, and so therein lies an important difference. By the time the revolution in Tunisia took place the military was by no means loyal to Ali , he had not developed the kind of personal security forces that Gaddafi has. As a result, Ali had to leave.” Mubarak Following the fall of the dictatorship in Tunisia came the massive and now legendary demonstrations against the regime of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Like Ben Ali, Mubarak had been a vice president who took over the presidency following the death (assassination) of a sitting president. He too would see re-election after re-election by impressive and question-
able margins. However Mubarak, who’s rule would last for 30 years, was from a military background- a former commander of the Egyptian Air Force. “Egypt was different because it was a regime where the military, a single party, and a dictator shared power,” Ezrow explains, “because the military was so powerful, this changed the mode of exit quite a bit and, even today, the military still has a lot of power. The military was loyal to Mubarak to an extent, but it didn’t want to do anything to disrupt its own legitimacy and its own economic interests because it owns about 50% of the manufacturing capacity of the country. The military is a huge business and it couldn’t do anything to disrupt its own legitimacy by killing everybody who was protesting and in the end they didn’t kill anybody, it was more the police force that got involved in that way.” Gaddafi Despite their differences, and their obvious mutual desire to hang on to power as long as possible, Ezrow points out that both these dictators had enough contact with reality to know when it was time to let go. A combination of their psychological outlooks and advisors willing to
tell them unpleasant facts helped keep them abreast about developments on the streets and outside their presidential palaces. A combination some personalist leaders in particular, who surround themselves with only those who tell them what they want to hear, may not experience. One such case is that of Muammar Gaddafi, who even at the moment of publishing this article, continues to resist the departure his fellow North African dictators opted for. Again, Ezrow lays out this dictatorship’s context: “Gaddafi, because he’s surrounded by yes men, shuns all outside expertise. He has little accurate information. Muburak was a little out of touch but compared to Gadaffi you see he wasn’t as out of touch because ultimately his mode of exit was easier, not as protracted. In the end he was pragmatic about it. Personalist dictators, like Gadaffi and Saddam Hussein, hold on to power until the very end. They usually die in office in some way, because they’re incapable of seeing what they are doing. You can see this in interviews with both of these men, after years and years of being supported blindly by loyal sycophants, they’re living in a delusional world, without the information necessary to make pragmatic decisions.” Beyond the Arab Spring In all three cases the question of what kind of government will come next is still an open one. Presently, Libya’s personalist dictator continues to wage a civil war in an effort to hold on to power until his last breath. While Tunisia and Egypt have seen their dictators step down, the coming elections and political reforms leave open the question of who and what kind of government will come next. Pundits and observers from all sides continue to speculate about the dangers as well as the positive aspects of the changes that are to come. Will greed for power once again take hold or will there be a new kind of democracy for these nations? Natasha Ezrow sees a mixed bag in the immediate future: “In Egypt, they will most likely implement something that looks like a
democracy but is very flawed. This translates into a powerful military which will be involved behind the scenes and not fully institutionalized political parties that are based on ideology. There will be a lot of personalism, where votes are tied to a personal leader. The reason for the revolt had to do with corruption, and economic mismanagement, which is not going to go away any time soon, so you will also have some chaos. While it will be a very difficult transition for Egypt, I think Tunisia has a much better chance. At least in the past, they were one of the most democratic countries in the middle east. So they have had experience with it, while Egypt hasn’t had much experience with political parties and legislature. These institutions haven’t been functioning for years.” As the Arab Spring continues, the lack of knowledge about dictatorships which Ezrow refers to becomes more apparent. When we understand the differences between dictators’ thoughts and actions, we can predict if and how they will leave their positions. When we factor in actions that neighboring countries as well as other international players may take, as in the current case of NATO in Libya, it is clearly time to shed light on and expand this type of research. We need to make sure we understand that not all dictatorships are alike, so that we are better equipped to predict, react to, or understand events when yet another country starts revolting against its dictator.
By Mark Rendeiro 37